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Statistics show that almost 50 percent of all gamers are women, but this information doesn’t tell the whole story. Gender inequality in the core video game audience is not only still rampant but even worse than we realize.
The Entertainment Software Association’s 2013 “Essential Facts About The Computer And Video Game Industry” report breaks the gamer audience down by gender to 55 percent male and 45 percent female. This never sounds right to me when I read or hear it, in part because I constantly hear and read commentary about depictions of women in video games and how the video game industry is dominated by male perspectives.
On social media women took issue with BioShock Infinite after Elizabeth, a character who is meant to be a strong protagonist, was referred to as “fragile” in the upcoming Burial At Sea downloadable content. The creators of The Last Of Us spoke with GamesBeat about critics’ issues with its female characters. Danielle Riendeau, a senior reviewer at Polygon, set off a spirited debate after she poorly scored the PlayStation 3/Vita game Dragon’s Crown in part over its female characters, who have “breasts literally bigger than their heads with rear ends to match.”
The overwhelming number of men in video game development is the ultimate cause of these concerns, which I think are valid and need to be taken seriously. But the consistent criticism along these lines clashes, for me, with the idea of a gender diversified audience. The trick is whether or not you’re looking at the video game industry as a whole or only the most visible part of the industry.
The ESA’s statistics may be correct if you take every type of game and every available platform and mix them together into an amorphous blob, but take one step into the detailed demographics of the core audience and the idea of gender equality among gamers spectacularly collapses.
Above: The Electronic Entertainment Expo is the showcase for hardcore gaming.
Image Credit: Dean Takahashi
Keeping our eye on the core matters
Focusing on the core audience is not about minimizing the audiences for indie, casual, smartphone, or tablet games. Core gaming arguably has the most influence over how the public thinks about video games. The mainstream press focuses on the video game industry during the Electronic Entertainment Expo more than at any other time of the year, and core games aimed primarily at male audiences dominate the tradeshow.
Marketing for core games generates the widest media buys and the most memorable ad campaigns, like the Gears of War “Mad World” trailer in 2006 and the television commercials for Activision’s “There’s A Soldier In All of Us” ad campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010. We need look no further than the furor over the release of Grand Theft Auto V that’s taking place right now. It’s one of the most popular franchises in video game history and has a tremendously high profile in the mainstream press.
I think most industry experts would agree that the core sector of the industry has the most influence on public opinion. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion, and it means that if we care about the way video games are perceived, we need to understand the depth of the conflict between that messaging and the ESA’s data, rather than rest comfortably with the idea that the video game audience has finally diversified.
Seeking a real definition of the core
The words “core” and “hardcore” are often treated synonymously but they are not the same audience if we look at the data. The hardcore audience is defined by total play time per week and is a smaller subset of the core audience. For the purposes of this story, the core audience is defined as anyone who plays video games on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Gamers on the PC, PS Vita, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, and Wii U, and the games sold for these systems, are usually separated from data sets on the core audience and industry, so these data sets are absent from my analysis.
I think “core” and “hardcore” are used interchangeably due to the lack of publicly available and detailed information specifically on this audience. Everyone “knows” that the core audience is drawn from the 18-to-35-year-old male demographic, but that belief is mostly anecdotal. When I spoke to some high-profile industry pundits, who to be fair are not demographic experts, to ask how they thought of the core gamer I could see this reliance on anecdotal belief reflected in their answers.
Hal Halpin, the founder and president of the video game industry trade group the Entertainment Consumers Association, offered a historical perspective. “In previous generations it was certainly much more clear: early adopters, games media enthusiast/readers/subscribers, and those who bought and played multiple games per month were all classified as ‘core gamers,'” Halpin said. “I pretty distinctly recall [Sony Computer Entertainment American president/CEO Jack Tretton describe his interpretation of the consumer pyramid during the PlayStation launch – and the industry has adopted and recycled it many times since, though rarely crediting Jack.”
Jesse Divnich, the vice president of insights and analysis for the video game research firm EEDAR, was more concerned with a conceptual definition. “I prefer the term ‘loyalist’ and ‘hobbyist.’ It’s a consumer whose primary hobby is playing video games. They check video game news weekly and sometimes daily. They feel they have a vested interest in the subject matter. They own emotional stock in the industry,” Divnich said.
“They generally do fall into the typical 18-to-35 male demographic, but that is a constant evolving statistic,” Divnich continued. “Simply playing a lot of games doesn’t make one a core gamer in my eyes. Unfortunately, there are no defined demographics or economic data that can identify who ‘core’ gamers are. Instead, they are defined by their actions, behaviors, engagement, loyalty, and vested emotional interest in the space.”
Michael Pachter, the omnipresent video game industry analyst from Wedbush Securities, offered more specific ideas. “People who play console games and buy dedicated consoles are core gamers. People who play them excessively are hardcore gamers,” he said. “Core is probably average age 30 and 60-40 male. Hardcore is average age 25, and 85-15 male.”
While all of the opinions expressed above felt right to me as I relied on anecdotal belief as much as all of these men prior to the research for this story, game media interest and emotional investment were impossible to quantify, and none of the sources I spoke with had survey information on early adoption rates. With all due respect to Divnich’s opinion, however, there is demographic data to define the core audience, and Pachter’s guess was only slightly off.
