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Exploring the shifting demographics of gaming


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We examine how the games industry’s audience is diversifying and how companies can make gaming as accessible as possible.

Video games are everywhere. Mobile gaming continues to blur the line between itself and ‘core’ alternatives like PC and console, with titles like Fortnite and Genshin Impact bringing highly polished and skill-intensive experiences to huge international audiences. And it’s not just mobile: gaming is growing across the board. Market research firm Newzoo estimated in its Global Games Market report published earlier this year that the games market generated almost $178 billion in 2020 (although it predicts this will decline by 1.1% for 2021) and estimated that there will be 2.9 billion gamers worldwide by the end of the year.

In the US, consumer spending across gaming hardware, content and accessories reached $56.9 billion in 2020, a 27% increase from 2019, according to insights from an NPD Group report shared by analyst Mat Piscatella. Meanwhile, games themselves are becoming increasingly diverse, with bespoke events like Wholesome Directdedicated to showcasing the broad range of colourful, cute and non-violent games being made today.

Just as the video games industry has expanded dramatically over the decades, so too have the audiences that are buying and playing them.

Over 50% of people aged between 6 and 64 living in France, Germany, the UK and Spain play video games, according to a report published by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe [ISFE]. The ISFE’s ‘Key Facts 2020’ report draws on GameTrack data, which surveys people living in France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain about gaming. Every year, a sample of 1,000 adults is interviewed via an offline survey to weigh against online surveys - which run monthly - of 3,000 internet users.

The report found that nearly half of gamers surveyed (45%) were women, with mobile being the most popular platform amongst all players (59%) followed closely by console (54%) and computers (51%). ISFE CEO Simon Little notes a long-term trend of gradually ageing gamer demographics: 22% were in the 45-64 age category, whilst the average age of an EU gamer was 31. Separately, marketing research firm Global Web Index reported in April that the number of gamers aged 55 to 64 has increased by 32% since 2018.

“At some point that will plateau, but we’re not seeing it yet,” Little says. 

Ampere Analysis’ games research director Piers Harding-Rolls tells us: “Across 13 to 64-year-olds, it’s common that between 70-80% of people describe themselves as gamers. Gaming penetration is highest in younger age groups and declines with age. In terms of gender, the split is quite even.

“In the future there may be better penetration in older age groups as those familiar with gaming grow old, but mostly I think the changes will be in how much time people game, which I generally expect to creep up over time.”

The rapid rise of gaming on mobile in particular has made the hobby near-ubiquitous, with Harding-Rolls reminding us mobile is the “most common form of gaming and represents the biggest market opportunity globally.” 54% of respondents across 12 markets surveyed by Ampere Analysis in Western, Asian and Latin American regions use a smartphone for gaming. 

“A large majority of mobile gaming revenue is from [in-app purchases] charged in free-to-play games and this has been the case for around a decade now,” he adds.

Little feels that the wide offering and high-quality of games and devices available to modern gamers has helped to foster broader player demographics.

“It’s supply and demand, too,” he says. “You get a wider demographic so you can start producing these games, but if you produce the right kind of games it also drives the demographic shift.”

Harding-Rolls attributes the increasing diversity of games to the “democratisation of games development.”

“Very cheap global distribution means accessing the market is easier than ever,” Harding-Rolls explains. “This has resulted in a huge amount of content being produced and hyper competition. This also means that developers are seeking out new types of games to make including niche titles... I think this genre diversification trend will continue.”

Changes in the East

Niko Partners’ China Gamers Report, published in September 2020, found that approximately 720 million people in China are gamers, with a near equal split between men (52%) and women (48%). Over 97% of Chinese people aged 18 to 24 are gamers, dipping to over 90% for those aged 25 to 34. Interest in esports is strong, with 70% of all Chinese gamers playing esports titles.

