How little we know about who’s really playing games

Kotaku has a post up about the continued success of The Sims franchise (55 million sold as of last year). The Sims 2 still dominates the PC game charts, with one expansion pack as the top seller the week of April 16, one expansion pack at No. 4 and Sims 2 proper at No. 5. As Kotaku says,

The Sims is huge. Do you ever wonder who’s behind all these purchases? I wish I had an answer for you, because I wonder all the time. … The Sims must be performing so well because it appeals to both males and females together, and the aggregate sales means it stomps its rivals by a factor of Y. It’s quite a staggering performance, and just goes to show what a game can do if it appeals to a broader market.

I had a similar thought yesterday in line at Circuit City to get the new Pearl Jam CD. There were two 30ish women in front of me. The one actually buying stuff had a CD or 2, maybe a DVD — and one of the Namco Museum collections for PlayStation 2. And she wasn’t buying the game for a child: As the cashier gave here the receipt, she said, “I got my game!” She was also looking through the weekly circular and asked about the slim PS2, to see if it was the same thing as the one she had.

How many people are there like that out there? It must be a lot, but we just don’t know. As limiting as Nielsen TV ratings are, video games don’t even have that. We have a much clearer idea of how many people buy games versus how many watch a TV show (game sale figures are like music sales — they reflect the actual number of sales rather than audience samples from which TV ratings are extrapolated), but we know far less about who buys games.

If the industry decides this is something important they ought to know (and I think it would be, for targeted advertising purposes — hello alternate revenue streams! — and to dispel some of the lingering stereotypes that help determine what kinds of games are made), it seems like it would be an easy thing to do. The next-gen systems will all be online. This would easily allow game companies, or more likely a reputable outside company like Nielsen, to track players’ gaming. To ease fears of companies spying on you, the information would just be on an aggregate level: Nielsen would know who you are when you sign up, but if you play Resident Evil 5 they would report your playing as part of an anonymous aggregation of, say, the age, race, gender and income level of people playing the game. Capcom wouldn’t know Josh Korr is playing, and Nielsen’s computers would probably filter out that sort of identifying information before people there even looked at it.

To get gamers to go along, game companies — or the advertisers who would benefit from all this information — could offer discounts and other promotions to participants. I’d do it. Would you?

— May 3, 2006

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