It’s time to banish from your mind the image of the socially maladroit couch potato whiling away his life pretending to be a magic ninja dragon as the prototypical “gamer.” The videogame players of today aren’t holed up in their parents’ basement; instead, the gamers of today are standing next to you at the dentist’s office destroying strangely endearing zombies with legions of cuddly mutant plants, and they’re pinging you on Facebook for virtual farm supplies.
And if you’ve ever stolen a few minutes at work to line up jewels, pop bubbles, or exult quietly over laying out a seven-letter word over a triple word score when you should have been slogging through spreadsheets, then you’re a gamer, too. The explosive growth of social and mobile gaming has not only changed gaming, it’s changed the faces of the players as well.
The boom in mobile games isn’t especially surprising when you start looking at some numbers. The number of smartphones in use in the third quarter of 2012 was over one billion, a 47 percent increase from just a year earlier. That number is projected to double to two billion by 2015 and while all those people may be sincere about using their shiny new smartphones to help manage their lives they are also increasingly using them for another purpose: having fun. The gaming industry research firm NPD Group has reported that digital game sales (including social games, mobile entertainment apps, and so on) increased by 17 percent in the second quarter of 2012 while retail sales of videogame hardware, software, and accessories has declined for 10 straight months, with a hefty 24 percent drop in September 2012.
So just who is playing these games? According to a 2012 survey conducted by Information Solutions Group, nearly half of all US and UK adults. According to the study, 44 percent of adults surveyed had played at least one mobile game in the past month. As impressive as that figure is, it pales in comparison to the growth rate: an increase of 29 percent from just the prior year. Some of that growth can be attributed to the rapid adoption of tablet devices. Nearly one in ten of those surveyed had started gaming in the past twelve months by playing on a new tablet. With sales of Kindles, iPads, and other devices continuing to grow, that number will only increase, especially in light of the fact that many of these new players are playing games like Plants vs. Zombies at the same time across multiple devices.
This audience is a much more diverse group than ever before. According to the Entertainment Software Association, not only is the average gamer now 30 years old but a full 62 percent of the gaming public is an adult with 37 percent of them being 35 or older. There’s also a good chance that the assumed “he” is actually a she since 47 percent of the gaming audience is female, with women 18 or older representing a staggering 60 percent of the mobile audience (according to videogame research outfit EEDAR).
Not only has the popularity of online social games like PopCap’s Facebook based Solitaire Blitz, reshaped the gaming audience, it has even reshaped why people play. Another Information Solutions Group study revealed that 80 percent of so-called “family gamers” (those with children/grandchildren under 18 that played casual games in the home) played these games with their children. Among the adult family gamers, a whopping 92 percent said that they felt the games gave them an opportunity to “bond with, or better relate to” their younger family members. Sure, lots of these players are treating themselves to periodic ten minute doses of light entertainment, but the majority of them echo the sentiments of 69 year-old retired teacher Katy Sanders of Swartz Creek, Mich. who says, “My daughter Kathleen and I trade scores back and forth. It’s a great way for us to touch base without me hassling her with ‘why don’t you call me more?’ It lets me know that she’s okay.”
The social aspects of mobile games are a huge factor in their appeal for all players. Kerry Ann King, a 44 year-old dancer and fitness instructor living in New York City, is an avid Zuma Blitz, Bejeweled Blitz and Solitaire Blitz player. While Kerry Ann loves the competition, the real rewards of playing come from the interaction with her friends, some of them new or rediscovered. A casual acquaintance from Kerry Ann’s college years has become a close friend thanks to years of Facebook chatting that started as comments on each woman’s Bejeweled Blitz scores. “I’ve learned what an amazing woman/mom/wife she’s grown up to be and I really admire her,” says this mother of four, “And all because she was playing BejeweledBlitz, too.”
Going forward, mobile and social games seem certain only to grow in popularity thanks to the support of an increasingly diverse audience, one that not only embraces the built-in social aspects of these games but one that finds new ways to make these games help people connect, often in unexpected ways. From the staff of GenCare retirement homes using Bookworm as a way for their elderly residents to connect with each other and to get over their computer-phobia to moms like Nicole Cassidy of Springfield, Pa. who discovered that Plants vs. Zombies helped her autistic son Anthony connect with other seven year-olds to Bend, Ore. teachers Heather Renz and Judy Shasek who have turned some of PopCap’s single-player games into physical, group activities that help educate their 4th graders, the new crop of gamers is driven to use games to interact with the people in their lives. As Katie Rosen, a 44 year-old loan collector and devoted Words With Friends player says, “This game keeps me connected with people I don’t usually get to talk to, it nurtures those friendships.
With the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets and a world population that spends more and more of its time online, its time to realign your impressions of what a hardcore gamer is and realize that, in actual fact, the gamers of today and tomorrow basically look like you and me.
Giordano Contestabile is executive producer for Bejeweled—PopCap Games’ flagship franchise — and oversees overall strategy and product development for Bejeweled-branded games. Since PopCap’s launch in 2000, the company’s games have been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times.