Preteen Gamers Upend Traditional Media Consumption, Says SuperData's Carter Rogers

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Pre-teen gamers are a new and burgeoning consumer group. But the media industry's ability to understand their behaviors and motivations has been fairly limited — until now. In what is being described as a first-of-its-kind analysis, Nielsen has just released the results of its SuperData Preteen Gamer study, which reveals how preteens communicate, cross-play, discover, engage with others, purchase, and recommend through platforms in the gaming environment.

Carter Rogers, principal analyst at SuperData, a market research company focused on digital games and related media, took me through the study and revealed the trends he saw, as well as some surprises from the data. "We went through a lot of effort to make sure this was a proper study on preteens," Rogers says, noting that SuperData joined Nielsen about a year ago "to augment [its] research in the game space."

The research had two parts: an online survey of 1,000 U.S. parents of preteen gamers and in-person focus groups with 100 preteens, ages 7–12 years old, in the New York City area with an even gender skew. The focus groups in particular "were really neat," Rogers notes, "because many previous studies have interviewed the preteen's parents instead of the kids, which may not give a clear picture of what the children are actually up to."

Rogers highlighted five key areas from among the findings:

A Social Ecosystem

One of the big study takeaways was that preteen gamers are using the gaming environment as a social ecosystem. "Preteens really like socializing in games. They play online with friends, but they don't just jump onto a game, play for five minutes, and then leave. They want to use these games as virtual hangout spaces." The top three games for preteens at this time are Roblox (33 percent), Fortnite (26 percent), and Minecraft (24 percent), all of which preteens use as virtual hubs. "A lot of the younger players are using gaming as a social network to hang out with friends in games," he says.

Awkward Commerce

Another takeaway is the commerce aspect of gaming. "A lot of preteens ask their parents to spend on cosmetic items. In Fortnite, these are called skins," Rogers explains. "We found that, generally, it is very difficult for preteens to spend in games. It is really an under-addressed audience."

His contention is that, in digital games, purchasing is conducted online only and is creating "awkward systems where the preteens give their parents cash that the parents originally gave them in their allowance, the parents give the preteen their credit card, and then the preteen uses the credit card to make a purchase in the game. It is confusing for parents and a hassle for preteens."

Devices Matter

Multiplatform play is very important. In the past, the big games were predominantly played on a console, "but you couldn't have some of these big games so world dominating and such phenomenal successes if all games were still on a console." Rogers says. "We've found that mobile is a gateway device for these younger preteens. Fifty-five percent of 7- to 9-year-olds are playing games on tablets, compared to 27 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds. Consoles are very, very popular among these older preteens. Seventy-six percent of those preteens play on a console, compared to 54 percent of 7- to 9-year-olds."

Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft are available on multiple devices, so "preteens with only access to a smartphone (which often belongs to their parent) can still play with their friends who might be playing on a PlayStation 4 or on a TV."

Different Levels of Engagement

There are very distinct groups of preteens in gaming, according to Rogers. "The younger gamers tend to play on smartphones and tablets and aren't really engaged in gaming in the way that some of the older players are." Older preteens are highly engaged and aware of specific happenings in the gaming industry, such as any new titles.

As the study revealed, gaming habits tend to shift around ages nine or 10, interestingly coinciding with greater migration to consoles that seem to offer a more immersive, engaging experience for the gamer. "Preteens go from playing casually on a phone to the much more dedicated gaming around age 10, gaming more on a platform deck at that point."

Perception of Popularity is Vital

Marketers should take note. The way preteens find out about games is online, via websites such as the Amazon streaming platform, Twitch, or YouTube. "We found that among preteens, 78 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds watch gaming video content, as do 67 percent of 7- to 9-year-olds." And they will definitely take game recommendations from people online.

Rogers recommends that game developers "appeal to these tastemakers because if an influencer says that a game is not cool anymore, that really influences preteen attitudes. It is [more] important for a game to be perceived as 'popular' than it is for a game to develop a new concept to keep it fresh. Perception of popularity is very important."

Looking Forward

Although this is a new study, there are ways to ascertain trends for both game developers and marketers. For one, the lifecycle of games is getting longer. This means that preteens may be playing these games well into their young adult years and that the games themselves, according to Rogers, "have a much longer revenue tail." Many of these games are being built to "allow for user-made content," he adds. "They can make their own environment and share it with a friend. This can impact the gaming industry for many years to come."

The extended content life means that brands need to use a more holistic approach to reach this valuable audience. The very nature of the content requires that brands appear in-program and via cross-promotion in games and not as traditional commercial spots.

So, the main takeaway from this seminal study: Media and brands need to be creative, nimble, and prepared, because gaming content consumption is different from traditional video content consumption. This novel way of viewing brands' content is establishing new behavioral norms in the consumers of tomorrow.

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