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Knowing (Your Audience) Is Half The Battle

I am in Seattle this week for Casual Connect, what the Casual Gaming Association (who hosts the event) calls ‘the most anticipated conference for the casual games industry in the United States.”  Among other things, I am here to try and understand more about what drives casual gaming behavior — why people play, how gaming fits into their lives, and where else that knowledge might be applicable.

I am in Seattle this week for Casual Connect, what the Casual Gaming Association (who hosts the event) calls ‘the most anticipated conference for the casual games industry in the United States.”  Among other things, I am here to try and understand more about what drives casual gaming behavior — why people play, how gaming fits into their lives, and where else that knowledge might be applicable.

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There is lots of good research available about casual games.  For example, one overview of the industry provided by the Casual Gaming Association reported:

  • More than 200 million people worldwide play casual games via the Internet.
  • Casual games appeal to people of all ages, gender and nationalities.
  • A majority of those who purchase casual games re over 30 and female.
  • Casual games are usually played for a short period of time, from five minutes to 20 minutes – though it’s common for people to play for hours.

In other words, almost everyone is playing casual games – and playing a lot.  But why are they playing and what about the casual gaming experience ?

In one session I attended yesterday, the CEO of FutureAds (which operates GameVance.com and PlaySushi.com, two popular casual gaming sites for ‘men, who skew younger” and ‘women, who skew older” respectively) offered some new research that noted “consumer spending on paid online and console games was sharply cut, while the amount of time spent playing online casual games games accelerated dramatically.” The research also noted “gamers show a strong preference for online portals or hubs that aggregate games, where hardcore and casual games can be easily accessed,” and that “the data suggests that gaming will follow the path of all media, whether newspapers, music or film: the inevitable migration to the more efficient, cost-effective, consumer-friendly online model.”

The assumption, of course, is that the economy is driving these changes. But what about the user?  The research is designed to help game producers and advertisers make money, not necessarily create a better experience for the consumer (though obviously those two things are closely related).   What is missing is the direct input from the audience, the explanation of context about why these shifts are occurring.  What exists is a disconnect between the people who make games and promote opportunities online and the audience they seek to engage.

If you didn’t know the statistics, didn’t read any research, and all you did was attend Casual Connect, you would the casual gaming audience was mostly male, young, largely white, pretty well-educated and earning enough money to carry fancy technology and dress well.  That’s because everyone in attendance at the conference, the people who design and program casual games, launch gaming platforms and similar, are mostly male, between the age of 25 and 45, white, pretty well-educated, carrying fancy technology, and dressed well.  There are a few women here, but not many.  There are a few boomers here, but you can count them on one hand. 

My assumption has always been that the people who are making and promoting games would look and act like the people they are selling too — because that would make it easier to align the product with the audience.  That assumption is clearly wrong.  But it also explains why there is so much room for improvement in the casual gaming space.

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Consider, for example, the panel that I attended yesterday called “What Women Really Want.”  Women represent 60% of all gamers, as many as 150 million players in a month.  And of that audience, roughly one-third are between the ages of 25-45 (according to Nielsen research).  So, a discussion featuring six women, all 35+ years old, and all hardcore casual gamers, was bound to yield some good insights.

What did they say?

  • These women play games first thing in the morning – they go online, play a game before first cup of coffee.  They go online throughout the day.  In fact, some of them admitted (or bragged) that they played between three and seven hours EACH DAY. 
  • They play mostly to compete and win — a trophy, a badge or money. One woman said “Any time you can win anything, a girl is going to want it.”  And virtual goods are just as good as real money.
  • Entertainment is the top priority, and finding something that I can play with my kids or grandkids is a bonus.
  • Bright colors and good graphics attract their attention — one said “We don’t want some Atari kind of game.”
  • Timed games are really important… you can’t walk away.  But if you give people an opportunity to pause the game, to get another cup of coffee or put in a load of laundry, they’ll take that opportunity and get distracted.
  • These women are playing more right now (during the recession) for a variety of reasons: it helps with income, people are going out less to save money and that means more time and a need to fill that time — games fill that need; and it provides a good emotional lift and sense of accomplishment when other things aren’t going well.
  • Playing games helps to establish relationships with people.  One woman regularly visits a bar called ‘gamers lounge’ where they have computer terminals to play while socializing.
  • Some play because its part of their identity. A woman on the panel noted “I don’t think playing games says anything about me other than that I play games — its part of me as a whole.  Others said “I hope they think of me as a strategic thinker, shows I am able to mult-task, that I am inquisitive.”
  • These women don’t just play for free, they spend anywhere from $65 per month on up, especially when they get a direct benefit out of it.  One woman made clear that if a few extra dollars was needed to earn a bigger reward, there would be no question that she would make that investment.

I am highlighting all this for two reasons:

1) Based on the questions asked by the audience and the discussions I overheard after the session, I was surprised by how little the game developers, platform marketers and similar knew about their audience and their motivations and behaviors around gaming.  Additionally, many of the marketers in the group seemed quick to dismiss the details that the women on the panel had shared, suggesting instead that they (the marketers) would be able to compel them to play their games or sign up for their platforms regardless.  Knowing is half the battle folks – listening to what the audience wants and really understanding why they are doing something is so important.  Choosing to ignore that information is dangerous, and arrogant — and you do so at your own peril.

2) Listening to the women on the panel speak, I gained some additional perspective on how people see games — and marketing, and entertainment, and media, and everything else – in the context of their lives.  Obviously, how I lead my life and how I use technology and engage media, is going to be different than how a 35+ year old woman does.  But beyond that, recognizing how different my life is from many of the people that I am trying to reach with my work, and on behalf of my clients, is necessary.  At least two women on the panel found their way into casual gaming after suffering some medical issues that kept them in their home and forced them to find new ways to pass the time.  All of the women who have kids balance their responsibilities as a mother with their time playing games, in many cases stealing a few minutes to play gems because its the only relaxation they get during the day.  The social capital, and income, that these women earn by playing games is not only meaningful to their lives, in some cases it is a matter of survival — its literally what gets them connected to other people and out of bed in the morning.  I don’t have any significant health issues (knock on wood), I am gainfully employed and able to support my family with my income (knock on wood).  I get to consume media and play games for fun, because I want to, to help expand my learning.  I would certainly operate differently if I couldn’t play games or be online, but I don’t think its a matter of survival. 

Its easy for me, and people who market, and sell, and work in the technology and media space, to forget what life for people who aren’t in our industry is like.  Its can be difficult.  I can be sad. There are reasons why people engage the organizations we promote, platforms we build, and products we sell, and most of the time it has nothing to do with the fact that we told a good story or offered an interesting rebate.  The reasons are personal, they are poweful, and they must be understood if we want to be succesful – and contribute something back to the world at the same time.  If we do our jobs right, and make games, or create media, or provide experiences that people enjoy, not only will be successful, we can give something of value back to our audience.

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Let’s see what I learn during day 2.

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