Saturday, 29 December 2012

Stats in Gaming: Console War Propaganda

As 2013 dawns, The International Year of Statistics  begins. It also marks the advent of the latest Console War, which promises to be a very exciting time for gamers, gaming industry nerds, game designers, game design fanboys as well as political commentators, vidigameaphobes and of course, those all important shareholders and development studios.
He may look rich, but he only has five coins. That's nothing.

 Yes, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are all set to be vying for a high share of the increasingly lucrative video game market. Further still, the so called 'Triple A' development studios responsible for the kind of big budget games that you see advertised on television (Dishonored, Halo, Call of Duty, Farcry 3) will be aggressively marketing their projects to make a return on their investment in what is a very fierce marketplace. This comes at a time where many gamers own more games then they have time for, where a vibrant and nostalgic second hand games market exists and the prominence of small budget independent game developers offering very popular (and far cheaper) titles not only for PCs but for consoles too, also exists (Phew).  So what has this got to do with stats?

Pictured: Some stats. (Figure 1)

Well... everything really. As the great powers and actors in human conflicts throughout history have all come equipped with their propaganda machines, the big players in gaming have all come equipped with their marketing departments, who all want you (the consumer, I assume) to believe in their version of reality. That their console is more popular, that the games that you play are more immersive and realistic and that you will be having more fun on this particular console or title than any other. To further complicate matters, we have the fans. The fans are more like zealots at times, preaching that their deity (console) has more to offer humanity than other false idols and pretenders. 

It's as vicious a 'debate' as you can think of.

Check out Figure 1. I'm a self-confessed Nintendo child. I have a natural bias towards the publishers that I grew up on and an unjustifiable sense of paternal protectiveness for Nintendo. However, Figure 1 tells me that I have nothing to fear, Nintendo appear to have dominated both the console and handheld markets in terms of market penetration. For a Nintendo fanboy like me, this is bliss because I can go to my preferred online forum, find that pesky Warmasterxx_88 (who loves PS3 and actually hates the Big N) and tell them that despite the fact that I enjoy what he calls 'children's games for babies' that at least a good proportion of the world agrees with me, but oh crumbs...

This is the data from 2012 (Figure 2)
This is the data for the year 2012 to date (as of 15th December 2012) and it would seem that Nintendo have somewhat lost out to the PS3 in terms of console sales this year. No one can deny that the big red PS3 bar is bigger than the piddly light blue Wii one pictured in Figure 2, which could lead Warmasterxx_88 to triumphantly declare (falsely) that 'Nintendo are losing it! Look at the decline in console sales!' using the same fanboy zeal as I would apply to Figure 1. But why believe my version of events? This may seem just another case of lies, damn lies and statistics where it's in fact only the first two that should worry us. As long as the data is collected honestly and accurately enough, it's the lies and the liars that are the problem and not the stats. The previous two figures are simply two different summary measures of sales figures and they do tell us some simple things like 'More 3DS units were sold YTD in 2012 than PSVita'. However, one should be loath to draw conclusions on always complex, sometimes subjective and often normative questions such as 'Are Nintendo products likely to continue be popular, sell well and be fun to play with?' on the basis of two very simple Figures alone.

One can always dig deeper and discover more true parts of the story using statistics. The source I used was and looking at the unit sales of software and hardware I have come to the temporary conclusion that 'Nintendo are doing more than just fine'. Please do not blindly take that home with you though. That would be the opposite of what my intentions for this article are. Go to the gaming stats site that I  have mentioned (and explore other sources of data!) and by all means challenge my conclusion! I have not produced a compelling argument for my case here at all and it should be easy enough to pick apart as I have not supplied much in the way of evidence here.

That should also be a horrifying observation applicable elsewhere. In the big debates of the age (gun control and gay marriage for instances), one should see that mainstream coverage of these events is terribly lacking in hard data. The occasional statistic might be supplied in isolation (which you should always be suspicious of) and this should worry us all. If we are unable to decide whether Mario is better than Sonic or not, how can we sensibly choose between and evaluate competing policies and ideologies concerning something as relevant and as dangerous as the fiscal cliff? Just think on that next time you're playing The Binding of Isaac!  

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