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Long regarded as the preserve of antisocial teenage boys, video games have increasingly become a mainstream entertainment industry that appeals to women, families and even the elderly in Europe.

However, video games continue to be perceived more as a toy in many Southern and Eastern European countries, where children remain the major market.

Key trends

  • Girl gamers are gaining ground;
  • Older consumers lose their gaming virginity;
  • Gamers in Northwestern Europe tend to be older;
  • Historical variations in economic development rates are key to understanding market differences.

Commercial opportunities

Commercial opportunities arising from this trend are proliferating:

  • Video game advertising, where advertisements are inserted into the gaming environment (on trackside hoardings in a car racing game, for example) is becoming increasingly popular;
  • There is growing potential for games consoles to be used as multimedia hubs, enabling users to stream films and music to their TVs, chat with friends and access the internet;
  • Rising sales of video game hardware and software may also be driving demand for such complementary goods as flat screen TVs and surround-sound systems;
  • Video games provide plenty of promotional opportunities for such packaged food segments as soft drinks and snack foods, as gamers could be encouraged to snack while they play, just as they currently do while watching films.

Background

Although Europeans have been playing video games since the 1970s, the market was largely confined to younger males. However, as this and subsequent generations have aged, the market’s demographics have broadened (with many parents now playing with their children), while hardware and software manufacturers have redoubled their efforts to attract non-traditional gamers to the market.

Girl gamers are gaining ground

Like their US counterparts, European gamers are overwhelmingly male. Many seek to explain this difference in terms of the instinctive territoriality of the human male: According to Professor Allan Reiss of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford University, “(males) historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species… Most of the computer games that are really popular with men are territory and aggressive-type games.”

Some players in the industry, most notably Nintendo, have attempted to exploit this difference by creating games that are more appealing to women, such as Wii Sports and the Sims series. Indeed, designing hardware and software that went beyond the traditional audience of male gamers has been key to the huge success of Nintendo’s DS and Wii handheld and home consoles.

This has facilitated a surge of interest in gaming among European women. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the past women were much more likely to play games if they have brothers who do so. However, many female gamers (often dubbed ‘girl gamers’) bristle at suggestions that they have picked up the gaming bug from men: According to one blogger, “I have two X chromosomes, I game FAR more than my husband does, and I’m the one who buys the guitar controllers.”

Older consumers lose their gaming virginity

The Wii has also proven to be a hit with older consumers, with many pensioners valuing the opportunities it provides to keep both body and mind active. According to Sue Brown is moderator of Wiitalk, a UK-based Wii forum with 15,000 members, “Thirty- and fortysomethings make up a massive chunk of the forum… There also quite a few people on the forum who are in their sixites.”

According to 86-year-old retirement home resident Betty Dennis, “I am really enjoying it. It’s given me the opportunity to socialise with the residents and staff and to get to know people better,” while 76-year-old Jim Fisher maintains that “It’s much better (than TV), it’s more interesting and everybody gets involved.”

Gamers in Northwestern Europe tend to be older

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of European gamers as a group is their diversity. In Northwestern European markets (particularly the UK), gamers tend to be relatively old, often in their late 20s, early thirties or even older.

This is because video games have been a popular pastime in these countries since the advent of the Atari 2600 in the late 1970s. For example, the Swedish Atari Club continues to host an annual Nordic Atari Show whose attendees are mostly in their thirties. Having grown up with video games, they have continued to play them as adults. Partly as a result of this, a survey conducted by Deloitte found that a quarter of UK households now own a Wii.

In contrast, gamers in Southern and Eastern Europe tend to have a younger age profile. There is a lack of hard data on gaming habits in Eastern Europe, but anecdotal evidence suggests that half of gamers in Poland are aged between 20 and 35, while 30% are teens and 20% are younger children. As in Spain, there is a dearth of older gamers in Poland. The relative immaturity of the Polish market is also reflected in the fact that PCs, rather than consoles, continue to be the most popular gaming platform.

Historical variations in economic development rates are key to understanding market differences

These age differentials are largely a function of historical economic differences: Income levels were much lower in such countries as Spain and Poland during the 1980s, so only a small number of households could afford to buy either the home computers or consoles required to play games than in the more affluent UK, German, French, Benelux and Scandinavian markets.

As a result, it is unsurprising that anecdotal evidence suggests that the average age of those playing video games in UK was 33 in 2007, while the average Spanish gamer was just 26. As a result, video games tend to be perceived more as toys for children in Spain and Poland, whereas in the UK they are increasingly accepted as a hobby for adults.

Outlook

With the credit crunch encouraging cheap entertainment at home as part of the cocooning trend, the popularity of video gaming with European consumers is unlikely to wane during the coming years. Just as Hollywood enjoyed its “Golden Age” during the Depression, the current economic downturn could lead to a boom in countercyclical growth as the lower end of the European gaming market. For example, sales of video games hardware and software grew by 22% year-on-year in France during 2008, in spite of an increasingly difficult economic environment towards the end of the year.

Furthermore, less developed southern and eastern markets are likely to mature, with a higher proportion of adult players. Finally, as gaming becomes more mainstream mobile phones, particularly the iPhone, are also likely to grow in popularity as a platform.

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