The invisible gamers

I grill my friends relentlessly about their gaming habits.

I have a pretty good network of close friends and acquaintances, and they share many traits that make them attractive to the gaming industry. Most are in their mid-30s, and they have a pretty good disposable income. They may game for an hour or two a night after the kids go to sleep. They upgrade their PCs every few years, and buy two games or so a month.

And they’re completely invisible to the industry outside of their gaming purchases.

How many of them are there?

It’s tricky to track the number of these “invisible gamers,” but my gut says there are way more of them than there are of us. And by “us,” I mean people who read gaming news on a daily basis, and talk about games on our social networks. We read reviews the day they come out and argue about review scores. We may post comments on articles like this one, and talk to developers on Twitter.

We’re loud; everyone knows we’re here.

Many people I know, on the other hand, just play games. They may look up a review or two when a new game comes out, but they look at commenting on articles or arguing about review scores the same way most of us look at our parents talking to the TV when a presidential candidate they don’t like is on.

This is the gamer that companies try to reach by running trailers in movie theaters, because the reach of gaming media is much more limited than we like to admit. We speak to the people who are engaged in the hobby enough to care about the day-to-day news of gaming, but these invisible gamers aren’t reading many articles about the games they buy. They don’t interact with the hobby on a regular basis outside of their purchases and actual play time.

They may even see the maelstrom of controversy over a review score as something actively keeping them from interacting more directly with the hobby. I often talk to people about the daily arguments in gaming, and they look at me like I’m making stuff up. They’re adults who don’t really care about the Metacritic score of a game; they just want something that’s fun that they can play with their friends, or a game they can spend some time with alone at the end of the day.

They fascinate me because I don’t reach them, outside of my personal friends sometimes reading my columns to be polite. And there are millions of people like them, who will see my N7 hoodie and ask if there’s ever going to be a new Mass Effect, and I’ll tell them what’s going on with the release date. They’re the ones who play Call of Duty without watching every trailer, and go into retail stores just to browse and see what’s new.

The invisible gamers are the reason I’m leery of calling the number of dislikes on a trailer any indication of actual consumer behavior. The majority of the people who will buy either the new Call of Duty or Battlefield game are likely unaware that a movement for likes or dislikes on YouTube exists for either game, and they may not have even seen the trailers yet.

They don’t interact with the hobby on a regular basis outside of their purchases and actual play time

I asked my Twitter followers if they thought that the like-to-dislike ratio on these games meant that Battlefield was going to outsell Call of Duty this year, and next to no one said yes. Fans may post stats about each trailer as evidence that one will do better than the other, but the person making funny memes about Activision isn’t speaking for a large movement of gamers in relation to the size of the market. We’re all throwing pebbles into the ocean and pretending the ripples are waves.

The vocal gamers are the visible upper crust of the hobby, but those who move silently hold most of the power, simply due to their buying habits. Publishers don’t really care if we don’t like them on Twitter or argue about them on the forums; they care where people spend their money.

So I grilled my friends, who are a limited and self-selected representative of the silent majority of people who just buy and enjoy games. How did they hear about Stellaris? Apparently, many people on their Steam friends list were playing, and they looked up the trailer and liked what they saw, so they bought it. How did they get hooked on Overwatch? It was promoted on Battle.net and they saw it when they logged in to play Diablo. If they’re bored, they may just look at the new and top-selling games on Steam and pick something to buy on a whim.

But they don’t interact with sites like this one, they’re not leaving comments on trailers, and they’re certainly not arguing on Twitter. They’re living their lives and playing games in their spare time. For me, and for much of the industry, they’re completely invisible until they interact via purchases.

It’s important to know that they’re out there, and that those of us who are loud about our habits and interact vocally with the industry may not match them in size or importance. We don’t speak for what could be the silent majority of gamers, and likely never will. Marketing budgets in the millions are spent trying to reach them, and the vocal minority of gamers may understate their own importance simply due to the fact these silent folks don’t exist in a meaningful way outside of our real-life social circles.

Whatever controversy boils up today, these invisible gamers may be completely ignorant of it, and are likely happier with the hobby due to that fact. The tempest may feel big, but the teapot may be much smaller in relation to the actual market than we like to admit.

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