Dear Supreme Court, Here’s Who’s Really Playing Video Games

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We’re a week gone from the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which declared that video games should enjoy the same protections as other forms of art. Like the ruling in the 1952 Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson case did for film, the Brown decision moves video games from being categorized as business to being categorized, for legal purposes, as art.

But what’s driven legislation like the California law struck down by the Brown decision has been a shallow understanding of who plays video games and why they engage with the medium. Visions of crazed pre-teen boys hopped up on hyper-violent shoot-em-ups are what drive well-meaning but under-informed parents and constituents to tacitly co-sign laws that overreact. The ESRB already rates the industry’s content into age-appropriate categories, as well as doing “mystery shop” audits at thousands of stores each year to see that their guidance is actually being implemented.

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Further proof of the actual realities of who’s playing and buying video games came out this week in the form of the Entertainment Software Association’s annual “Essential Facts” report. The research in the reports refutes some commonly-held notions about video games and the way they filter through society. Here are a few highlights:

That whole teenage-boy fixation? Barking up the wrong tree:

The average game player age is 37, with 18% under 18 years old, 53% aged between 18-49 years and 29% in the 50+ range. And the ESA’s research also finds that women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (37%) than boys age 17 or younger (13%).

It’s social, but not necessarily in the way you’d think:

Sixty-five percent of gamers play games with other gamers in person, an increase from 64% in 2010 and from 62% in 2009. And believe it or not, some of those people may even be… parental units! Nearly half (45%) of parents play computer and video games with their children at least weekly, up from 36% four years ago.

Online gaming’s not all about headshots:

Forty-seven percent of all online games fall into Puzzle, Board Game, Game Show, Trivia or Card Games categories. The second-largest grouping would be what you’d call hardcore– Action, Sports, Strategy, Role-Playing–and account for 21% of online gaming activity.

(MORE: Top Game Designers Say What They’d Put Into the Smithsonian)

“What about the children?!” They’re probably all right:

Ninety-one percent of the time parents are present at the time games are purchased or rented. Eighty-six percent of the time, children receive their parents’ permission before purchasing or renting a game. It’s not just a heedless nod-and-open-wallet scenario, either. Parents are paying attention, with 80% of them placing time limits on video game playing.

That’s a lot of Microsoft Points™:

Last year saw $15.9 billion in video game sales from retail and digital methods. That number, while still impressive, is down slightly from 2009′s $16 billion. When you account for hardware, accessories and the actual content itself, people spent a total of $25 billion on video games last year. And 44% of all game units sold in 2010 fell under the Everyone (E) category.

(MORE: Games Rated ‘Mature’ Are Made Less, Bought More)

You can find the full ESA Essential Facts document here (PDF link). Numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, but what they do show is that games are an entertainment medium with widespread influence and formidable economic power. It’s probably more likely that people know other folks who play games than not. Heck, you don’t even need to be on the Supreme Court.

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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