Whither the gray gamer?
While game players get older, the industry ignores a potentially lucrative demographic.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) – I've known for years that the video game industry appealed to people who hadn't seen their teens or 20s in a long, long time. After all, I was living proof. But I remember precisely where I was when the reality was driven home.
It was QuakeCon 2003. As I walked the floor where enthusiasts set up their PCs for the four-day gaming party, I saw a sign in the back that read "Senior Gaming League: Respect Your Elders or Suffer Their Wrath". I wandered over and talked with a few of the members – all of them were over 30. Many were in their 40s. And there several in their 50s. All, however, were as hardcore as the 17 year olds sitting two rows in front of them (and, my aging reflexes were thrilled to see, still capable of beating those 17 year olds in a game of "Quake").
Although it's rare to find older players with that level of enthusiasm, more and more baby boomers and seniors are getting interested in video games. The Entertainment Software Association reports that 19 percent of the people playing video games are 50 or older. That's a huge jump from 1999, when players of that age group made up just 9 percent of the gaming world.
Game publishers, though, seemingly couldn't care less – mainly leaving senior gamers to Web-based games, such as PopCap Games' "Bookworm". And while it certainly makes loads of sense for publishers to focus primarily on the core market, especially in transitional times like they're experiencing now, that focus is at risk of becoming myopic.
Warren Spector, founder of Junction Point Studios and one of the industry's most celebrated designers, called game makers on the carpet about this in a keynote address to the Montreal International Games Summit last November.
"Older players have different life experiences, trust me," he said. "And they want and demand different kinds of content. ... Skateboarding? Not part of my life, particularly. Urban thuggery? Not interested. Extreme sports? It's been a while for me."
There are some exceptions, of course. Take Two Interactive Software's (Research) "Civilization IV," the latest installment in the award-winning strategy games, is just as welcoming to older players as it is to young ones. And Nintendo's "Nintendogs" reached out to a broad audience that typically ignored games, including boomers and seniors.
By and large, though, the gray gamer is a revenue stream that's not being tapped.
Some reasons are pretty apparent. Building a new audience costs money. You have to convince people to invest in something they don't have an immediate interest in. And with publisher earnings falling (and AAA game costs rising), that's a big risk to take.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is determining what sort of games would engage an older audience. Certainly, there are folks like Barbara St. Hilaire, a 70-year old gaming enthusiast who goes by the nickname "Old Grandma Hardcore" and plays up to 10 hours per day, but the more typical buyer is more likely to only play a few hours per week.
Angela Smith, 52, is a bit closer to the average customer. She knows the industry (Smith's better known as sHugamom, a regular in the forums on Shacknews.com, a gaming news and community Website run by her son Steve Gibson), but she doesn't play games too often. In an average week, she only plays maybe an hour or so of puzzle games.
"I don't like the games that are available," she told me. "The only one I had any fun with was 'Grand Theft Auto'. I could step outside of myself and pretend to be a bad dude. I knew it wasn't real, of course. It was interesting, because I can't identify with it in real life."
She's tried Electronic Arts' (Research) "The Sims," but felt the game lacked appeal. What she'd like to see, she said, is something that allows her and people her age to blend their individual experiences with their shared experiences.
"I consider my generation to be the most homogenized," said Smith. "We had the same three television channels. We listened to the same jingles. And we played the same board games. ... We also have this 'Age of Aquarius' thing in that we want to improve the world. It's fun once in a while to step outside of yourself with something like 'GTA,' but the games out there now don't give you a feeling that you're improving yourself or society."
There's a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though. Nintendo, as part of its planned strategy to move in a direction markedly different direction than its competitors, will release two "Brain Age" titles for the Nintendo DS in April and May. Targeted at a 35 and older market, the game (consisting of short mental brain-training challenges) struck a chord in Japan, selling over 1 million units – and prompting many older gamers to buy the DS system so they could play.
"Brain Age" probably won't spark an industry-wide revolution, but if Nintendo can engage a wide boomer and senior audience – and turn them onto video games, it could see a significant spike in its earnings over the long term. And senior gamers won't only have a new source of entertainment; they might begin to learn more about this industry that is a growing part of their children's and grandchildren's lives.
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Morris is Director of Content Development for CNNMoney.com. Click here to send him an email