Games: They're not just for kids anymore

Nintendo's Touch Generations site targets older gamers: "Not a hard core gamer? That's OK."
Nintendo's Touch Generations site targets older gamers: "Not a hard core gamer? That's OK."Nintendo

Video games (and the people that play them) tend to call to mind a couple of stock images: a teenager playing the night away in front of his PC, a group of frat brothers playing “Madden.”

Video games, once the exclusive tree house of young-adult males, are increasingly finding an audience with a demographic that may surprise you: soccer moms. That’s right, soccer moms play games. And big players in the industry are taking notice—and adjusting their business plans accordingly.

According to the Electronic Software Association, 38 percent of all game players are women over 18. And what’s more, they represent a much larger portion of the game-playing population than boys under 17.

Casual games popular with women
Now, you’re not likely to find a lot of moms playing “Quake” with their kids. But casual, typically Web-based games like "Bejeweled," "Tetris," "Zuma" and "Diner Dash," are enormously popular with women aged 35 and over. In fact, the majority of casual gamers—60 percent—are women.

What’s the appeal of these games for women—many of which are busy moms, most with full-time jobs? Mainly, it’s the ease-of-use: Casual games also don’t require hours of commitment, so it’s easy to feel satisfied by just short bursts of gameplay.

Casual games can also be relaxing, supplanting television as a wind-down evening activity. Page Machaby, a 53 year-old stay-at-home-mom from Winter Springs, Fla., started playing games like "Pirate Poppers" and "Super Granny" two years ago.

“[They] helped me to diminish any stress and escape any worries of the day,” she says, adding that her sleep improved as a result.

The Seattle-based Casual Game Association predicts that sales will reach $1.5 billion by 2008 — driven largely by in-game advertising.

Clearly, this is big money we’re talking about. And big players are involved in this space: Electronic Arts’ says its Pogo portal has 1.3 million paying subscribers, and nearly 16 million gamers per month. Microsoft’s MSN Games claims 16 million monthly players  and says the same number play games over MSN Messenger in the same time period.

Nintendo targeting older gamers
Nintendo also has its eye trained on an older generation. In June, the company rolled out its Touch Generation subbrand in the United States — and it’s aimed squarely at 40 and 50 year-olds. The Web site for Touch Generations shows gamers of all generations delighting over their DS and DS Lite handhelds. Even the marketing copy is easygoing and encouraging: “Not a hard core gamer? That’s OK.”

According to George Harrison, senior vice-president of marketing and corporate communications at Nintendo America, the thinking behind Touch Generations began in Japan, where the population is aging at a faster rate than in the United States and Western Europe. Realizing that their target market of “hard core” younger gamers was shrinking, the company sought to attract lapsed gamers as well as people who’d never played a video game before. The result: The Nintendo DS handheld system with its easy-to-use touch screen and pen.

The Touch Generations suite of games looks like no other game lineup you’ve seen: "Nintendogs," a virtual-pet simulator, "Tetris," "True Swing Golf," and brain-training games like "Sudoko Gridmaster," "Brain Age" and "Big Brain Academy."

In Japan, the games have been a smash hit: In just over a year, the company sold 6.5 million copies of the brain-training games, tapping into what Harrison calls a “national obsession” with brain health.  In the Unites States, the games have sold more modestly: about 1.1 million since April of this year.

Harrison admits that marketing Touch Generations in the U.S. is tougher: In Japan, it’s not unusual for several generations to reside in the same house, so it’s easy for grandma to pick up a DS and start playing. In the U.S., Nintendo went to commuter locations to catch people over 40: “We started at Grand Central Station,” he says. “We’d walk into a crowd of people waiting for a train and get them to try the DS.”

Nintendo’s DS and its forthcoming Wii, with its wand-shaped, motion-sensing controller, are both purposeful departures from the current console market dominated by Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox. David Riley, an analyst at the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group, says that Nintendo’s moves will open up the game world to non-gamers, and may also usher in a coveted market: young girls. “For Christmas, each of my nieces wanted a DS, because of Nintendogs.”

The next year will be an exciting one in the video game industry: In addition to Nintendo’s Wii, which releases in the U.S. Nov. 19, Sony will begin selling its long-anticipated PlayStation 3 consoles on Nov. 17. The new next-gen machines will compete with the Xbox 360, which had a full year's jump on the market.

And while the big three aren’t likely to stop courting their “hard core” gamer market of males between 18 and 24 years old anytime soon, gamers are aging. Though game-playing drops off for many when jobs, marriage and kids enter the picture, adults do buy game hardware and software for their children. In fact, the Electronic Software Association claims that 80 percent of all gamer parents play games with their kids. So look for gamers to get older — and younger.

But most of all, keep an eye on the industry. With millions of players and billions in revenue, games are big business. And that’s not child’s play.