How the gaming industry is changing across the world

How the gaming industry is changing across the world
Image: James Wilson for Quartz
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On a recent Wednesday in Manhattan, game designers, lobbyists, aficionados, educators, and technologists gathered at the gleaming, glassy, modern offices of the World Economic Forum. They weren’t there to talk impeachment, Brexit, or the S&P 500.

They were there for games.

In addition to the several panels featuring experts in and adjacent to the world of gaming, multiple suits shuffled into a conference room to put on virtual-reality headsets, wield controllers, and play. They swung their limbs around as they navigated virtual forests and spoke of everything from how the Muppets are incorporating game design to how the AARP is helping senior citizens use VR to do physical therapy at home.

Fun, for sure. But the stakes are much higher than merely leveling up or defeating a King of Koopas. Billions of dollars are on the line, and the mere fact that the Davos crew now hosts gaming symposiums speaks to the literal investment in what a couple of decades ago was seen as a novelty adjacent only to pizza parlors.

Next time you’re on the subway, in an airport, in the park, or any other public space, look around. More people will be sucked into games like Candy Crush or Super Mario Run than you’d expect. (Maybe you’re taking a break from one of them now to read this.) Today, mobile games account for a third of all mobile app downloads, according to TechCrunch, and 74% of mobile consumer spending. It wasn’t that long ago that Game Boys hit our sweaty palms as a technological revolution. Now, the vast majority of consumers carry an incredibly complex gaming device around with them at all times, a device that also happens to make telephone calls.

More gamers means more investment, which means more games to play. The gaming industry is now larger than the film industry, by some measures. And gamers are making their mark on sector after sector, from education to health care to government. Our life today is far more gamified than you likely recognize; in the future, it will be even more so.

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Table of contents

The gamers | The games | The gamemakers | The problems | The future is AR, not VR | Everything is a game

The gamers

In 2018, video game sales exceeded $43.4 billion, according to the Electronic Software Association, an industry trade group. “Over 164 million adults in the United States play video games and three-quarters of all Americans have at least one gamer in their household,” according to the ESA. Roughly 60% of Americans play games daily. By some estimates, 2.4 billion people, or one third of the world’s population, gamed last year.

Even though the trope of a white, pimply teenage boy persists, gamers are increasingly female, older, and more diverse in the US and around the world. Around 70% of gamers are over 18 years old, and 46% are women. The average gamer, according to the ESA, is now 33.

As for the next generation of gamers, a lot of gaming’s growth will be in Asia. PWC predicts that China will, or possibly already has, overtaken the US as the largest video game market globally.

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The games

The new ubiquity of video games is driven in large part by smartphones. Gaming used to mean either buying a console or heading to an arcade; today, the majority of Americans have powerful gaming hardware on their person at virtually all times. Mobile is also pushing the industry forward, whether through the revamping of old-school games like Monopoly on palm-size screens, or new indie sensations climbing the App Store chart.

Here are the most-downloaded free games for iPhone in 2019, according to Apple:

And here are the most-downloaded pay games for iPhone in 2019:

Here are the top 10 best-selling console games of 2019, according to NPD, a market research firm:

Finally, if you’re curious, here are the top 10 bestselling games since 1995.

As video games have exploded on the digital front, there has also been a fascinating rise in analog gaming. Sales of tabletop and role-playing games are on the rise, be they Kickstarter-backed upstarts or mainstays like Scrabble. Thanks in part to exposure on sites like Twitch, one can now even make a living as a full-time professional Dungeon Master. Settlers of Catan, which centers on the trading of commodities such as ore and wheat, continues to make cardboard hot. And the card game Exploding Kittens was the most successful Kickstarter of all time.

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The gamemakers

College students can now major in video game design at New York University, Parsons, and other universities. These degrees are a response to increased demand for talent from the gaming industry, especially the big players mentioned below. Just as many people underestimate the size, scale, and impact of the gaming industry, not enough attention is paid to the real-life characters that are involved behind the pixels. Here are the major players:

The industry stalwarts: Microsoft, Google (Stadia), Amazon, Nintendo, Sony, and, in mobile, Zynga, are a handful of the longtime players looking to adapt and stay competitive in a market with no shortage of competition.

The investors: With an estimated $9.6 billion flowing into the gaming industry in the past couple of years, many are looking to get rich off the balloon in gaming. It’s still unclear what in this landscape is and what is Facebook. Some of the concerns about a possible tech bubble have wafted over to the game space, but there are also tangible opportunities, particularly as smartphone access grows worldwide.

The platforms: Sites like Steam and Twitch have proven critical in the recent growth of gaming, analog and digital. Steam lets users download games, including older titles. Twitch is a platform for streaming games (and much more). It’s a major part of the rise of esports (which Quartz covered in a separate field guide). Twitch has given new life to older forms of gaming, too. Consider a game like Dungeons and Dragons: During its heyday in the 1980s, you had to learn the game from a friend or sibling, or by hanging out at a local gaming store. Now you can watch D&D being played on Twitch, follow your favorite players, and interact with them before you ever order a manual.

