When Gamers Grow Old

Gaming as a hobby has always had a core audience. The target demographic which most developers tend to care about the most has traditionally been the 16-30 year old males. Of course publishers are happy to sell their games to anyone with disposable income, but market research indicated that men within this bracket are most likely to purchase games and are the most susceptible to hype campaigns surrounding popular franchises. And so the a lot of games are specifically designed to pander to this demographic. If you are in your 30’s like me, you can probably tell this from personal experience.

When I was in my teens or early 20’s I was excited for and amazed by just about every major triple A game that came out. The older I get however, the fewer games I seem to find enjoyable. Perhaps, over the years I have become more discerning and demanding customer. Or perhaps my interests and fancies have drifted into new venues and what I want from my entertainment today is not exactly what I wanted half a decade ago. Either way, there is a disconnect between what many mainstream games are bringing to the table, and what I find acceptable. This of course does not mean I stopped enjoying video games – there are still plenty of great titles out there, most of which I review here.

Sadly, I figured that as I grow older I will be sliding further and further away from that core demographic and will find it more difficult to find truly fulfilling games. And I don’t mind that, because it will actually work out quite well for my wallet. Especially during Steam sales.

I guess I assumed that the age bracket was more or less fixed. While there is a lot that has been done (and a lot more that still has to be done) to make gaming more inclusive for women it is still primarily the domain of the young people. The casual gaming market has been trying to attract wide customer base, but I feel the most money is still being made primarily in to the 16-30 age bracket. Perhaps this is because folks in their 30’s and 40’s will typically spend less on video games than say high school and college students do. This is the period in many people’s life when they start thinking about starting families, buying houses and etc. They have less time to devote to playing mainstream titles and less money to spend on the hobby. Older gamers have experience budgeting their expenses and are less likely to fall pray to in-game purchases, and are much less susceptible to the industry hype machines. They are simply a less lucrative demographic.

I was quite surprised when I stumbled upon a great blog post by Brian Besie which not only suggest that my assumption was incorrect, but also that we can actually see a pronounced thematic shift in recent mainstream titles.

My first video game was Super Mario Bros. of course. Others that stand out from my childhood include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade, The Legend of Zelda, Goldeneye, and then Halo. In all of these games the goal was some variation on kill the villain and save the girl. That’s still the carrot and stick of lots of games, but recently I’ve noticed a new dynamic emerging. More and more, the motivation for video game heroes is not romantic, but paternal.

Dishonored, The Walking Dead: Season 1, The Last of Us, and Bioshock Infinite all came out within the last year, and the protagonist of each game is chiefly concerned with the safety of a child. In some cases it’s actually their own son or daughter, but these games aren’t love stories. The big moments all play on our desire to protect our own, and even to shield them from violence.

This is a very interesting observation. Personally I have not picked up on this trend at all. In fact, I am not entirely sure if it is a trend at all. Many of the games Brian mentions in the first quoted paragraph have one thing in common: lazy writing. Many of the early games that are today considered iconic, did not have complex narratives at all. Nearly all of the games Brian listed above use the damsel in distress trope to provide a simple excuse for the hero to go out there and kill bad dudes.

There are of course other tropes that have been used to provide as game play excuse but the whole “yo, bad guy totally just stole your girlfriend” setup is probably the laziest and at the same time the quickest way to provide a hero with his raison d’être. You can set it up in a single drawn panel or 5 second cut scene and you are ready to go. It was a way to save time and space in the days when memory was expensive and games were made by individuals.

Today, video games are visual spectacles created by large teams of artists, designers, actors and programmers. Gamers want a little more from an opening sequence than they did in the early days. And so the developers stepped up and created much more visually appealing scenes of damsel kidnapping. And when that became stale, they decided to shake it up by adding some other tropes to the mix. For example Dishonored adds the woman in the refrigirator trope into the mix. The empress (a love interest) is brutally murdered (ie. put into the refrigerator) and her daughter (who is said to also be your daughter) is damseled in the most traditional way via a cut-scene kidnapping. So your initial quest is both a revenge story and a rescue mission. It is really hard for me to see any parenting themes in Dishonored because Emily is barely a functioning character. Outside of few brief interactions, and messages conveyed via letters her and Corvo spend the entire game apart. Her role in the narrative is very much that of a quintessential damsel in distress.

Empress in Refrigerator

Empresses in Refrigerators

Anita Shakeesian made an excellent video on this very subject pointing out that this is simply a new variation on the old trope. There are dozens of games out there in which the protagonist has to avenge the death of his wife and rescue his daughter and none of these have anything interesting to say about parenthood. Instead they play off the same old damsel trope, and simply reinforce the patriarchal gender roles.

As you know, I really loved Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite. She was wonderfully fleshed out, and incredibly compelling character. But, I’m not sure if you could say that the game contains any parenthood themes either. While she is revealed to be Booker’s daughter in the game’s finale, she never actually considers Booker to be a father figure. Their relationship changes throughout the game. She calls him “Mister DeWitt” at first, mainly out of respect, then resents him for being a violent thug, and by the third act they forge something akin to a friendship in which both are on almost equal footing (and both equally soiled by their deeds). The fact she is his daughter is more or less coincidental result of the way the story was plotted, and I don’t think it was specifically picked to cater toward the slowly aging demographic.

