YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- No one should be surprised that kids are playing video games at younger and younger ages. But while the thought of a child sitting on Mom's lap at age 4 to play on Disney.com likely won't rankle the masses, how about the fact that kids are turning into serious gamers at age 6?
NPD Group's annual survey on children and video games, released this week, found that while older kids still dominate in time spent per week on gaming, the most significant spike in hours played occurs between the 2-to-5-year-old and 6-to-8-year-old groups. First-, second- and third-graders spend 75% more time than they used to on gaming, adding an average of three hours per week to their playing time.
Turning into serious gamers
"When kids get to the 6-to-8-year-old age range is when we see them turn into more serious gamers. Not only does the amount of time they spend playing games increase the most dramatically, but they migrate from using 'kid' systems to using more portable and console systems as well," NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier said in a news release. "This appears to be a critical age at which to capture the future gamers of the world."
The study also found that one-third of children ages 2 to 17 spend more time playing video games than they did a year ago. Half of the kids were classified as light users, at five or fewer hours played per week, while the other half were medium, heavy or "super" users, playing six to 16 hours or more every week.
"At 58%, personal computers have the highest percentage of personal use for gaming among kids age 2 to 17," NPD Group Director David Riley said. "Not only is the PC the most accessible, but because of the dynamic nature of the internet, it tends to be less expensive for marketers than console and portable platforms."
But makers of hardware platforms are going to benefit too, said Nicki Shovar, director of research at game publisher Ubisoft, as publishers keep introducing casual games for the younger set. In an e-mail, Ms. Shovar said: "This is a great benefit for the gaming industry. Kids are becoming more sophisticated with video games at a much younger age, and there are more video games available today that fit the 6- to 8-year-old gamers. Ubisoft's casual games, such as the "Imagine" and "Petz" games, are a great start for kids because they not only introduce them to the portable and console systems, but they also offer them fun and accessible games that will engage them socially and intellectually."
While more kiddie playtime does represent opportunity for marketers and game publishers, the increasingly younger demographic and time spent on gaming raises some eyebrows -- and concerns.
"Parents are just as responsible and concerned as they were 30 years ago, so if you see a spike in video-game play or [more playing at] younger ages ... it's kids responding to marketing messages," said Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert.
He said that while issues such as the link between advertising and childhood obesity have been studied for some time, one of the problems with video-game marketing is the lack of research and results.
"Advertisers and marketers have penetrated deep into the video-gaming world across all demographics. They're delivering sophisticated, tailored and repeated messages to children that their parents don't even know about," he said.
That may have been true for some marketers -- the most often accused are food, beverage and kids' entertainment brands -- but ad-serving companies that deliver in-game marketing, such as Double Fusion, for instance, are staying out of kids' views.
"We are a nascent industry. ... This is not the time to be dabbling in grey areas," said Julie Shumaker, senior VP-sales and marketing, Double Fusion. "We avoid sending any ads to an IP address registered to someone under 14. We also don't serve any tobacco, spirits or adult-entertainment ads." She added that Double Fusion's game publishers "embrace" those ideals.
And, as Mr. Riley pointed out, before age 15, it is parents who largely control video-game buying and playing.
"Parents' relatively high degree of involvement in their kids' games purchases underscores the importance of marketing games not only to kids but to the parents who are buying them for kids?for example, by emphasizing the educational or creative aspects of the game," he said.