The analog standbys: Hasbro (which owns Cranium, Parker Brothers, and Milton Bradley) and Mattel (maker of games like Uno, Balderdash, Blokus, Pictionary, and Skip-Bo, among others) are two of the brands continuing to make old-school versions of their games to keep traditionalists happy while figuring out how to expand their intellectual property onto screens.

The indie players: Once upon a time, before the internet, a game designer looking to go to market had to try and sell her idea to a big game company. Now, with crowdsourcing options like Kickstarter, game makers can recruit grassroots funders and fans. The internet has allowed games to bypass marketing middleman, allowing games like Cards Against Humanity and Settlers of Catan to flourish beyond the confines of a Walmart shelf.

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The problems

It’s not all a Mario Party. In addition to ongoing concerns about the effects of screen time, particularly on children, the rise of gaming also raises questions about data and privacy, particularly the digital trails that gamers of all ages may leave behind. Game companies can track precisely how you navigate a game, and with dizzying terms and services, it’s unclear how that data could be used. Advertisers, too, are trying to figure out how and what this means for their ability to use games as a way of selling stuff.

Many of the concerns about social media also carry over to game culture, which continues to face criticism for promoting anti-social behavior and sedentariness, to say nothing of racism and misogyny. White nationalist groups have even used online gamer communities to recruit new members.

The hope a decade ago that games could usher in a more diverse, welcoming world on and behind the screens have largely fallen flat, as the upper echelons of the gaming industry remain stubbornly white and male. Only a quarter of the gaming industry is female, transgender, or another gender identity, according to the IGDA Diversity in the Game Industry Report. A mere 13% of game-industry employees are African American, Latinx, Pacific Islanders, Indigenous, Arabian or West Asian, despite six times more than that being players. Industry insiders continue to voice concerns about the lack of diversity on screen and behind it, a topic that perhaps most notably came to the forefront with the #GamerGate controversy. And the industry continues to be plagued by accusations of sexual harassment and sexist, racist, or otherwise insensitive representations in game design.

These problems are apparent in Americans’ opinions about video games. According to Pew, 41% of US adults said at least some video games portray women poorly and 29% said some portray minorities poorly.

Clearly, the industry has a long road ahead in terms of diversity and inclusion.

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The future is AR, not VR

A few years ago, Silicon Valley was abuzz with the promise of virtual reality. The excitement was hardly new: The world first flirted with VR in the 1980s, and in 1992 Computer World predicted “affordable VR by 1994.”

Turns out, not quite.

VR hasn’t gone the way of pagers or Betamax, but for many, the high hopes of recent years have fallen flat, even with huge investment from a plethora of blue-chip brands.

A whole other guide could be written on the reasons why. Among them: The technology is cool, but the headsets are still dorky, and too costly for most households. The motion sickness problem is very real and not quite cracked. Game designers are still figuring out how best to use the medium, though small-scale projects like using VR to help homebound seniors access other worlds are a promising start.

Despite the disappointment of VR in recent years, augmented reality is humming along. The roaring success of games like Pokemon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite showcased the power of mixing gameplay with the world around us.

Unlike virtual reality, which attempts to completely immerse a gamer in another space, augmented reality, by definition, keeps one in this world while adding some fantastical elements. It turns out that we may not want to be inside Pikachu’s head, but enjoy finding a Treecko walking down the street.

AR games have also helped buffer criticism of gaming as antisocial, as Pokemon Go meet-ups and other unexpected encounters blossom worldwide.

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Everything’s a game

If you or someone you care about has ever had surgery, there’s an increasing chance their surgeon trained with a robotic game simulator.  That’s just one example of how games are already changing the world beyond recreation, in ways often hidden from plain sight. Here are some other examples:

  • Human resources training, a longtime bane of employee existence, can now use game-design tools built into a curriculum to educate staffers on topics like stereotyping and implicit bias.
  • Education, which has a relationship with gaming that dates back at least to Milton Bradley’s 19th century efforts to expand kindergarten access, is wholeheartedly embracing gaming today. Nearly three quarters of teachers now use games in their classrooms to teach kids everything from multiplication tables to empathy.
  • If you have a FitBit or any sort of health or fitness app—Strava, MapMyRun, etc.—game design tools are at play, activating your reward centers. Same goes for the way Instagram, Facebook, and other social media companies use game design principles to get you hooked on their technology.
  • Frequent flyer or credit card reward programs also often rely on game design to motivate members to fly or spend more.
  • Longtime “live gamefully” advocate Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter application and book are a direct approach to taking game design tools and applying them to everything from IVF treatments to addiction recovery to traumatic brain injuries.
  • One game released by American University Game Lab/JOLT, Factitious, is even helping people distinguish between real and fake news reports.

But are we ready for the gaming industry to infiltrate the rest of our lives? Perhaps not. Our attitudes toward video games are complicated, and far from universally positive. Despite all the time we spend gaming and all the ways gaming is influencing the world, Americans, at least, aren’t fully sold on the notion that games help us develop skills like problem-solving, teamwork, or communication.

In fact, only 11% of Americans think that most video games are a better use of time than TV.