The emergence of games that include parental themes may just be a side effect of a growing demand for more complex or edgier back stories and plot lines. Games like Dishonored use them to have their cake and eat it too using not one but two damsel in distress style tropes to motivate the player. Games like Bioshock Infinite on the other hand simply provide complex narratives into which these themes flow naturally, but don’t really try to say anything about parenthood.

Brian suggests the inclusion of these themes happens due to the fact that the average age of a gamer is actually climbing. While there is a lower bound on the age at which kids can meaningfully join the gaming community, there is no age cap at which people have to stop gaming. Since video games have been steadily growing in popularity for decades now, there are more and more middle aged and older gamers out there. Soon we will probably see an emergence of a growing community senior citizen gamers. In fact, they might become a new significant demographic for game publishers.

Traditionally senior citizens have been known to regain interest on their long neglected hobbies after their retire. May grandfathers for example get really into fly fishing, building models hips or all kinds of stereotypical grandfatherly hobbies. In the future, gaming might be counted as one of these. For many of us gaming will be a life-long hobby, and something we might want to devote significant amount of time later on in life. Game publishers would be foolish not to try to capitalize on that demographic. So chances are that more forward thinking studios are already thinking about ways to keep gamers interested in the hobby for the rest of their lives.

Brian thinks this will have some impact on the themes and plot lines we will see in the future mainstream games:

As my generation continues to age, I wonder if video games will keep up. Usually, as you progress through a game, your character gains strength and abilities. You might start off with a weak jump at level one, but you’ll be flying by level ten. It’s a good mirror for growing up, gaining powers like a driver’s license and your first apartment.

What about when I’m sixty? Will there be games that explore the idea of losing power and strength as you go? What if at level one you can run, but by level three it’s hard to even jog? And forget about climbing over anything. Will my vision blur? My hearing deteriorate? Will I try and fail to protect my grandchildren from a zombie because arthritis has crippled my trigger finger?

There are already games out there which do explore these themes. For example The Passage is an indie game in which explores aging both as a theme and as part of a core game mechanic. Dear Esther is a game about coping with inevitable loss. Granted, these are not mainstream titles but perhaps the trend has already started.

There is another mater that Brian did not mention, but which may also have impact on the future of gaming. If you are planning to cater to an aging demographic you can’t design the games for them the same way you design games for teenagers. I’m not simply talking about stories and plots (that should already be obvious from the discussion above) but about mechanics. People who are in their golden years will experience a slow decline of twitch reflexes and hand eye coordination, and as such will probably be more likely to be turned off by nintendo-hard game play, or punishing save game systems designed to artificially inflate difficulty. So mechanics will need to be adjusted, putting more emphasis on cognitive puzzles or tactical choices rather than on pixel-perfect aim or long platform jump sequences.

Perhaps that trend has already started. The recent X-COM game was a huge success and turn based tactical squad command genre is becoming a thing now. Turn based role playing games are returning in force on the indie scene, and it is only a matter of time before the big publishers will feel compelled to react to these trends. Cerebral, contemplative turn based game play is exactly what older gamers might grow to enjoy – something that is both challenging, but at the same time not tied to their ability to perform timed twitch gymnastics with their fingers.

And in that case, sign me up. I’m actually looking forward to a future in which there is a viable secondary market for thoughtful, intellectually stimulating and tactically challenging games that do not rely on twitch game play. Teenagers can still have their yearly installment of Call of Duty of course, and the 16-30 bracket will still probably be the main cash cow for the industry. But the thought that games may grow old with me, and that in my final years I will be still able to enjoy this hobby even if my mobility is diminished by common aging ailments is comforting.

Of course I’d prefer that we’d cure aging and get rid of it all together. But that’s a topic for an entirely different rant.

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4 Responses to When Gamers Grow Old

  1. karthik INDIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    Luke, I’m still reading the article, but you just spoilt Bioshock Infinite for me so I had to stop. :(

    I’m a wee bit cross, so I’m going to go on a tangent and say that following games writing and its attendant discussions is really hard these days for someone who’s behind the curve in playing games. There are now so many articles on Gone Home online that I’m afraid it will be casually mentioned in a piece not explicitly about the game and I will spoil it before I have the chance to play it.

    As for what I read before I stopped: It’s not just core gamers who are aging, developers are too. The more experienced lead developer types have families and children now, so its not surprising that they’re seeking out themes in their games different from what used to pass for narratives a decade ago.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ karthik:

    Oops.. So sorry. I guess I assumed most people either finished the game, watched a lets play or read some analysis that spoils the plot twists by now. This is what happens when you assume. :P If this is any consolation, I didn’t spoil the other, bigger twist. So you will still have at least big WTF moment at the end of the game that I didn’t and will not mention here.

    Good point that the developers are getting older, but I’m not sure if this is as significant of a trend as the aging of the gamers themselves. People who work in the mainstream dev studios will eventually retire and be replaced by youngsters. The big studios have a high turnaround typically. So chances are that their workforce as a whole more or less will stay the same average age for foreseeable future.

    Indie scene is different of course. A lot of people get out of the big grind-houses and launch their own mini studios producing smaller fun games. And those are indeed getting progressively more mature.

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  3. Melissa UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I have a gameboy emulator and I have to admit that I am loving the old turn based rpgs like Final Fantasy Tactics and even the old Pokemon games. They are fun but don’t require a ton of computer resources or excellent reflexes.

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