Gaining Perspective on PC Gaming

The skewed perspective on gaming
In the world of Linux, there are many who believe PC gaming is bigger than it really is. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a big business. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t exist. Gaming companies would have otherwise long abandoned making PC games. It is not, however, as big as many Linux users believe it is—not by a long shot.

Take, for example, this blog entry, published on ZDnet 2 November, 2006, in which the author tries to make the case that the lack of PC games is a major barrier to Linux desktop adoption:

Let’s face it, for your average home PC user, gaming is pretty important aspect of PC ownership. In my experience, even people who really aren’t all that into games still indulge the occasional new game.

The belief that “average home PC user[s]” buy PC games and consider it a “pretty important aspect of PC ownership” is commonplace on Linux forums. If you don’t believe me, look at this forum thread entitled “time for debate: Games are the biggest barrier to desktop linux!”

The real perspective on gaming
The real truth, of course, is that most average home PC users either don’t game at all, play console games, play online Flash/Shockwave-based games, or play non-commercial games like Solitaire, Hearts, or Minesweeper.

Most average home PC users do not go out and buy the latest World of Warcraft or Doom. Seriously.

If you look closely at any argument to the contrary, there is never any hard data to back it up—only anecdotal data (“Hey, everyone I know plays PC games…”). Well, I went scouring all over the internet to find some hard data, and here it is.

Exhibit A
From Poll: 4 in 10 adults play electronic games: Board, card, strategy games, action sports most popular, here are a couple of excerpts:

40 percent of American adults play games on a computer or a console…. Among those who describe themselves as gamers, 45 percent play over the Internet…. Forty-two percent of online gamers said they spent at least four hours playing games during an average week, compared with 26 percent of those who don’t play online. About one in six online gamers play more than 10 hours a week.

Let’s do the math. One in six online gamers play more than 10 hours a week. Online gamers are 45% of those who describe themselves as gamers, who are, in turn, only 40% of American adults. That ends up being 3% of all American adults. That’s right—3% (hardly most… not even a large minority) of American adults game online for more than 10 hours a week.

Casual games like board or card games were the most popular, followed by strategy games, action sports, adventure, first-person shooters and simulations, the poll found. Casual, strategy and role-playing games were most popular among online gamers.

Another fact some Linux users are hard-up to acknowledge—the most popular games among normal PC users are casual games, not the latest commercial first-person shooter.

That poll was conducted in April 2006, based on a sample of 3,024 American adults.

Exhibit B
Gaming is for Grown-Ups cites a December 2005 study of 1,767 “adult video game households” and 500 teenagers by the Consumer Electronics Association, in which one of the conclusions is that

Fifty-eight percent of households owning both a PC and a console system consider the console the dominant gaming platform.

I’m not sure what an “adult video game household” is, so 58% seems pretty low to me, but even that is a majority (over 50%) preferring the console over the PC for gaming.

Exhibit C
Wikipedia isn’t always a reliable source, but in this case, it’s actually citing another source that isn’t editable by just anyone.

This is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on video games:

The NPD Group tracks computer and video game sales in the United States. It reported that as of 2004:

  • Console and portable software sales: $6.2 billion, up 8% from 2003[2]
  • Console and portable hardware and accessory sales: $3.7 billion, down 35% from 2003[2]
  • PC game sales: $1.1 billion, down 2% from 2003[3]

As you can see, PC gaming is big. I’m not denying its existence or its profitability. $1.1 billion is a pretty substantial sales number.

Nevertheless, as you can see, console and portable software sales are 5.6 times more than PC games sales.

Final thoughts
If PC gaming isn’t as big as a lot of Linux users think it is, why don’t they realize it? Well, I would propose that serious gamers tend to be friends with other serious gamers, and that if most of your friends game seriously, it would be easy to imagine that most people in general game seriously. Not being a serious gamer myself, I know very few people who do PC game. Most of my friends and relatives who do play games play console games (PS2 and the like), so the fact that console gaming is a bigger market than PC gaming isn’t a surprise to me.

Anecdotal “evidence” is fine to trot out every once in a while, but sometimes you also have to look at some statistically significant figures.


  1. I wrote this almost two years ago, and it still holds true today.

    In searching for more up-to-date statistics, I came across a Boston Globe article entitled Computer vs. the console that cites a more recent NPD group study on gaming trends.

    Even though the article does everything it can to make it sound as if PC gaming is on the rise and not down for the count yet (which may be the case), it has to and does acknowledge that hardcore traditional PC gaming does not currently compete at the same level with console gaming, especially in combination with casual PC gaming (Scrabble, Solitaire, Hearts, etc.).

  2. This is why the Nintendo DS, and, in spite of it’s “lack of power” the Wii have garnered so many more sales than the other consoles. Nintendo has actively acknowledged that the “casual” gaming market is bigger business than the “hardcore” gaming market.

    The latest DS commercials have no children in them. :)

  3. I somewhat disagree.

    I’m not serious gamers as you call it, I occasionally play a few games and don’t play them online so I wouldn’t be counted in your gamer group. The only reason I have Windows on my comp’ is games. I’m too lazy to get them working on Linux and also it’s not that encouraging to know that they won’t even run as good as they run in Windows. The main problem to that is drivers, especially with ATI cards. Most people wont even bother with dual-boot like me.

    Also gaming affects indirectly, all the young nerds get familiar with Windows because it’s the gaming platform. When they grow up, they utilize their Windows expertize in workplaces etc.

    That being said, preinstalled Windowses are probably even bigger issue, but gaming is close second.

    Fun ~fact: World of Warcraft has 11.5 million subscribers. If you count in all the dead subscribtions, with a little guess-work, I think that’s about the same as Linux has desktop users.

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