Ofcom, the media regulator poised to start regulating video games, has released its latest annual report on media usage which suddenly registers games as something that most people enjoy. I say ‘suddenly’ because Ofcom’s 2020 report did not mention games at all.
For over 15 years Ofcom has run large-scale consumer surveys of our television, internet, media and device choices. Games were included in all but one year. This year, Ofcom found that 92 per cent of 16-24 year olds play games – more than have a social media account. Last year, apparently, they didn’t even ask the question.
Few games companies monitor this research. It’s just another market survey right? Not quite. Last year the government announced that Ofcom’s remit will be expanded to regulate online harms from the internet, social media and games. Data like this will be used by politicians, policymakers and mainstream media to validate and influence policy.
So, when this survey finds that the financially vulnerable (meaning large families with low household income) are more likely to play games on any device (75 per cent) and to do so online (45 per cent), politicians on Select Committees concerned about so-called Gaming Disorder and Loot Boxes could latch onto the word ‘vulnerable’ and pressure Ofcom do something about it.
Historically Ofcom’s knowledge of games has lagged behind that of other media, from which most of their staff derive. A wider definition of games this year suggests that knowledge is improving and about time. It’s now impossible to ignore a sector with record growth in both sales and recruitment during the pandemic.
Ironically, I’ve long thought that Ofcom’s annual reports have consistently under-reported games usage, regularly finding lower penetration of gaming into households than other surveys.
We concluded that how you ask the public, especially parents and women, about their or their children’s play must have lacked the necessary nuance to get accurate data.
For example, games companies’ own player data shows that older female players represent a huge proportion of gamers but many of these players won’t self-identify as ‘gamers’ in surveys.
Some data is still suspect. Is it really only 70 per cent of 5-15 year olds that play games? Not in my experience. I’d be amazed if the true number wasn’t higher given the plethora of cheap and accessible platforms on which games are now played (as found by other surveys).
Have they compensated for the fact that some parents regret or are embarrassed by their children’s play and might under-report it? Hard to say but quite possibly not.
Ofcom’s new powers to tackle child exploitation or force companies to “take sensible steps to protect their users” may include fines of up to £18m and even the scope to impose criminal sanctions on managers for non-compliance in future. With a pretty febrile atmosphere in Parliament around games, we all have an interest in ensuring that our industry’s first ever regulator gets its data right.
Rick is a veteran games strategist and CEO of the BGI, a charity which runs the National Videogame Museum, Games Education Summit and co-founded Games Careers Week