Stephen spent 174 days in the survival adventure game from The Molasses Flood called The Flame in the Flood, logging over 136 miles on the river in the game. Eventually he ran out of procedurally generated river and resources to scavenge. He drifted along the widening river until it became a virtual lake, ultimately starving to death.
It was, of course, not his first playthrough. He had poked and prodded the systems in the game over playthroughs that lasted entire days, and that didn’t even take into account the many hours outside the game he spent thinking about solutions and discussing his options with his wife.
The stunning graphics invited him in, and the aesthetic made him stay. Lewis Gordon’s in depth Waypoint article delves into what led 63 year old Stephen to spend so much time in the game before moving on to Firewatch and other games. Turns out it tickled an old gaming itch that dated back to the original Myst in the 1990’s. Stephen had played other games back in the day, but it was the beautiful graphics and the environment that drew him in and kept him there. Late nights working on those puzzles in Myst had re-emerged as late nights trying to survive in the procedurally generated end times of The Flame in the Flood.
Stephen is far from the only retiree spending late night hours exploring digital worlds. In a study published in the July 2013 edition of Computers in Human Behavior, researchers discovered that almost a third of seniors in their test group played some form of digital game each week. Over 17 percent of them played every day. This included playing Wii Bowling at the senior center as well as various puzzle and solitaire games. The average age of their test group was 77, meaning they were born in the 1930’s – well before video games reached any level of popularity in modern society.
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reports that as of 2016 the average video game player is 35 years old and has been playing video games for 13 years. If almost a third of seniors who did not have access to video games in arcades or via home consoles are playing digital games now, it suggests that future demand by seniors for video games will only increase.
The interesting thing about aging gamers is that their gaming tastes seem to change as they age. Fast twitch first person shooter games seem to fade as the reflexes decline with age, for example, keeping the median age of Call of Duty players fairly low. While it is hard to get direct demographic data on gamers, the anecdotal data trends toward more niche and unique experiences. It seems that older gamers don’t want to play COD 42: Wheelchairs over the Rhine, they would rather play something more story driven like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney or Firewatch. They seem especially drawn to games where experience or reasoning offers more of an advantage than reflexes.
This all points to the aging gamer population slowly opening up new markets for video games. Games that foster a sense of community for those who don’t get out much anymore, for example, like a virtual bridge club that just happens to play other games instead of bridge. Games that make you think, letting seniors take their brains out for a spin instead of their arthritic thumbs. Games that provide a sense of accomplishment for those folks reaching the age where just getting out of bed in the morning requires real effort.
Most folks are uncomfortable confronting their own mortality, but it might be worth taking a moment to think about how aging will affect your own gaming habits. At what age will your fine motor skills have degraded to the point that FPS games are no longer fun? When will the joys of platforming and the feeling of accomplishment when you make that particularly tricky jump be replaced with frustration because it takes too many tries to clear the level?
Some will turn away from games, rather than confront their declining skills but others will just seek out different reward systems from their games. The good thing for Indie developers is that those that stay are far more likely to look for that unique experience that smaller developers can afford to pursue because they don’t need to sell 10 million copies to sustain the company. Maybe all you have to do to find your audience is wait for them to grow old enough to appreciate the more nuanced things in life.
Now get off my lawn and go make a game.