Generations: The Great Video Game Age Gap

How the age of gamers is redefining what the term means

Generations: The Great Video Game Age Gap
Photo by Vitaly Gariev / Unsplash.

Back in the 2000s, a friend told me that he thought it was inappropriate to refer to "video games" as though that term described one thing.

He thought it was more like three categories. The first category he identified was the single-player game, the kind we'd had for decades. The second category was the competitive multiplayer game, mainly first-person shooters which were then the predominant genre in mainstream games. The third category was the cooperative multiplayer game - chiefly MMORPGs - which were slowly losing relevance but still big moneymakers.

The way he saw it, you couldn't really claim that all of those were the same thing just because they were all interactive electronic entertainment. They differed too much, not just in the mechanics and the goals but in the people who played them, the subcultures surrounding them, and even the jargon used to describe them. These groups had become too distinct - they didn't respect or even like each other all that much - so why should they be grouped together?

Whether or not this was accurate at the time, I think it has become true more recently. The video game industry has been fractured over the past decade-odd, split up by genre, platform, developer type, and subculture. Whereas "the video game" was once a discrete category, it's now more like a supercategory that contains multitudes.

But when we pictured those three categories back in the day, we were still imagining a certain uniformity among those who played them. They were different in their language and their tastes, but they were all still males in their teens to late 20s. They may have sounded different, but they looked similar.

That is very much no longer the case. As the industry has grown, it has also fractured across demographic lines. While gender and nationality certainly matter here, it's age that sunders the industry the deepest. It's clearly important for people in the industry, but it's also handy information for anyone who finds themselves talking about video games on a regular basis.

Listen to the article (and enjoy a random EU4 Southeast Asia campaign). Source: YouTube.

The age gap defined

If you're going to split up the video-game-playing population, age is a really sensible metric to start with. You could go with three groups: under the age of 25, from 25 to 45, and over 45. If you really wanted to get into the weeds, you could split it up even more finely than that; as I looked into the research, I saw many people splitting the minors off from that youngest category to reflect a growing new cohort. Some dice them up even more than that.

Wherever you choose to draw the lines, there is a difference between those groups in almost every way that counts - how they play games, how they buy games, how they learn about games, what platforms they use, what platforms they prefer using, and of course what types of games they prefer.

One of the more interesting pieces of information on demographic differences comes courtesy of the Global Gamer Insights Report by Gametree. Dating to 2019, this survey focused on subjective preferences among different groups rather than things like ownership rates or hours played. Within these groups, they found that the youngest cohort (mostly middle and high school) had a very strong preference for mobile, shifting over to PC as they entered their 20s, to consoles in their 30s and 40s, and then back to mobile in their 50s.

Obviously, there was a difference in the games played as well, but there's a causality issue. The youngest cohort prefers games that are common on mobile, but does that mean that they prefer mobile devices because they have those games, or do they prefer the games that are on the mobile devices to which they have access?

While the causality likely runs both ways, there is evidence to indicate divisions even within the mobile market. According to a report by GameMakers, the oldest and youngest players have distinct preferences even within mobile-specific genres. There just aren't that many games that young adults are playing with their parents.

person holding black samsung android smartphone
Photo by Onur Binay / Unsplash.

Is everyone out of touch?

Every so often, we get to watch some talking head pundit humiliate himself by trying to talk about video games, a topic he clearly doesn't understand. Whatever other errors these hacks make, they always begin with the same essential fallacy: That video games are made for children and that it is primarily children who play video games.

Of course, you and I both know that this isn't true and hasn't been true in over 30 years. Many of the people making these mistakes really haven't thought about video games in 30 years. They've fixed their understanding of the industry to a point in time when clueless parents still referred to the Genesis as the "Sega Nintendo" and the bulk of gamers were, indeed, minors.

But this is an error that pretty much everyone makes, albeit in more subtle ways. We all tend to form an understanding of a concept at a specific point in time and then rarely or never reassess that understanding. As far as games are concerned, most of us have a concept that we formed sometime in early adolescence, and it's this frozen image that informs our understanding of the industry.

