To this day, my father still tells people stories of me “kicking his grandma’s butt in Mario at only two years old!” I remember taking turns playing the original Zelda with my dad, slowly discovering hidden secrets and marvels built into this early industry monolith, until we finally beat Ganon one late afternoon. I was only four years old. Now I’m more of an aging gamer and things are…different.
Next year, I’ll finally turn 30. I’ve gamed for nearly three decades and I have so many stories I could share. Few would understand, let alone appreciate, these stories, from outside of a forum like Gamespace or MMORPG.com. I used to pretend to be sick as a teenager so I could stay home from school and play Ultima Online with my friends. I would frequently skip nights of sleep so I could do just one more quest chain in Baldur’s Gate 2. My brothers and I would duke out our arguments in Super Smash Bros. and then play co-op on Age of Empires 2. The memories are numerable and, in retrospect, all of them fond.
Today, my time for gaming is severely limited. Like many others in my age-group, our free time is diminishing by the day — and, yet, the gaming industry continues to grow. More people are drawn in and more time is spent by them discovering the magic of video gaming. Somehow, I’ve shifted from being part of the hardcore group of competitive gamers to sitting on the sidelines, relishing the little bit of time I can watch someone else play on Twitch.
Like many my age, my obligations are aplenty. I work a full-time job, am finishing up a graduate degree, and I somehow manage to find time to workout seriously in hopes of winning a physique competition one day. Even still, I don’t have children like many of my peers. I log onto Facebook and see my childhood friends and high school classmates getting married and having kids left and right. Hell, I just got married last month myself, but my wife is understanding of my passion for gaming and will even sit down to the occasional match of Mario Kart with me. Life is busy and finding the time to seriously game like I used to seems like a remote possibility… maybe when I retire? If you’re anything like me, you’ve dreamed of retiring next year and making a living being one of those Twitch gamers.
I look at the younger generation and I don’t envy the time they have to play — they deserve it. Soak it up like I used to. Some of the best stories you’ll ever hear will come from a video game. Meanwhile, it’s fun to look at the older generation and realize I will be in their shoes one day, amazed at how far gaming has come. But for today, I look at the industry as a whole, the way it has evolved, and wonder where there is space for me (and people like me) to continue enjoying video games the same way nostalgia wants us to.
There is no doubt that revenue models, gaming archetypes, and platforms have changed drastically. The companies that have stuck around longest have been the most agile in meeting shifting consumer demands and reconstructing internal business models. As an aside, in my opinion this is one of the reasons people are so harsh on Nintendo — yes, they eventually come around, but they like to stick to something good just a little too long. But I digress.
Those of us, the aging gamer, that still want to find time to fit gaming into our busy lives have to prioritize it. Sometimes for our own sanity, we need to stop for a moment, sit back, and do something we enjoy. For me, it is increasingly difficult to find the time to boot up my PC, load up a game, get into voice chat, and play a game that didn’t used to feel like so much work. To feel like it is worth the effort, I need two or three hours, and when I have that much time, I’d rather work on a paper for school or go to the gym.
Gaming for me has, sadly, been relegated mostly to on-the-fly mobile interactions, typically amounting to 5- or 10-minute sessions. To make matters worse, shifting business models means most mobile games are free-to-play gambling mechanisms with built-in barriers compelling you to pull out your credit card — not exactly my idea of fun, let alone hardcore. It’s tough to feel engrossed by a game’s content when it stops you to ask for $4.99 to continue.
When the Nintendo Switch came out, I was so excited. It took five weeks post-launch to get my hands on one and I felt like I was flung back twenty years in time… I felt like a kid again, remembering unwrapping my N64 for Christmas and spending entire weekends playing with my brothers. Why was this such a big deal to me? Well, most of my gaming now was mobile anyway, and the Switch gave me a way to seriously play favorites at my own leisure, whether on the couch, in bed, or traveling on an airplane. To put it into perspective: before my Switch, I might get 15 minutes total of wholly unsatisfactory mobile gaming on my phone each day; since my Switch, I’ve logged 150+ hours in Breath of the Wild alone, and dozens more in other titles. I can’t wait for the next big releases.
Again, I digress. But there is a purpose for all of my reminiscing and storytelling. I’m not here to sell you a Switch or talk about how hard I have it because I can’t game like a kid anymore! I’m here because I want to discuss some of the things I think appeal to different generations and maybe even suggest what I think is required to draw all of them in together.
When I think about the younger generation, kids and young adults that didn’t know what it was like to not have the Internet, I’m reminded of myself when I was younger. I greatly valued competitive play and player-vs-player content. When I wasn’t looking for a (digital) fight, I sought out extensive stories that drew me in. No doubt hormones played a role in seeking to assert myself in a global (or local) community of gamers; no doubt, also, that my abundant free time contributed to engaging with 100-hour sagas. If you ask me, the younger generation mostly values Content and Mastery. Of course this blanket statement won’t apply to all; I only observe that, for me, things like min/maxing specs and stats has become less important as an aging gamer.
For my own generation, the adults gamers, we value simply finding the opportunity to immerse ourselves, even if it’s only for a moment in time. Because those moments are increasingly rare, portability and accessibility are important. The ability to play cross-platform, jumping from PC or console to mobile, means greater engagement and more satisfaction derived from our gaming sessions. No, I don’t have the time to sink 300 hours into Skyrim anymore, but you can sure as hell get me hyped by telling me I will soon be able to take it with me on my Switch. My hypothesis is that the best way to drive interest for my generation is by telling us we can have a meaningful gaming experience without the commitment associated with abandoning other obligations.
With older generations, desires are a bit more nebulous. Some people have never been exposed to gaming; meanwhile, some grew up with gaming and have varying levels of interest as they’ve watched it spring from nothingness into a full-fledged industry. Interestingly, I observe that most of my older peers are more likely to play a simple mobile or flash game on PC than to seek out an engrossing story. My parents certainly don’t pay attention to when a new XStationU is released, and my bet is your parents probably don’t either. With that said, I’ve also observed the greatest awe in this generation when you show them something new. I watched my father-in-law lose himself in virtual reality and love every moment of it. No, he’s not the type to sit and play for three hours straight — but give him 15 minutes to admire the innovation of modern gaming and he’s satiated. I think this is one reason why the Wii did so well with this age-group. Remember, this is a demographic that watched the rise and recession of arcade gaming.
To summarize, I think our values in gaming change just as our values as individuals do when we age. As younger gamers, we seek out extensive content and the ability to master it. Adults seek out convenience — sell us a small slice of nostalgia and make it portable and/or cross-platform, please! Older gamers are mostly looking for a great experience, and it may not even necessitate an extensive adventure.
Here’s to anticipation for where the industry goes next. Part of me looks back and misses what I remember growing up. The other part can’t wait to boot into the next Witcher, Matrix-style, and pwn some monsters with my bare hands, even if I have to wait until I’m a great-grandpa to do so.