Senior analyst at Niko Partners Daniel Ahmad, who covers the Chinese and Asian video games markets, explains that gamers in these regions are primarily motivated by the ‘four Cs’: competition, completion, community and challenge. Depending on the market, genres that lend themselves well to esports tend to be popular, such as MOBAs and shooters, although Ahmad notes that this isn’t always the case, pointing to the popularity of MMORPGs and RPGs in South Korea as an example.

“There’s definitely been a shift towards increasing complexity within games,” Ahmad says. “When people thought of mobile games maybe five, ten years ago, it was games like Temple Run or Fruit Ninja, for example. But now, we’re seeing a lot more games that are providing a complete console-like or PC-like experience on a mobile device. Having that level of immersion in a game is allowing people to really engage and spend more time - and ultimately more money - in those titles.”

Newzoo reported that, in 2019, 40% of the esports audience based in Southeast Asia watched livestreamed sessions of PUBG Mobile, dropping to just 14% watching the traditional console and PC-based PUBG.

“These players are essentially playing just as complex games but on a device that is a lot more accessible and much more social in that regard,” Ahmad says. “Of course, it is worth saying that PC and console are still relatively big, especially in Japan where console’s huge or in China and South Korea where PC is still huge, but mobile is certainly the largest market overall.”

Government regulations in China, such as its ban of console gaming from 2000 to 2015, acted as a catalyst for the development of free-to-play online games in China long before the likes of Fortnite, playable in public internet cafés. This expertise, paired with ongoing restrictions in China - such as the government’s recent ruling to limit minors’ gaming time to three hours per week - has encouraged some developers in the region to think globally.

“Chinese game developers are taking the learnings that they’ve had from the past twenty years and also their expertise in mobile game development to create games that can now appeal to a global audience and also try and scale those games across to multiple platforms,” Ahmad says, pointing to the Chinese cross-platform sensation Genshin Impact as a prominent example.

Interestingly, he also notes that Western publishers are finding success by adapting their console and PC IP to the mobile space. For example, Call of Duty: Mobile found a huge audience in Asia where more traditional Call of Duty games had not.

Subscription predictions

Our methods of playing games have also diversified in recent years, with streaming and on-demand services like Xbox Game Pass, plus virtual reality headsets, gaining a foothold in the market. Harding-Rolls predicts that subscription spending is “set to grow fairly quickly over the next 5 to 10 years”, but will not dominate in gaming as it has in other mediums, such as television. 

“In-game monetisation or microtransactions will dominate gaming revenue for the foreseeable future,” Harding-Rolls says. “The ambition of subscription services such as Xbox Game Pass is to broaden the audience for console games through streaming technology. If this strategy is successful, the demographics of subscribers will become more mainstream and casual in make-up.”

Ahmad has seen lots of interest in cloud gaming from telecommunications companies looking to use it as a killer app for 5G internet in Asia, similar to how video streaming was used to showcase 4G, but the business model remains unclear.

“There’s still a bit of a question about how those cloud gaming services can be monetised successfully,” Ahmad says. “Subscription uptake has been a bit lower in Asia than the West where subscriptions are more commonplace. Especially in more developing markets - India, for example - subscriptions are very hard to implement without maybe a weekly plan or a different business model altogether.”

Accessible to all

However, as gaming audiences diversify, the accessibility needs of players becomes increasingly important for developers to consider. The website Can I Play That? [CIPT] provides accessibility information through its articles - a mixture of news, features and reviews - and by offering workshops on a wide variety of topics including diversity, virtual events, marketing and accessible game design. 

Director of operations and workshop facilitator for CIPT Courtney Craven says that the number of disabled gamers has grown recently, noting that the pandemic has both resulted in an overall higher number of people playing games, as well as more people with disabilities caused by the long-term effects of COVID-19. However, they feel that everybody can benefit from making gaming more accessible; for example, parents might use subtitles to play games while their children sleep, and an ageing gaming population would benefit from adjustable UI and text sizes.

“The more people learn about accessibility, the more it resonates with people,” Craven says. They realise that all of these things that you find tucked away in the accessibility menu might be stuff that benefits them.” 

