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Thursday, 7 September, 2000, 18:56 GMT 19:56 UK
Kids zapped by game bug
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Twenty years ago, computer game machines were seen as a fad - a passing craze beloved of slightly geeky children.

Now, they are as firmly established in British homes as microwaves, satellite dishes and cordless phones.

A new survey by the market research organisation Mintel shows that 70% of all children aged between 7 and 14 own a games machine of some kind.

Among boys aged between 11 and 14, that figure rises to 85%.

Lifestyle

But the growth in popularity of consoles like the Playstation, Dreamcast and Game Boy is not just limited to children.

The same survey found that 45% of adults aged 35 to 44 own a games console, and even that 3% of over-65s have a console in their home.

Sega Dreamcast
Would you pick a fight with her?
"Computer games have definitely become a lifestyle thing," Stephen Piece of the independent Playstation World Magazine told BBC News Online.

"They've gone overground. We even get 60-year-olds contacting us, wanting to know more about games and the characters in them. It's a fantasy world, which gives plenty of people plenty of pleasure."

Marketing

Like many industry observers, he attributes much of this growth to Sony's marketing of the original PlayStation, which launched in 1995.

Console Wars
Sony Playstation 2
DVD and internet access, UK Nov 2000, 300
Sega Dreamcast
Internet access, autumn 1999, 149
Nintendo GameCube
N64 replacement, games focus, no DVD, autumn 2001, ?
Microsoft X Box
autumn 2001, ?
The company deliberately aimed to move the hunger for consoles outside the traditional mid-teen user base, with games rooms in nightclubs, sponsorship deals, and a off-the-wall advertising campaign.

"It sent the message to consumers that if you wanted to be in, you could do it with a computer games machine," says Pierce.

Sony was rewarded by unprecedented sales growth among both 20-somethings and pre-teen children, and has sold more than 5.6 million PlayStations in Britain to date.

Pierce says the changing nature of computer games has also helped boost sales of consoles.

Games software

"At first, video games were based around multi-coloured characters doing battle in mystical worlds."

But now, he says, games simulate real-life.

Recent big sellers have included racing game Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid - an espionage game where "if you get hit, you get hurt" - and numerous football titles.

Space Invaders
And we thought Space Invaders was so cool...
"Sony in particular have also been helped by their ownership of record labels," adds Pierce.

"When they launched Wipeout, one of their first big sellers, they were able to pull in the Chemical Brothers to do the music. Suddenly, the boundaries between sociable clubland and solitary gaming were blurred."

It is a viewpoint backed up by the latest Mintel report which found that two-thirds of children played games with their friends.

This suggests computer games are now an important factor in maintaining a social life, rather than preventing one develop.

Violence

One concern that has remained constant, however, is the fear that computer games are having a negative effect on children.

46% of the adults aged 55 to 64 who spoke to Mintel were worried about children playing violent games.

In the past, games like Doom have been linked to school shootings in the United States.


Computer games have definitely become a lifestyle thing

Stephen Pierce,
Playstation World
C Everett Koop, US Surgeon General from 1981 to 1989, once issued a statement indicting video games for producing "aberrations in childhood behaviour".

Recent research is divided on the issue. Some studies have found that children have recently played a violent computer game are more likely to be aggressive.

Another theory, the "catharsis theory", suggests instead the video games help children get rid of violent feelings.

Most recently, a four-year study supported by the Australian Federal Government found that computer games, far from causing aggression, could instead actually help young people build esteem.

Growth market

But it is unlikely that any of these concerns will stop the spread of the gaming bug.

Gran Turismo
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Computer machines and software now generate 7bn a year, more than the Hollywood film industry.

In the UK, the market has doubled in the past five years to 1,064m, and that is likely to grow by another 200m this year.

With November's launch of Playstation 2, and Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's X-Box not far behind, there is a lot at stake.

The battle between the big manufacturers and software developers is likely to be at least as tough as anything they put on our computer screens.

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See also:

07 Sep 00 | Business
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29 Apr 00 | Education
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