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Video gamers kill cinema box office – suspects young, old, male, female

Look around: the profile of gamers has changed dramatically in recent years. awee_19

Ever heard the one about the morbidly obese (and probably mentally unbalanced and somehow dangerous) teenage “gamers” locked in their bedrooms playing online computer games?

Turns out, they’re really wealthy. Last year in the US alone, they spent US$25.1 billion on computer games. To put this into context, people in the US only spent US$10.6 billion at the movie box office, with only US$17.6 billion spent worldwide.

So what’s wrong here – rubbery figures, people’s preconceptions about computer games, or both? It may be time to re-evaluate our understanding of games and their cultural position in society.

The past 15 years has seen something of a revolution in the computer gaming industry.

Gaming has transformed from an activity involving a small (mostly male) techno-elite to one enjoyed by an increasingly large percentage of the population. Figures released recently by the Entertainment Software Association (a US-based industry-funded organisation that represents the game industry) suggest the average gamer isn’t in their mid-teens but is 37 years old.

Female gamers now represent more than 40% of the game-playing population.

Unfortunately, figures about the game industry need to be taken cautiously: there is a lack of rigorous, independent data on gaming.

But even if we take the figures with a pinch of salt, it’s hard to deny the game industry has gone through big changes. The result is a change in how we play games and what it means to be a “gamer”.

New level

PCs were once the gaming platform of choice. Gamers were technically-sophisticated computer users who would customise their machines to squeeze the highest performance out of them.

Now, mobile gaming has taken off as smart phones such as Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android become more popular. Games on these devices are often designed for shorter playing periods and have been dubbed “casual games” – games such as Fruit Ninja, Plants vs Zombies and the phenomenally-popular Angry Birds.

Casual games have also become popular online, with games such as Mafia Wars and Farmville enjoying significant popularity on Facebook.

In the mainstream game market, consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox360 and the Sony Playstation 3 provide high quality graphics and performance to a less technically-elite market. Major games developers have responded to this by focusing development effort on the console market.

While figures vary depending on the way things are measured, it is pretty clear that game sales for PCs are now significantly less than games sales for the top three consoles (Wii, Playstation 3 and Xbox360).

These changes in technology have resulted in more technically-sophisticated games being available to a much broader audience. Modern consoles are now beginning to reach a level of sophistication where graphics are beginning to appear photo-realistic.

Fine details, such as facial animation, allow game developers to bring a level of subtlety to gameplay once only seen in film.

In the recent crime-thriller LA Noire, developers Team Bondi and Rockstar Games were able to record actors’ facial expressions and reproduce them on digital models.

This allows the player to engage with the game on a much more subtle level. Is the character you are talking to lying or telling the truth: what do their eyes say?

The growing sophistication of games technology, and the expectations of the people who play them has encouraged developers to be more creative about game content. Traditional concerns such as plot, character development and even lighting design, settings and props, have all become more significant.

Winning or losing?

So, does this mean that games are becoming an art form? This question has been bumping around the game development industry for years.

The consensus is that some games are certainly more artistic than others (see Osmos, for example) but the mere fact people are asking this question at all suggests games are coming of age.

While the games-as-art argument may continue well into the future, it seems pretty likely that games are going to continue to get more sophisticated. They’re also going to continue to be played by a wide cross-section of the community.

Nintendo employs Olivia Newton-John to market its brain training games to the 50+ market; a plethora of titles are aimed at the pre-schooler; Dad has some mates over for beer and to play Call of Duty: Black Ops; Mum plays Farmville with her friends on Facebook.

So while the outdated stereotype of a gamer might continue to occupy a cherished spot in popular culture, it seems that we are well past the days of games as a niche activity.

If you want to see what today’s gamer looks like, you probably don’t have to look very far.

Are you a gamer? Do you agree with the points made in this article? Leave your comments below.

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