Overall, Craven feels that the games industry is just getting started with regards to accessibility. Although they praise the options offered by many indie titles and certain AAA games like The Last of Us Part II and Gears 5, it’s far from standardised. Craven highlighted a variety of accessibility concerns in the recently released game Deathloop. Going forwards, Craven would like to see games progress to the stage where accessibility menus are not strictly necessary. 

“I think that The Last of Us Part II and Gears 5 was the end of an era for accessibility. Going forward into next gen, we’re going to be able to take accessibility to new places so that we can design features like haptic feedback, like 3D audio, that are just accessibility and inclusion baked in without designing special accessibility features,” Craven says. 

As an example, they point to the PS5 version of Ghost of Tsushima, which simulates the direction of the ‘guiding wind’ navigational aid mechanic with haptic feedback - something they note “may help blind and low-vision players navigate more easily” in their accessibility review of the game

“Every new addition we see, even within options menus, every new thing we do makes new things possible,” Craven says. “They also give you new things to iterate on in the development process, so we can do even more powerful stuff to include even more people.”

They encourage developers to tune into communities on social media, follow sites like CIPT and engage with disabled gamers and journalists to find accessibility information.

“If you don’t really have somebody in your studio that’s championing that, you’re not going to know what your game needs to start the development process, to have as few barriers as possible,” Craven says.

“I think that The Last of Us Part II and Gears 5 was the end of an era for accessibility. Going forward into next gen, we’re going to be able to take accessibility to new places so that we can design features like haptic feedback, like 3D audio, that are just accessibility and inclusion baked in without designing special accessibility features,” Craven says. 

As an example, they point to the PS5 version of Ghost of Tsushima, which simulates the direction of the ‘guiding wind’ navigational aid mechanic with haptic feedback - something they note “may help blind and low-vision players navigate more easily” in their accessibility review of the game

“Every new addition we see, even within options menus, every new thing we do makes new things possible,” Craven says. “They also give you new things to iterate on in the development process, so we can do even more powerful stuff to include even more people.”

They encourage developers to tune into communities on social media, follow sites like CIPT and engage with disabled gamers and journalists to find accessibility information.

“If you don’t really have somebody in your studio that’s championing that, you’re not going to know what your game needs to start the development process, to have as few barriers as possible,” Craven says.

“I don't think it's really a problem of the industry. In my opinion, it's the responsibility of social media sites to deal with it because they're [the ones] who allow it. I know games are trying to figure out how to ban players in games that participate in hate speech or harassment but you just don't see any kind of effort or commitment to making safer spaces from sites like Twitter or Twitch and it's disheartening.”

The ISFE found a larger number of men playing ‘core’ games in central European markets, but Little notes that certain sectors like puzzle games, hidden-object games and titles like The Sims are examples of female-dominated gaming spaces. However, Little acknowledges the difficulties women can face in online multiplayer environments.

“The industry is doing a lot of work to try and make the environment more friendly [for women], but that’s not always easy,” Little says.

More female gamers engage with ‘core’ titles in the East than in the West, according to Ahmad, although he notes the presence of outdated attitudes towards female gamers, negative stereotypes associated with them, and a relative lack of backing, funding and support for women’s esports.

For Craven, gaming has come far since the medium’s infancy, and they speak enthusiastically about the potential of gaming narratives in the future.

“They’re so much more involved now and that presents more barriers, but it also presents more immersion and more player agency,” they say. “So if you can design things in a way that eliminates those barriers, you have a whole new medium to tell a good story through - you’re not really limited in what you can do with video games anymore.

Craven points to the upcoming release of Unreal Engine 5 as an example. “I can only imagine how much more stuff is going to be possible in games, but hopefully with the new stuff comes new initiatives in accessibility.”

Courtney: Twitter - LinkedIn

Simon:  LinkedIn

Piers: Twitter - LinkedIn

Daniel: Twitter - LinkedIn



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