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Understanding Gaming Audiences

Elizabeth Newbury Headshot
Children playing at a laptop computer

One of the fastest growing media audiences are people who play digital games. Although there are many stereotypes around who may be a digital game player, recent reports such as the Electronic Software Association (ESA)'s 2016 Essential Facts indicate digital game players are not only growing in number but diversifying. For example, the average digital game consumer is 35 years old, and there are more women over 18 who play digital games than there are men under 18 who play. Digital games are played in 1.7 gamers in every household in the United States, suggesting that we may need to reboot who we think of as a "gamer." Due in part to their popularity, digital games and their audiences deserve our attention.

Why Digital Games?

What motivates such a diverse population to consume digital games? It is a combination of not only characteristics of the medium, but characteristics of what people gain from the experience. First, digital games have the advantage of being an interactive medium. Like a chose your own adventure book, digital games offer the user choices that directly impacts the outcome of the experience. This differentiates them from other forms of media, like broadcast television, which do not have the same sort of co-collaborated narrative developed between the consumer and the medium. This changes the experience entirely, and is one aspect that leads to psychological immersion (such as cognitive flow) to occur.

Second, with the growth of online gaming, people use digital games for more than just entertainment. Research studies, particularly in the groundbreaking work of T. L. Taylor, Nick Yee, Dmitri Williams and many more, have long argued that people play for a diversity of reasons, ranging from a desire for competition, to socialize with people, to explore new worlds, and to develop skills. Academic research in game studies suggests that, counter to popular beliefs that games are used for escapism or might be a waste of time, players can develop social skills and technical skills as a result of playing digital games.

While it is true that one of the shortcomings of some digital games is the reliance on gratuitous violence, this is not true for all games. A common misunderstanding about the digital game industry, and digital games themselves, is thinking of games as a monolithic genre. Much as with books, digital games can be designed for a range of purposes, from entertainment to education. For the most part, people who play digital games reap benefits from playing digital games, but it may be genre specific to how games impact our day to day life.

Regardless of genre, the experience of playing a digital game impacts us. The question is whether this can be a positive or a negative influence. In the same study by ESA, 75% of frequent gamers believe that digital games provide mental stimulation or education. In their journal article, The Benefits of Playing Video Games, Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels illustrate some of the positive impact digital games can impart on individuals, such as cognitive benefits, like enhanced creativity, to emotional benefits, such as being able to flexibly modulate to new experiences. From a social perspective, research has also indicated that playing digital games may have a positive correlation to political and civic engagement, although the universality of these findings is still in question (see Ferguson and Garza, 2011).

Serious Games

One avenue where positive impacts of games are demonstrated is in the field of serious games research. What differentiates "serious games" from other forms of games is their focus on using the design of games to educate the user or, as Tarja Susi, Mikael Johannesson and Per Backlund argued ten years ago, are games designed for something other than entertainment. While typically you might see these in classrooms, serious games are not limited to a school environment. Two significant fields in which serious games are growing are healthcare and the military, as the opportunity to simulate high risk situations in a digital environment affords not only the trainee with a safe space to learn, but the trainer to expose the trainee to a wide breadth of scenarios. This provides flexibility in what sort of simulations training can provide, and with the increasing ease of accessing virtual reality (VR) this is likely a sector we will continue to see growth in.

Serious games also provide flexibility in understanding abstract concepts. Take for example the Wilson Center's own The Fiscal Ship game. Partnering with the Brookings Institute, this game provides players a glimpse into what it might take to get the United States out of debt. Using the narrative of a ship, we invite players to steer the nation out of turbulent water and to a better horizon. This means setting agenda priorities, and try to make choices that positively impact those priorities. To steer the nation to a secure future, the player has to decide what to spend or cut. For each choice, they are presented with arguments for or against the cut -- like a micro policy brief. The idea is to simulate the myriad of choices available in the federal budget process, and to simulate what it may take to steer us out of national debt. While this does not provide the same rich depth as reading a finite analysis about the process of creating the federal budget, it provides another avenue of learning: direct experience.

We wanted to give players the opportunity to not just see the breadth of options out there for federal fiscal spending, but learn about them. This is what differentiates serious games from games with an educational theme. After playing a serious game, users will walk away gaining from the experience. In the case of the Fiscal Ship, the game provides a grounded experience from which to begin understanding the larger policy implications of what goes into the process of creating the federal budget. In simulations around healthcare or military training, the user can experiment with different choices and learn from the experience. The player walks away with (we hope) a positive experience, impacted by the game not just in learning about the topic but with the development of a new skillset.

The success of serious games is, in part, because we have a growing nation of digital game players. Serious games afford us the opportunity to experience, learn, and develop skills in a way not previously widely accessible. By giving audiences direct experience with new learning environments, we capitalize on the positive impact that games can have and what already motivates people to play video games. As a medium for education and training, it is one of the best tools we have to reach the widest audiences possible.

About the Author

Elizabeth Newbury Headshot

Elizabeth M H Newbury

Director of the Serious Games Initiative; Senior Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program
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