How old is too old to play video games?

family gaming

Since their inception, video games have been seen by the public as somewhat "childish", a pastime reserved for the same shelf as action figures and pogs (remember pogs?). But all of that started in a different generation, when the video game business was hardly a business at all. Now it’s an $11+ billion a year industry, a generation and a half-in, and sporting some of the most modern graphics and interface technology to date. If video games have changed this much, shouldn’t the gamers change demographically as well? And this begs the question that many current young professionals and middle-age gamers are asking themselves: How old is too old to play video games?

Most gamers have a quick and decisive response to this question that I would tend to agree with: "You can never outgrow video games." And certainly there are a number of elderly gamers who can attest to this fact (the ESA said that in 2009, 25% of gamer, including computer and mobile gamers, were over the age of 50). But it’s hard to look at gaming from an objective perspective and say that there isn’t some element of escapism or fantasy that predisposes the medium to attract children over adults. Even given some incredibly mature titles like from the Grand Theft Auto series, there’s undeniably something whimsical and innocently fantastic about getting deeply involved in a video game, both as a core and a casual gamer. And as these numbers from an ESA report show, the vast majority of games (84%) are rated Teen, Everyone, or Everyone 10+. These numbers are almost certainly due to the more kid-friendly of the three next-gen consoles, the Wii, and its juggernaut sales, but that’s not to say that there aren’t older, core gamers who enjoy a good E-rated game (see New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Smash Brothers Brawl). So if sales don’t unlock the keys the gaming age kingdom, what will?

sales by rating

Well, here’s another statistic that might surprise you and simultaneously shed some light on the situation. The average age of gamers today is 35 years old. No kidding. And that number has been rising for years, ever since the Atari 2600 began to really bring video games into American homes (not that it was the first gaming console, but rather just the first largely successful one). And that was back in 1977, which would make the average 10 year old of the day a 43 year old today. But most players who grew up with the Atari, and subsequently the Nintendo Entertainment System of the 80’s, and the Playstation One of the 90’s regarded gaming as a fad, something to do in their spare time, some of which you could share with friends. Nothing revolutionary. It was mostly the children of the 80’s, in fact, who brought gaming to where it is today (well, mostly their parents who bought the games for them I guess), and the children of the 90’s who picked up on these cues and became the first generation to truly experience the kind of depth and breadth that gaming had to offer (see PSOne, SNES, N64, Rumble technology, towards the end). And of course PC gaming improved at a similar pace throughout this time, drawing a wide pool of very loyal console-free gamers.

Given this very simplified and abbreviated 20th century account of gaming, it would stand to reason, then, that the average age of gamers be around 35 years, because if you take away the age at which they first got into gaming, that places them around the same era as these early momentous video game innovations. (Still with me?) However, in order for that logic to follow, those original gamers would have had to stick around, and gamers would be added in subsequent years at the same rate and at the same age. And, as it turns out, though the data varies, it does even out to just that.

So why do we care? Because what this tells us is that the past two generations, the X’s and Y’s, and the current generation Z’s, are the first generations to grow up with video games, and consequently become gamer adults. And as social ideas shift and change surrounding technology in general, it seems to be getting more and more acceptable to play games in your middle and later age. Back when NES was the big news in gaming, there were barely any adults who saw video games as a worthwhile activity, and even fewer who might accept its credibility as a means of expression. Those born as part of Generation Y or Z were the first to grow up in a culture where the young adults of Gen. X made adult gaming seem acceptable. As a part of Gen. Y myself, I can remember getting an N64 on Christmas morning and trying to explain to my parents as an 8 year old why it was so wicked awesome, and why it mattered if I collected all 120 stars. Their bewildered looks told me that I was part of something unique to my era, almost as fresh and new as the radio at its introduction, though the art had a solid decade and a half prior to refine itself to that point.

Teen dude video game

The question I ask myself now, and that many unsure gamers ask themselves, is, "How old is too old to keep this 8 year old’s enthusiasm alive?" I think the answer will always be different dependent on who you ask. In researching this subject, I came across countless forum posts from 33 year old husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, and single adults who wanted to know if it was acceptable within the views of society that they continue to play video games, so long as it doesn’t ruin your marriage or consume your life to the point where it negatively impacts the positive things you do. Most of these posts were on gamer forums, so the answer 99% of the time was yes, given those conditions.

But I think the point that most of them are struggling to understand is that this is probably the first time in history that the answer actually is yes. And one can only imagine that this will be increasingly the case as the current generations grow up with even higher quality games. Video games are becoming just another board game or story-time (I know, blasphemy). The medium of gaming is one of the most interactive forms of imaginative, creative entertainment, so it makes sense with the current resources of the industry, and the loyalties that titles and consoles build with younger gamers, and the fact that 68% of American households play computer or video games, that it becomes acceptable for adults as well as kids.

Truly, there’s no right answer to this question right now, probably because the answer is based on a social idea which can be near impossible to pinpoint. But what can young gamers now expect their lives to be like in 10-20 years and how will gaming change in and for society? Well, what do you think?

[For a really interesting report from 2009 by the ESA concerning gaming statistics, follow this link. Also, a special thanks to Martha Crabtree for her inspiration on this article.]


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Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

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