How did we get our definition of core gamer?

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 27 November 2014

How did we get here?

It’s something I think about a lot, especially regarding my own experiences as a gamer and with the rise of groups like GamerGate. I know I’ve told parts of my story before, but it might make sense to put them together in hopes of explaining my utter confusion at the rise of GamerGate and specifically, some their claims.

When I first started writing about D&D and gaming in general, I took the stance of the outsider. In some ways, I was. I didn’t roll dice or create a pen & paper character until I was thirty. I was working from home as part of a two-person startup and needed human interaction. The Penny Arcade and PvP Dungeons & Dragons podcasts made me laugh and helped give me to the confidence to try it out, especially since Mike, playing Jim Darkmagic (hm, that last name sounds familiar), was new too.

But I also had been D&D adjacent for most of my life. I grew up playing video games. While poor, we won out during the great gaming collapse of the 80s and had tons of games for the Intellivision and Atari systems. While my dad would play sometimes, my mom loved video games. She would play with us for hours.

Me as a young geekMe as a young geek

One of our favorite games was D&D Treasure of Tarmin. That was the game where we realized that as long as you didn’t trip on the power cord (sorry, mom!) you could "pause" by just not moving. Also, we learned that if you were click on the close door button, you didn’t always have to fight that monster waiting for you when you opened a door. But I digress.

My aunt playingMy aunt playing
My younger brother played D&D growing up. I would often hang out in the same room while he and his friends played. I’d help him find history books at the library for research (especially medieval weaponry books) and help him carry those books up the steep hill to our house. I had my reasons for not rolling dice then (I’m looking at you gender based stats), but I was a big booster for the game, something I carried throughout my life.

In college, many of my friends played, including my then boyfriend and now husband. Another of my friends recently started freelancing in tabletop roleplaying games and a bunch of us meet up at GenCon each year. It still didn’t feel like the right time for me to start (I was worried about falling down the rabbit hole...oops), but again, I hung out and listened while they played. I also found a wonderful game, Avernum by SpiderWeb Software, that gave me much of the fun of D&D without the anxiety.

After I graduated and got married, I encouraged my husband to keep playing, even helping to host his group. I figured out how to get enough table space for all of them and made sure I got back to the apartment in time so none of them would have to wait. I often cooked meals for them, taking requests, and tried to make sure there were snacks and beverages that they liked.

Even though I was playing games during this time and reading and listening to much of the same media as people who gamed and often about games, I was scared to call myself a gamer. You see, the definition of gamer is often used in an exclusionary fashion. To many, it doesn’t matter that I was addicted to games like Avernum or Civilization. They weren’t the right games or I didn’t put in enough hours over a long enough time period. Those are just "casual games" and real gamers make it a lifestyle, but it doesn’t count if you arrange your life around games that you aren’t playing. Trying to explain my complicated but rich connection to games just didn’t seem worth it especially when the reactions to a person who doesn’t fit into the dominante narrative of what a gamer is can be downright demoralizing if not scary. (For instance, just today I was asked why I don’t just create games instead of relating my experiences. While I was looking at books with my name in them.)

But how did we get to that narrative? Why aren’t my experiences, my time, and my dollars enough to be considered a gamer? Why does the narrative revolve around people who play certain types of games on certain types of platforms?

At some point gamer became a term that wasn’t about anyone who played games but about people who played games on particular gaming consoles, such as the Playstation or the Xbox. Originally they were termed "core gamers," implying that they are at the center of the gaming universe, but many have dropped the "core" when talking about them.

My dad more often counts as a gamer than I doMy dad more often counts as a gamer than I do

Why do we focus on them? Part of it is that at least historically, they were where the money was. If we look back at the 2005 ESA Essential Facts pdf, we'll see that in 2004, computer and video games combined were a $7.3 billion (with a b) business with about $6 spent on video games for every $1 spent on computer games. Looking at units sold, over 72% of video games sold were in genres that tend to be male dominated (Action 30.1%, Sports 17.8%, Shooters 9.6%, Racing 9.4%, and Fighting 5.4%).

Yet the overall statistics of gamers showed that 43% of gamers identified as female and that "women over the age of 18 represented a larger portion of the game-playing population (28%) than boys from ages 6 to 17 (21%)." (If you do the math, that means men 18+ constituted 34% of people playing games, only 6 point difference from the same age group of women.)

In the same year as this report, Douglas Lowenstein, then President of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), presented his plan for world domination by video games. Key to this plan was broadening games to break out of the male focused market it currently found itself almost exclusively associated with. He saw video games becoming an entertainment option as ubiquitous as films; an area where there was something for everyone. In his report on the state of the industry, he explicitly points to how games marketing contributes to this narrow view of games. "It's hard to argue with her complaint that our own industry, mainly through our marketing practices, reinforces the stereotype that most gamers are men."