31 percent women doesn’t tell the whole story
Nielsen offers an annual webinar titled “U.S. Gaming: A 360-degree view.” Summations of some of those webinars are available on the Nielsen website as PowerPoint decks.
“One of the reasons that we started doing this report four years ago was we realized that there was a little bit of a gap in the type of basic information about the gaming audience, and that the market for console gaming, really all gaming, changes so rapidly over time, compared to a lot of other industries,” said Nicole Pike, the director of Nielsen Games. Nielsen’s data is about the video game market strictly in the United States, but considering the size and influence of the American market, I believe the data is relevant to a larger understanding of the core audience as a whole.
Nielsen refers to gamers on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as the “HD console audience.” They are an average age of 28 and are 69 percent male, according to Nielsen’s data. If women represent 31 percent of the core audience, this is certainly worthy of consideration by developers and publishers, but this can also be a misleading statistic when we look at genre preferences.
The ESA’s aforementioned 2013 report breaks down best-selling “supergenres” by copies sold in 2012. The data is sourced to NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service, which means the numbers only represent physical sales, which were still responsible for 60 percent of all video game sales in 2012 according to NPD data. A preview of the NPD’s “Core Gaming 2013″ report also indicates that core gamers vastly prefer physical game sales over digital sales.
I asked David Riley at the NPD Group if he could break down supergenre sales specifically for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Here’s the breakdown, with the overall sales numbers for all dedicated platforms (which excludes PC, smartphone, or tablet games) for comparison:
The three biggest genres in retail HD console sales are shooters, action, and sports games. That the audiences for these genres were overwhelmingly male came as no surprise to me, but the gender imbalances were worse than I would have guessed:
- The HD shooter audience is 78 percent male.
- The HD action game audience is 80 percent male.
- The HD sports game audience is 85 percent male.
All of this data represents core gamers. Hardcore gamers are referred to as “heavy use” gamers according to Nielsen’s data. They are defined as the top 10 percent of the core audience in total hours played per week. Heavy gamers in the HD console audience are an average age of 24, or four years younger than the average age for the core audience, and the average playtime among this group is 19 hours per week.
This hardcore audience, the most dedicated slice of the core audience we can measure statistically through demographic data provided by Nielsen, is 82 percent male. In other words, the problem of gender diversity is bad among the core audience, and it’s even worse among the hardcore audience.
Are women being underreported?
I’ve heard the idea that surveys like Nielsen’s may underreport women. The idea goes that women are socialized to think of video games as an activity for men, and therefore even if women play video games, including core games, they might not identify themselves as “gamers.”
The idea is anecdotal, for me, and not based on any hard data. But this sounds like a reasonable concern, so I asked Pike whether she could address it. “In our survey, we identify gamers via consumers who say they spend time doing the following: ‘Playing video games, on a console, handheld, computer, cellphone, or online’ – the intent here is to present them with a variety of platforms to help clarify we aren’t only referring to the core gaming audience,” Pike said.
“We’ve actually experimented with multiple ways of asking questions like this to qualify gamers, and you’re right that sometimes a more generic approach can skew results. However, we feel comfortable that the verbiage we use is more comprehensive, and data comparisons across question types has proven this to be true.”
Nielsen believes there is no reason to think that their statistics under report women. Their demographics on the core audience would therefore seem not only to validate concerns about the dominance of the male perspective in core gaming, but in my mind they also question whether or not those concerns will ever be addressed.
Short of a study on how many women are staying out of core gaming specifically on account of the lack of female characters or sexist depictions of women, there is no economic reason I can think of why developers or publishers of core games ought to care about selling to an audience which might exist more than selling to the audience they know exists.
The core industry has been slow to adapt to the idea of a gender diverse audience. Activision recently announced that Call of Duty: Ghosts will have female playable characters in its multiplayer component, but Call of Duty has been one of if not the most popular multiplayer first person shooter franchises for six years. FIFA soccer, a video game franchise for the most popular sport worldwide, a sport with countless numbers of female fans, denies women the opportunity to play as a female in Club mode because of the extra work that would entail.
BioWare is well regarded as a gender-friendly company both for offering strong, confident women like Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series as playable characters and for depicting romantic relationships beyond the heterosexual norm as in Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare’s reputation for their progressive stances on these issues would not loom so large if these sorts of depictions were commonplace in video games.
I would like to see much more gender diversity in perspectives and characters in core games, but I think of this as a cultural concern and not an economic one. As a man it’s easy for me to rest with that opinion, but I also don’t know of many companies who do the right thing just to do the right thing.
Getting rid of old platforms may get rid of old problems
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 may be the last core consoles produced before the market evolves beyond the need for dedicated video game hardware. While shooters and action and sports games will undoubtedly continue to be produced for whatever hardware fills the core console niche in a decade or more, smartphones and tablets may be the video game devices of the future, and their audiences are 54 percent male/46 percent female and 56 percent male/44 percent female respectively, according to Nielsen.
If we look at the ESA’s 2013 numbers, the types of mobile games played most often are puzzle, board, trivia, card, casual, and social games. These genres equal 70 percent of the games played most often on mobile devices, and their audiences are similarly equitable by gender.
The long-term solution to the problem of gender inequality in video games may not involve the cooperation of the core console industry but merely its death. If the core console industry dissolves, it may take with it the last holdout in what has historically been a man’s world of video games, and the popular conception of gaming may finally match the overall diversity which currently exists, but which the public at large rarely sees.
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