The Generation Game: Gaming and the Grey Market

17/12/2012 12:02 GMT | Updated 17/12/2012 12:02 GMT

Did you know that according to a recent study, 55% of social gamers in the UK and US are now female? It's becoming a well-known fact that women are gaming more than they ever did in the past as the gaming landscape has diversified, both in terms of more accessible content and the consumerisation of computing. Whilst developers have started catching on, the industry has a way to go in order to be fully up-to-speed with the intersection of women and gaming. So, how exactly do different demographics perceive gaming and what is the generational effect that is caused by these viewpoints?

Christmas is approaching fast, and when I look at my daughter and her friends' lists to Santa this year, it really strikes me as to just how technologically advanced we've become as a society. Tech is now commonplace on youngsters' Christmas wishlists, with the suped-up Furbies and child-friendly tablets no doubt set to put lots of smiles on faces the world over on Christmas morning - as Grandpa in the armchair looks on in bewilderment. But is that actually so?

The digitised world of both work and play has affected grandparents in many ways. For starters, it's a lot harder to encourage the grandchildren away from the gizmos they're glued to. One has to remember that when many of today's grandmothers were youngsters, console games hadn't even been conceived, let alone become commonplace in the homes of virtually every middle class family - via Santa's sleigh! The grandmothers of a couple of generations ago were entertaining themselves with spinning tops and hula hoops, and introducing their granddaughters to the new kid on the block back in 1959, Barbie. The challenge of keeping the tech-savvy youth entertained and out of mischief has encouraged many senior women to learn how to use new devices themselves, so they don't feel so disconnected from their loved ones. With savings to spend and a 'living for the moment' attitude, they won't be left behind - the over 65s are now spending in excess of £100 billion a year and the so-called 'grey market' of silver surfers is only set to expand as by 2020 the over 50s will eventually form the majority of Britain's population!

As more grandparents have cottoned on to gaming with their family members, and the majority do so via consoles or desktops, they have become comfortable with the dynamics, and subsequently its benefits. Research suggests that elderly gamers can counter depression, improve balance, exercise and mental health as a result of plugging in and getting their game on. ICM Research recently found that 50% of gamers aged 45+, play games to keep mentally fit. Many nursing homes are now introducing Nintendo Wiis and are replacing traditional Bingo nights with online gaming competitions. It's great to think that individuals who loved sports and energetic activities in their younger years can now replicate these in later life through the artificial realities created in the thoroughly consumer friendly titles such as Wii Sports.

For grandmothers, gaming has also helped to bridge the technology gap in their lives. Games with simple navigation, like virtual Sudoku, can be an OAP's first foray into the "online" world and help teach them to use a mouse, a touchpad or a touchscreen. Slightly more advanced senior ladies have delved into the world of casual games via Facebook and enjoy playing puzzle games like Words With Friends for the challenge and mental stimulation and its social elements. These experiences with technology spill over to other devices and help older women feel better about purchasing e-readers, tablets, and other devices, and what's probably most important to them - not becoming out of touch with the younger members of their families. It won't be long before the days are long-gone when tween girls and boys wrote 'Thank you' letters to their elders after Christmas and birthdays passed.

Generally speaking, the girl tweens of Generation Z are tech-savvy and fun-loving, and developers have caught on to this notion. Unlike their male counterparts, girls often opt for intensely social games that feature characters. As I've blogged about before, for girls gaming is most often about connecting with like-minded peers, acting out their future lives and experimenting with different styles and trends, rather than head-to-head competition. If competitive elements are involved with the game, such as posting high scores, it should be done within the framework of these social games and negative points shouldn't be awarded (scores that can only go up). Of course, tween girls like healthy competition as well, but are also engaged by non-competitive gameplay that helps them to develop self-esteem and feelings of self-worth - two things which are so critical at this stage in their lives.

Something that really promotes these positive factors is role-playing the different roles they see exhibited in their daily lives. Daily role models are so important so whether gaming offers youngsters a chance to act out their family members' jobs or routines (be it involving saving lives in a Hospital, exercising at the gym, feeding household pets or shopping) these things can translate brilliantly into successful online game themes.

It really is clear to me that the appeal of gaming is now both transcending gender and spanning the generations, and this is only set to continue in 2013. The implications of this for the gaming industry is that as more women and girls venture into online gaming and spend more time doing so, developers and marketers need to understand that a certain psychology exists not just for women as a whole but that different age groups approach gaming in different ways. If the industry can seize the opportunity, identifying and promoting the benefits that exist for gamers both young and old, the more likely they are to grow these coveted audiences. I'm sure this Christmas many a family will be unwrapping games that they'll enjoy playing together - across the generations.