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Actually, Nielson, We’re Still Spotty Teenage Boys

By on April 9, 2009

I’m fed up. I’m fed up with reports on ‘gamer’ demographics being repackaged to suggest that they are, on the whole, anything other than the traditional young males (13 – 30) we used to assume.

My ire’s been prompted by yesterday’s publication – and subsequent sensationalising – of a fresh Nielsen report. The report deals largely with TV viewing habits and play time amongst console gamers, but also tackles PC gaming, and the genre / age divide. We’ll go into its findings later, but first cast your eyes over just a few of the attention grabbing headlines the report has generated:

Nielson Study: Majority PC Gamers Female, Solitary – Rock Paper Shotgun

Women make up 46.2% of PC gaming, says Nielsen report – VG247

Female Demographic is PC Gaming’s Largest, Says Nielsen Report – Wired

Now, this isn’t intended as a rant about journalistic integrity, but those headlines are just intentionally misleading. While we can hardly blame sites for seeking controversy driven traffic – and most do go on to point out the realities in the articles themselves – it raises the larger concern that the games industry as a whole is in danger of deluding itself about the nature of its audience.

The numbers lie

The reality behind Nielson’s findings is that because it includes free games (eg Windows Solitaire) and casual games in the same breath as core, premium titles like Gears of War, many of its figures are meaningless to the games industry. Ultimately, as an industry, we’re interested in players who pay for their games, and I suspect a graph charting age / gender against average spend would tell a very different, and young male centric story. All this really indicates is that ‘gamers’ needs a better definition.

The only real figure of interest is the estimated breakdown of WoW players, which suggests a 60:40 male to female split. On the one hand, it’s somewhat reassuring that we do have a reasonable number of female gamers playing at least one premium game; on the other, we already knew WoW was a more mainstream product, and it’s a shame that of all the inventive, intelligent, grown up games out there (OK, perhaps there’s not that many) girls are playing the one about hitting gremlins for ten hours a day.

Part of a worrying trend

But this report is just one of many recent releases highlighting the alleged growth of female and mature gamers. Based on either misleadingly obscure figures, inappropriate definitions, or outright conjecture, there’s been a series of claims along similar lines over the past few years. 40% Oz gamers are girls; more women gamers than boys; and average gamer age of 33 are just a few of the claims bandied about in recent times.

I don’t believe any of them can be taken at face value – certainly not for the purpose of pitching video games. For one thing, polling ‘gamers’ for their habits rather misses the fact that much of the consumer spend may (and, in my opinion, does) still lie with a very specific subset of players – the young males.

Walk into any video game store, and I’d bet my life that of the scant few girls and adults you’ll see, the majority are buying for a young male. The fact is that in professional video game development, we’re still forced to pitch – ninety nine times out of a hundred – to the action obsessed 13 – 30 year old blokes.

We need to realise gamers are still kids, and do something about it

I don’t say any of this because I’m anti the idea of gaming going mainstream. Quite the opposite, in fact. I live for the idea that one day I’ll be able to write games that appeal to women. To families. To adults. To aging intellectuals. Not only that, but I do think we’ve come a long way. Where thirty years ago our audience genuinely was limited to teenage boys, we do have girls playing games, we do have adults, and families taking interest.

My problem is that I don’t want us to lose sight of that goal because we think we’ve already surpassed it. Implying through misleading reports and articles that true gaming (of the sort that can immerse us in believable worlds and bring us truly valuable experiences) is anywhere near to achieving a grown-up and sexually equal audience is doing damage to our industry.

I want us to realise that it’s still spotty teenagers playing our labours of love – that our audience still demands Schwarzenegger and not Bergman.

Then I want us to work even harder to change that.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at, and has also spent time in production.