Having visited ourselves upon groups of Family Gamers and Silver Gamers, we now turn the labs over to Missing Gamers in an attempt to discover what is keeping them from playing games as they did in their youth.
Although the ranks of the gaming masses are swelling more than ever, there are still thousands who used to play games when they were younger that have yet to return to the pastime.
Their lives have obviously changed in the intervening years -- so that available time, money, and attention are now in more limited supply.
But beyond these generalizations, we wanted to discern the detail of what it was that kept them from picking up controller, mouse, or remote. Over a few weeks in the summer we organized a series of play sessions with some of these absentee gamers, a group ranging in age from 25 to 35.
As with our Silver Gamer sessions, we weren't sure what would result but again, by the end of each day we had armfuls of notes on what they now wanted from games.
From these experiences and discussions we have compiled the following list of what our Missing Gamers really want from a video gaming experience:
1. Integrated Social Experiences
Despite not owning a games console themselves, most of the missing gamers in our tests were happy to invest a lot of time in various social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
"I don't mind wasting my time on Facebook, because I feel like I'm doing it with my friends," one Missing Gamer thoughtfully retorted when asked why she was happy to spend non-productive time on Facebook but not on video games.
When we introduced one group to Xbox Live and its community features (with something of a twinkle in our eye) we were surprised at the lack of enthusiasm. "How do I update my status, though? And how about adding pictures and links?"
It seems that the rich experiences of their existing networks mean the usability bar is pretty high for these would-be gamers.
A more successful tack seemed to be introducing them to ways which gaming could plug into and integrate with their existing networks. The MSN features of Xbox Live, and the Xbox Facebook and iPhone applications were met with pleasant surprise and enthusiasm. These features seemed to go some way to "making sense" of games for the group.
The bottom line here seems to be that most games platforms have a "come join our community" ethic, but members of this group of would-be gamers already have well-established, functioning networks of their own.
They respond much better to services that enhance and amend these existing groups, both online and in real life. When they discover that games can "come to their community" they are much more willing to invest some time and money.
2. Covert Gaming
While recruiting for our lab sessions, it became clear that this group understood what it means to be a gamer. But rather than encouraging them to play, this actually worked in the opposite direction.
One thing was clear -- they didn't see themselves as gamers, or even want to get back into gaming. Gamers were a particular breed with a distinct culture, one that they were not interested in aspiring to.
However, when describing their time on Facebook or time spent together in the evenings there were clear similarities. The enjoyment of playing games with friends persisted here, but in a different form. Sometimes more obvious (card and board games they enjoyed together), and sometimes less so (time spent on social websites with friends).
When questioned whether they felt these experiences were similar to the games they used to play it was clear they hadn't made the connection before. "Facebook's not a game though, is it?"
Although this group has plenty of gaming potential, they got on better with experiences that weren't overtly gamer-oriented. They clearly understood and recognized anything that was stereotypically "gaming", and didn't consider this to be something for them.
Not surprisingly then, they got on well with Wii games that are light on the usual gaming elements. Wii Fit went down well, although they largely ignored the minigames, preferring instead to test themselves against each other on the Yoga and Strength activities.
3. Monumental Challenges
When our test groups included more guys, the conversation often turned towards poker, this being the most recent gaming experience they could reference.
Many of our Missing Gamers had invested many hours perfecting their (Texas Hold 'em) poker skills both on- and offline. Others had a similar story to tell about Chess. A few could even reference less traditional board games, such as Carcassonne or Diplomacy.
When asked what it was that attracted them to these games, a clear pattern emerged. "I love playing something that three years later I'm still learning," said one, talking about his poker playing. "My girlfriend gave me a book about poker last year, and reading it really improved my game. I hadn't realized how much was involved in a simple game of cards."
Following that revelation, we showed them some of the more in-depth games on our shelves. Some seemed to react well to the likes of Halo 3 and FIFA, although World of Warcraft seemed to be too much of a time commitment, even for all its depth.
Even though we could point to the detailed guides on sites like GameFAQs, we had to admit that these linear walkthroughs were a long way from the books that taught the psychology and steady tactical improvement for games such as poker.
It was clear that this group loves to rise to a really monumental challenge -- games that they could study over many years to really understand.
4. Adjacent Multiplayer
We had some of our test consoles rigged up to an internet connection to see how these Missing Gamers would respond to online play. But whilst they were initially impressed at the ability to play with other people all over the world, they soon picked up on the fact that many of the people they were playing with were either too good, or too immature to endure for any length of time.