I've been getting a lesson in this myself. While developing a YouTube channel that is primarily about independent games, I've noticed I have an audience that overwhelmingly looks like me. Despite the audience for video-based gaming news being very young, I have relatively few viewers in their 20s and almost no teenagers.

The explanation is simple: I'm not covering the kind of games that they prefer. Indie games can be a varied and experimental lot, but most of the ones that I feature in my videos, Indie Monthly, or in other publications are still rooted mechanically in a few genres such as RPGs, platformers, first-person shooters, turn-based strategy - all standards for console and PC games in the 90s and 2000s.

If you're under the age of 20, you're certainly familiar with these genres. However, as someone who came of age after the rise of mobile gaming and the live service model, these are likely not what you picture when you think of "video games." Most likely, your experience of games is far different than mine. You wouldn't envision Final Fantasy any more than I would envision Defender or Space Invaders.

We share a hobby but we aren't really speaking the same language. Take a 14-year-old, a 24-year-old, a 34-year-old, and a 44-year-old and ask each one what video games are on a conceptual level and you're bound to get four radically different answers.

a person is playing a video game on a cell phone
Photo by Eugene Chystiakov / Unsplash.

The global market

With gaming's reach far outstretching the traditional Western and Japanese markets, we should also consider how nationality affects all of this. Western writers tend to focus on what video games look like in the West, but this is very much a global industry now. Nationality and region already play a big role in how people play games, and as the younger audience in these emergent regions starts to exert its influence, this is going to change things even more.

In 2022, YouGov Global Profiles did a study on home entertainment worldwide. They found that console ownership rates were highest in Western Europe and North America - mature markets that only grow or shrink by a small amount each year. By contrast, ownership rates are very low in emerging markets such as Northern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, which makes sense. For the console manufacturers, these are potential growth areas - or so it seems.

As I've said elsewhere, consoles are essentially irrelevant in mainland East Asia due to their extremely low ownership rates. This is chiefly due to access, as consoles were restricted for long periods in Korea and China and are still rare and expensive in the latter. That's important to remember, as access is also the main reason why young gamers in more developed regions prefer mobile and PC. Whether you're an American middle schooler or a Chinese college student, it's easier to play games on the smartphone that you already own than on a console that you'd have to buy.

Growth in the emerging video game markets of Africa and Asia is driven by the young. These younger gamers have gotten used to seeing games on computers and especially on mobile devices. The question is, will they gravitate toward consoles as access increases, or will they stick with what's familiar?

The future is never certain

All of this is bound to change, of course. There may be nothing in the world harder to predict than social trends. Something that was on the fringes of the internet becomes trendy, then mainstream, then essential, then an annoyance, and then it's off the radar as a half-dozen alternatives replace it.

The video game market is already evolving in unpredictable ways. Premium single-player games were supposed to be dead; now they're massive hits. The handheld console market was completely destroyed by mobile; now dedicated handhelds have dug out a niche big enough that people are wondering if those will come back. The growing female demographic has not only created an entirely new category in the "cozy game," but is also reviving genres long written off as yesterday's news, such as adventure games and JRPGs.

Needless to say, not all of this is due to age demographics. The media love simple narratives in which the Kids These Days are destroying this or that, and the truth is never so easy. In fact, the impetus for this article was a claim by an industry analyst that the console market was dying due to age shifts, something he later had to walk back because his data didn't actually show that. Console sales have actually been trending slightly upward over the past decade, and it only looks like a decline because 2008 was an unusually large year for hardware.

My own (admittedly half-informed) take is that the youth market isn't even all that important. Gamers over 25 are a larger percentage of consumers and spend a lot more money, and I have to assume that it's this group that is driving the industry. However, the video game industry just isn't one thing anymore - that youth market is its own little ecosystem, and that ecosystem is being driven by the kids.

I wrote this because when we discuss video games, we are often talking about completely different things, and that can put us at odds. We're entering a world where no one is an expert in everything, and dealing with that means being humble enough to ask questions and listen.


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