What is he saying here? Well, he's pointing out that the industry stats don't align with the view many, including people marketing the games, have about the games market. Focusing on where the money is currently makes some sense, we know what we know. But the percentages of women who played games versus where unit sales were suggested to him that there could be an untapped market. He describes why he thinks electronic games still lag behind TV and film as a market.

A partial answer is [TV and film] have done a better job developing products that have truly mass market appeal at mass market prices. That is not to say they create better entertainment necessarily. It suggests, instead, that they are better at creating content with wider appeal. Say what you want about The Passion of the Christ but the fact remains it was the 3rd biggest money maker of all-time, generating $612 million worldwide, and $371 million in the US. Assuming $10 a ticket in the US, that's an astonishing 37 million people who saw the film. The film revealed something Hollywood was missing -that there is an audience that had been largely unseen or ignored who would swarm to cineplexes if they featured movies of particular interest to them, in this case with openly religious themes.

So, in 2005 we have not only a situation where women make up a significant and necessary part of the overall market (I don't know of many games that could deal with a loss of 10% or more of their audience), but that they have been making clear that they feel the market is wanting. We have a leader in the industry reminding members that maybe they are hyperfocusing on an already saturated market and that women, among others, could provide avenues for growth. These are all market-based arguments for changing how some games are made, for making new games we are not making today, and for changing how we market those games.

Fast forward about five years, to about 2010. In the intervening years, we see an increase in the divide between male and female gamers, largely a decrease in the percentage of female gamers under the age of 18 and an increase in male gamers 18+, but this year we have 52% of gamers identifying as male and 42% as female. Women 18+ now constitute 37% of the overall market and males 18+ are 45%. The computer and video games market has grown to $10.1 billion.

If you keep to these high level looks at the industry, it's hard to see the change that's happening. In particular, two events occur that disrupt the console gamers are the "core gamers" narrative, the addition of digital delivery and the ability to play games on new platforms, including mobile phones.

Starting in the 2011 Essential Facts report, we get data on a brand new category of sales. The category is called "other" which stands for "other delivery formats includ[ing] subscriptions, digital full games, digital add-on content, mobile apps, social network gaming, and other physical delivery." This category alone adds an additional $5.4 billion to the $10.1 billion mentioned earlier. Think about that, a good ⅓ of the sales for 2010 are in this new category. However, unlike the physical sales, less is known about that market. We don't have the breakout by genre for this group that we do for computer or video games.

Let's talk a bit more about that increase in digital delivery. In 2010, digital format was at 24%. This is important because previously, physical stores could act as gatekeepers for game sales. Not only did they get to decide whether or not a game was stocked and where it was placed, but the act of going to a video game store could cause a higher degree of friction to female and non-binary customers. I know that once I found out about Steam (and they started supporting macs), my game consumption increased dramatically. The same is true of comic books in regards to applications like Comixology. I went from a person who never bought comics to someone who regularly buys somewhere around a dozen titles or more per month.

By 2013, that "other" division is larger than the video game market, now at $9 billion versus video game sales of $6.1 billion. Digital formats are now at 53%. Oh, and the gender divide? Women are 48% compared to 52% male and women 18+ constitute 36% of the market, surpassing the male 18+ group (35%).

Gender and AgeGender and Age

Many in GamerGate like to put forward a narrative that suggests a conspiracy led by so-called Social Justice Warriors to force change from outside. I don't think this data supports it. Yes, the data supports their underlying awareness of a change in the games market. There is a larger spread in game genres now versus 2004. Gender composition has changed over the years.

However, instead of their narrative, I'd suggest the data raises the question about whether or not those who play console games can really be considered the "core" of the market anymore. I'd suggest that perhaps games media outlets have been diversifying their content (if less than half of a percent of articles using certain feminist words counts as diversifying) not because they are being forced to but because their market too is changing. That women are and have always been gamers with a significant investment in the market and now are starting to get their consumer voices heard.

That is why I have such a hard time with the narrative from GamerGate that this is about a consumer revolt, because at the end of the day, the people they are supposedly revolting against are also consumers, ones that they have tried to marginalize for over a decade. The numbers also suggest that instead of being infiltrated from outside, people within are voting with their dollars and that is causing the diversification they see. I don't think we are going to go back to where the market focuses on what was previously called the core gamer market.

Edit: My dad wanted me to update the photo because his collection has grown since then. This shows only one side of the room. :)

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