Characteristics of Virtual World Users

Having looked, in the previous entry, at the economic conditions surrounding virtual worlds, I am now turning my attention to the demographic profile of those users.

Overall Numbers

The overall population, according to MMOG Charts, is currently about 12 million people strong. What is interesting, however, is the growth rate: looking at the linked chart, one can see the population doubling at an increasing rate: it took 24 months to get from 6 million to 12 but it took 48 months to go from 3 to 6. This accelerating rate of growth is an interesting one. Assuming that few other factors change, one could envision a 24 million people strong population within the next 12 months or, on a more conservative basis, within the next 18 months. Considering the upsurge in stories about the phenomenon in the mainstream press, growth will, at least, continue at the same pace over the next year. A recent estimate shows that SecondLife is growing at a rate of 22 percent a month though a more conservative estimate shows a growth rate of 15 percent. Any which way you play it, this is a fairly high growth rate.

Age

The videogame industry has evolved and every year, the average age of videogame consumer is increasing. At the current time, the entertainment software association estimates the average videogamer age to be 31. They also say that the average gamer has played for about 12 years, which would mean that they started at 18-19 year old.

Based on that data point, one could assume that the virtual world phenomenon would slant young. However, research by Nick Yee of Stanford University points to an average age of 26 years old for those users, with only 25 percent of the overall population being teenagers. While Yee’s numbers are for the category of virtual worlds as a whole, more granular data is available for certain worlds. In September 2005, IGN entertainment reported that the average age of players in their survey was 27, which seems to be echoed by 2004 research at the University of Nottingham Trent (UK) which puts the average age of players at 27.9 years old. Also of interest, a recent post on Nature’s weblog points out that the average age for people in SecondLife at 33, which slants older than even the general gaming category. This seems to bolster the claims that those environments are not games but real virtual environments.

Education

In “Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier“, Edward Castranova, of the University of Indiana at Bloomington, points out that 35.6 percent of the people he surveyed in those environments had a 4-year college degree or more. Yee’s study showed that 33 percent of the people he surveyed were students. However, he also showed that, for the non-student population, 44.8 percent of the population had at least a college degree. This number in and off themselves are meaningless but, when compared to the US Census data, they are amazing: according to the 2004 census, 28 percent of the overall US population had graduated from college. What this shows is that this phenomenon is primarily driven by more educated people than the average.

Employment and salaries

Of course, this higher level of education has some effect on the employment profile of denizens of those worlds. Castranova’s paper highlighted that 53.4 percent of his respondents were employed, with hourly salary averaging $20.74. Assuming 2,000 work hours a year, this translates into a $41,480 yearly salary. By comparison, for 2002, the last reported year, the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported an average US yearly salary of $36,214. Assuming a similar 2.5 percent yearly increase over the next two years, this would translate into $38,047.34. What this means is that virtual worlds denizens tend to be more affluent than the average American citizen.

Engagement

While the demographic data is interesting, the engagement metric is the one I’m most excited about. Nick Yee estimated that Everquest players spent 22.9 hours per week in that world and that people spend 21.9 hours per week across the category as a whole. Similarly, Ed Castranova found that Denizens in Norrath, a World a Warcraft server, spent an average of 29 hours there a week. When taken together, those statistics point to a level of engagement that is on par with television in the United States, which presents new opportunities for marketers.

Conclusion

The demographics profile of virtual worlds shows users who are young but more educated and more affluent than the general public. The trends in user numbers show a hockey-stick growth pattern that will look familiar to any early adopter of technology, highlighting that this is a nascent industry about to go mainstream. Because the levels of engagements for those users are very high, I expect stories in the mainstream media to soon come out talking about addiction to those worlds (in a fashion similar to the stories that came out about internet addiction, blogging addiction, etc…) which will validate the staying power of those worlds.

From a business standpoint, I’d recommend to my readers that they take a serious look at how they can expand their business in this arena. In my view, what we are seeing here is the emergence of a new way to engage with the Internet.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched 6 companies, of which 2 (internet.com and Earthweb) went public and two were sold (Net Quotient and MoveableMedia). My latest, Keepskor provides tools allowing anyone to develop mobile and connected TV games without writing a line of code. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.