It wasn't long before the online games were abandoned in favor of the simpler split-screen local multiplayer offerings. The ability to nudge, rib, and cajole each other on the sofa (not to mention share snacks and drinks) was simply too much fun to resist.
Even the suggestion that they could have the full screen to themselves if they were to play online wasn't enough to get them off these games.
These Missing Gamers want experiences that provide contexts in which they can catch up with friends and family. The play was, in many respects, secondary to the social event.
Accordingly, games that provided split-screen play were a good fit and even better if you could access all the multiplayer levels without being forced to work through a single-player campaign.
Luckily we had already unlocked most events in Mario and Sonic at the Olympics. But the realization that they would have to put in a good few hours themselves was enough to put off some of our subjects from seriously thinking about buying the game.
5. Price Point
Our Missing Gamer group seemed to be different from others we had tested in that cost wasn't the main determining factor for them. If the experience was one they wanted, then one way or another, they would work out a way to afford it.
One group described buying a Gamecube on the day it was released. As it transpired, after reminiscing one night about the SNES games they used to play together in University dorm rooms and each others' bedrooms, a plan emerged. "Why don't we buy the new Nintendo console together? We could all chip in."
They went on to tell us how they went on to buy a Gamecube together on launch day, each paying a part of the cost and choosing a game and controller.
Since then, though, they had fallen off the gaming wagon, but it wasn't the cost that kept them away. The failure of the Gamecube to deliver the games they wanted meant they simply moved on to other things -- poker, Diplomacy, and Carcassonne as mentioned before.
6. Adult-Oriented Products
Many in the group talked of how they didn't consider themselves to be someone who plays games because it was perceived as a bit immature. "Isn't it just for kids?" was a common refrain, along with "I used to do that when I lived with my parents."
The perception of gaming as something kids do meant they weren't willing to seriously consider themselves part of the gaming crowd.
Many pointed to the Wii as the main culprit. "The boxes just look like they are for children. I wouldn't buy a DVD or book that had a cover like that." That's not all that surprising considering Nintendo does largely aim towards the younger market.
Looking for something more substantial with a grown up narrative, we pulled Heavenly Sword of our shelf. Again, they balked at the busty redhead on the cover: "My kid brother would go for this, but it just makes me mildly embarrassed."
Once we got them playing it, though, they were genuinely impressed at both the well-directed storytelling and general filmic quality of the experience.
"I actually forgot I was playing a video game and not watching a film at one point," was probably the highest praise we had from one of our gamers.
Compare the marketing and packaging of games with that of a popular paperback or film and they are a mile apart. Games are largely packaged with either childish cartoons or warlike aggressive images. "If they had images of people and places that looked like my life, I think I'd be more up for giving them a go."
7. Assumed Gaming Grammar
Some of the groups we had in almost refused to get hands-on with the games. When we dug into why this was, it seemed to step from a fear of looking stupid. "I just don't understand what I need to do," was another common comment.
When we directed them to the tutorials their initial reaction was that they hadn't realized these were provided, and what a good idea they were.
After watching them work through a few tutorial levels on games like Portal and Boom Blox, it was apparent that whilst the controls were well explained, the wider aim of the game was often left without clear instruction.
These games often draw on an assumed gaming grammar that players need to have to make sense of the experience. Tutorials often explained the minutiae of the control mechanics whilst ignoring the basics of the game structure.
Although this "inside baseball" talk was what the hardcore would lap up, to our Missing Gamers it was all but incomprehensible.
Those in our group that had been out of the gaming loop for more than ten years simply took a lot longer to "get" what the game was essentially about. Once they understood they quickly started enjoying the experience, but up and till then their frustration (and sometimes embarrassment) was apparent.
Here we have another group with a very specific set of concerns. Although first impressions may make you think they have permanently moved on from gaming, a deeper look reveals that they just need games that are tailored to their needs.
This group of 25 to 35 Missing Gamers is perhaps one of the most socially motivated cohorts we have come across. From a desire for integrated social experiences to a love of playing games next to each other they certainly have plenty of time, money and motivation to play.
Although easily discouraged from the pursuit of gaming experiences because of the hard-to-get "assumed gaming grammar", get them playing something without thinking about it too much and they soon rise to the occasion.
Get them playing something that presents a sizeable and complex challenge and you discover a whole different side of their personalities.
Wrap all this up with some packaging and marketing stories that look and sound like the lives they are already leading, rather than a cartoon or juvenile version of themselves, and they soon "get" why games are still applicable.
Some Missing Gamers aren't playing here because they simply prefer other leisure activities, but in our groups we discovered there were just as many who would join in the gaming fun if only they knew how and where to do it.