A few weeks ago, I attended my first Game Developers Conference otherwise known as GDC, which is held annually in San Francisco. The Ad Council launched Game for Good this past summer, which is a focused effort to bring our social good messaging to gamers. A key piece to understanding this community is learning about the people who create the games players are passionate about.
Who Plays Games?
The stereotypical image of a 14-year-old boy playing video games in the basement has long been shattered, but the gaming space is experiencing some shifts. Geoffrey Zatkin from the company EEDAR, which was recently acquired by the market research company NPD, shared the latest data on who makes up the gaming community. The average age of console gamers is 35 (37 for mobile gamers). He noted that even the term “gamer” should be replaced by “entertainment consumer” given that 65 percent of the U.S. population owns a device on which people play games.
The biggest shift has been in casual gaming – gamers who played casual games on consoles like Wii or Nintendo have been moving over to PC and mobile (both phones and tablets). Remember when the big news was more families playing together on the Wii? Evidently console gaming has reverted to a “core” audience, which is 60 percent male/40 percent female. Women make up 55 percent of mobile gamers. And, you know all those free-to-play games that entice you to buy boosters? Fifty percent of players NEVER do. Yeah, that’s me.
The other big trend from this talk was the massive increase in people getting their console games digitally. Physical game cartridges aren’t going the way of the dinosaur yet, but the digital download community STEAM now boasts 150 million active users.
Diversity: ‘A Great Saga Needs All Types of Heroes’
The gaming industry has upped its game when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There were roundtables, micro talks and larger sessions sponsored by Ubisoft, King, Riot and others all focused on the issue of diversity and inclusion. Whether that’s the storylines and characters in the games or in recruiting, hiring and building a diverse company culture, GDC offered several opportunities for attendees to think about and discuss diversity. I attended a session focused on designing diverse characters led by two female game designers from King, the company that produces the ubiquitous Candy Crush mobile game, called Crush the Norm. They joked that while most of their characters are candy, the company is beginning to add human IP to some of its other titles, and have instituted a simple process to assess a games inclusion level. They talked through the “norm” in how characters are represented – western culture, Caucasian, neither young or old, able bodied, heterosexual, stereotypical body type and male. The audience was asked to look at sets of popular video game characters and identify which characters “crushed” each of the norms. Blizzard’s popular game Overwatch got several shout outs throughout the conference for featuring a diverse set of characters that defy the norms. Check out the stream under #1ReasonToBe for tweets about diversity in the gaming space.
Social VR and Connected AR Demand Strong Community Management
The most provocative session I attended was Ralph Koster’s talk about virtual and augmented reality in gaming. Koster began with a personal anecdote where he was being interviewed by a famous CEO of a large social media company (hint: Hoodie). It was his opportunity to ask the CEO a question, and he asked about the ethical implications of social VR and connected AR. The CEO responded, “What are the ethical implications?” Koster didn’t get the job. He argues that when you take up the tools of online world design, you are designing societies. And societies demand rules. He used the recent examples of a woman being “groped” in VR and the questionable behavior of Pokemon Go players to illustrate the need for more active community management in VR/AR spaces. In Koster’s dystopian future, VR, AR, the internet of things and location based services will all combine to make the “real world” more like a virtual world where we are all players. He made a plea for game designers, who “are mostly about helping others enjoy life,” to take on designing this new world ethically.