A few years ago, a shocking statistic made the headlines: women make up 52% of gamers in the UK. While some may have been scratching their heads and muttering over the sound of rapid gunfire, others like me were not surprised that women also love to solve puzzles, potter about caves, and randomly beat pedestrians to death for having the audacity to get in the way.
The Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) statistic challenged conventional perceptions of what a gamer is. Type the words ‘video gamer’ into Google, hit images, and you’re met with an ocean of pasty, spotty-faced young boys, who, despite their best-combined efforts, can’t grow a decent moustache between them. They stare intently off into the middle-distance, their bum-fluffed adorned lips pursed in earnest concentration. What you don’t see a lot of – are women. If they are depicted at all then it’s often in a hyper-sexualised state: the gravity-defying giant jugs of Lara Croft in the early Tomb Raider games, or, my particular favourite, the latex adorned nun assassins in the much maligned Hitman Absolution, sure latex can leave you feeling hot and bothered, but it sure is easy to wipe clean, which is pretty handy if you’re an assassin. I only wonder why 47 hasn’t made the change.
The survey chalked up the rise in non-pubescent gamers to the popularity of smartphones. The IAB stated that a stunning 69% of Britons were regularly gaming. This figure makes it pretty clear that smartphones have made a huge difference and are radically changing the make up of game consumers. Smartphones have liberated games from smelly darkened bedrooms and booted them out into the daylight to go play with the other pale kids, only now the kids are just as likely to be grown ups. In the 70s and 80s, games had traditionally been confined to expensive devices like PCs and consoles, which were unlikely to be purchased just for the odd round of Solitaire. But now games are a literal tap away at any moment – almost everyone has a phone – allowing anybody to fill an idle moment crushing candy or trespassing on private property to catch Pokémon. It seems that smartphones have tapped into the once underground river of cash that was traditional willy-wanging gaming. Ancient Rome had gladiatorial combat, while we have a very different kind of Modern Warfare.
These figures no doubt will inspire louds cries of ‘but they’re not real gamers’ or ‘Farming Simulator 16 isn’t a game! It’s just slow driving and what’s the point if you can’t even shoot anybody!’ Okay, that last one is all me. I’m a shooter through and through. The point is this: one woman’s Farming Simulator is another woman’s COD. But this isn’t an either/or situation. Just because KIMOJI exists doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly going to be denied the pure joy of mowing down umpteen innocent bystanders in GTA. Gaming can and increasingly is for everybody, and for some that’s a bitter pill to swallow. They want to keep it niche and for a select few only, like those people who only love a band until they’re successful and ‘sell out’. They want to live in the Fallout 4 world before the bombs dropped and when everything was lovely and charming and primary colours filled the air. But the bombs did drop and all we were left with was scorched earth, until some smartarse started competitive base building, and then the world started to look vibrant and interesting and endlessly possible all over again. Smartphones and the enormous variety of games available on them means that everybody is invited to enjoy a new life. And just because a game isn’t a testosterone fuelled bullet fest doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile (damn you Farming Simulator 16!), or that it’s irrelevant (damn you Farming Simulator 16!). There is no best only different and differences are what makes the world and its inhabitants infinitely interesting.
Women accounting for 52% of gamers in the UK grabbed the headlines, but for me the most interesting and heartening statistic is related to the age of gamers. As of 2014, 27% of gamers were over the age of 44, and if you included over 35s that figure jumped to 44%, if you threw over 25s into the equation then the figure dramatically shot up to 62% – way over half of the UK’s game playing population does not fit the ‘boy in his bedroom’ stereotype. The IAB’s statistics show that those, like me, who grew up with gaming’s painfully slow early efforts, stuck with it, because they recognised that games are about more than just senseless violence, bizarre plot lines, or a massive pair of boxy tits – they’re memories, like songs, or movies, or books, they connect us to a particular time and place and its people. They’re a shorthand to a beautiful time we’ll never forget.