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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.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo is the showcase for hardcore gaming.

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.