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What has happened to the gamer demographic?

It’s not your imagination: Gamers are getting younger these days.

In fact, if 2012’s “Essential Facts” briefing from the Entertainment Software Association is to be believed, they’ve gotten substantially younger from this time last year, with the average American gamer losing seven years and the population of gamers under the age of 18 going from 18 percent to 32 percent. Did a lot of older gamers die in the last year, or is something else happening to skew the results…?

Thankfully (for many reasons, not just the health and livelihood of the elder gaming population of the country), it’s the former; Ars Technica reveals that the significant difference in results between the 2011 and 2012 surveys – which, at first glance, appears to take the gaming population back towards 2005 levels of market penetration – is the result of a change of verbage and classification within the survey itself. Until this year, non-gamers were removed from answering the survey using a screening question that asked “Do you have a video game console in your home or do you have a PC that’s used primarily to run video games?” For the 2012 survey, the definition of electronic gaming was broadened, and as a result, the question asked not only about gaming consoles and PCs, but also “a dedicated handheld system (like a PSP, etc.) [or] a wireless device/tablet (e.g., iPad) or a phone used to play games.” Within respondents only having to play a game on any of those four devices for an hour a week to qualify – ten hours a week classified them as “serious gamers” – the floodgates were opened. Suddenly, playing Angry Birds or Words with Friends could see you classified as a gamer, and as a result, everything changed.

According to the ESA’s Vice President Dan Hewitt, the result is something that captures “survey data that is more fully reflective of everyone who is playing games at this point.” He explained the reason behind the change by saying that “at some point you can kind of see a situation when the market changes and the way people play games change… At some point you’re going to have to change your survey instrument and have a year like we have now… to ensure that your survey and the statistics that stem from that survey maintain their relevance, so that’s what we’re doing right now.”

As a result, the data in the briefing suddenly looks very different than before. Not only is the average gamer younger (The average age is 30; 32 percent of gamers are under 18, 31 percent aged between 18 and 35, 37 percent are aged older than 36), but the gender demographics have shifted significantly as well, with women aged 30 and above now representing a larger slice of the gaming market than boys aged 17 and under. It’s a whole new world out there for people working in the gaming industry – and a good indicator of how big a game changer mobile platforms can, and will, be in the future.