Update: Now with new Nielsen figures on hardcore PC gaming below.
Nielsen's latest gaming data has been published in the form of The State of the Video Gamer (pdf). Gathering PC gaming data from the "Nielsen MegaPanel", more than 185,000 PCs were tracked by their system in the US. The findings include that "PC gaming is alive and well," showing growth, and that females aged 25 and older make up the largest block of PC gamers, responsible for 54.6% of all game play minutes in December 2008.
Those taking part in the MegaPanel have a software meter installed on their machines. The report explains, "When a program is run on a PC, the program name as well as the person(s) using the PC is collected by the meter." The tool is currently tracking over 1,777 individual PC game titles, and with over 185,000 participants, it's likely the largest and most comprehensive survey of people's PC gaming habits. Which makes their findings from December 2008 worth listening to.
"The single largest group of personal computer video game players is females ages 25 to 54, accounting for approximately 29 percent of total personal computer game players... When comparing the demographic segments percent composition to the amount of minutes the group contributed to the total minutes played, the demographic segment of females 55+ clearly stands out. The demographic break of females 55+ accounts for roughly 17 percent of the unique game players, but contribute almost 26 percent of total minutes of PC game play for December 2008."
Of course, this isn't the shock news that most the people playing Empire: Total War are grannies. The majority of the games being played that make up these numbers are card games, and most of these are those that come pre-installed with Windows. The report states, "Both males and females aged 25 to 54 tend to play the top title, Solitaire, five times a week for about 30 minutes a time." Of these lonely card players, the vast majority are white, the men working in professional or management roles, while the women are mostly either homemakers or in administrative professions.
Looking at the Top Played Games list, there's a couple of interesting appearances. Beyond the FreeCells and the Minesweepers, World of Warcraft scores a seventh place finish for both men and women aged 25-54. There's 1,201,848 male WoW players of all ages in the US alone, and a total of 1.8m players across all sectors, playing an average of 744 minutes played per week per person. Also showing up on the male list in tenth place is Half-Life 2, with 170,968 unique players four years after its release.
Clearly if we wanted to be a successful, mainstream site, all we'd talk about would be World of Warcraft, Second Life and Chessmaster. It's a good job we're hell-bent on obscurity, but all three show impressive numbers. Nielsen's stats show that Second Life is now in decline, with a significant halving of players since February 2008, while World of Warcraft just powers on like an insane bulldozer, always picking up any players it loses during the summer months by the time winter comes around. Meanwhile, PlayFirst's Chessmaster Challenge is rocketing to almost WoW numbers with around 1.5 million players.
Well, no, clearly if we really wanted to be successful we'd only write about the card games that come pre-installed on your PC. Thinking about it, I play about as much FreeCell as I do anything else. It's time for a rebrand guys.
Of course, what this data really demonstrates is quite how much money there is to be made in the casual games market. With the balance of players now tipping over to show the slight majority to be female, clearly PC gaming has discovered a deeply lucrative market that is far more age and gender inclusive than any before. There are numbers we'd still really like to see, showing the distribution of players across specialist/hardcore PC gaming, and we'll nag Nielsen to see if we can find out more. And of course, it should be remembered that all the numbers above come from a purely US-based study, and as such there are cultural considerations to be taken.
Edit: Nielsen have got back to us with some numbers focused on specialist PC gaming.
First there's a breakdown of the ages of World of Warcraft players:
Male 12-17: 11.37%
Male 18-24: 10.71%
Male 25-54 : 27.30%
Female 12-17: 4.38%
Female 18-24: 3.73%
Female 25-54: 24.94%
I think this conclusively proves that women more dramatically lose their cool as they get older. This is why I'm not asked to interpret statistics for a living.
Secondly, Nielsen have given us some information on who is playing shooters, a representatively hardcore PC gaming genre. There's a little bit of statspeak to penetrate, but it shows that once you remove the card games, hardcore PC gaming is dominated by male players, although with a significant female audience.
"If I look at a genre like 'shooter' as a more hardcore classification, looking at the players in the heavy tercile demographic breaks only (top 500 demo blocks we define by education/income, etc) males are just above 360,000 players and females are just over 75,000 players. The age break that dominates for most of these players is 25 to 54."
In the chosen sample, it shows that roughly one in six FPS players are female.