Where Do People Use Portable Gaming Systems?

Follow-up from Gruber to my previous article. I’ll try to keep it short this time, because I think I’ve identified the main reason why we come to different conclusions.

I think our disagreement boils down to this quote from Gruber’s essay:

The key factor is that these devices are already in our pockets. You can take better photographs with a dedicated camera, but, more and more as time goes on, we are choosing to use our mobile devices as our primary cameras. A BlackBerry was a better messaging device than an iPhone, but that was not enough, because the iPhone was better at so many other things, and people do not want to carry another device when their first one is good enough.

(…)

The trend is clearly toward carrying fewer and fewer devices.

I completely agree.

To the extent that people carry mobile gaming devices in their pockets, mobile phones have almost completely displaced them.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think most people buy portable gaming systems with the intention of regularly carrying them in their pockets. I don’t think they ever did.1 I don’t remember knowing even a single person who routinely carried a portable gaming device in his or her pocket.

In my experience, most people buy portable gaming systems to play games at home, but not on the TV. In bed, on the toilet, on the balcony, or while watching TV. If they carry it outside, it’s incidental, and not the device’s main purpose.

(There’s one exception to this: one area where mobile phones have mostly displaced gaming devices is commuting. People used to carry a DS for public transport commutes. Subjectively, this seems much less common now, at least in the US. But for the most part, this displacement has already occurred, and should already be reflected in 3DS sales.2)

Kids might take portable gaming devices on trips, but even for kids, the place they play them most is at home.

The only time I ever take (and ever took) a portable gaming device with me is when I carry a backpack anyway. When going on holidays, for example.3 In those cases, I don’t mind taking a 3DS with me, because it doesn’t add a ton of weight compared to all the stuff I’m already carrying.

The rest of the time, I use it at home, just like I used every other portable videogame I ever owned.

And, purely from observing other people, I think most people use portable gaming devices in exactly the same way.

This also explains the difference between games on a 3DS, and games on an iPhone. The former are often deep, long games that don’t work well in short bursts, while the latter are typically small time fillers that can be played in short intervals. The two systems are used in different ways, and the games that are available on them reflect that.4

And it explains why the 3DS still sells well. If it were in the market for «things people carry along all the time», I agree that nobody would buy a 3DS. Hell, I wouldn’t. But people do buy it.

Just look at how portable videogame systems are designed. Even the regular-sized 3DS is not a small device. It’s not pocketable.5 Everything else — the PlayStation Vita, the 3DS XL, the 2DS, the Nvidia Shield — is even bigger. These devices are not designed for pockets, and never were.6

Picture of hand holding Nvidia Shield

Multi-purpose devices that do many things well enough are preferable in situations where space is limited. Most people don’t wear watches anymore, because phones work well enough for that purpose. Conversely, where you have much space, you want dedicated devices that do one thing perfectly. You probably own a TV, and maybe you own a tablet, even though you could use your PC to replace both of these devices.

If people use portable gaming systems where room is limited, phones will crowd them out. If they use them where room is not limited, phones will not crowd them out.

Gruber thinks that portable gaming is doomed because it competes in the market for «things to carry in addition to the mobile device people already carry everywhere». I agree that mobile phones will eventually crowd out almost all other devices in that market — but I don’t think portable gaming devices are in that market.

I’ll acknowledge that I might be wrong. I’ve looked for studies or statistics on the topic, and could find none. If it is indeed true that people mainly buy portable gaming systems to carry them along outside of their homes, then I agree that the market for portable gaming systems should be pretty much gone by now.

I think the evidence is not in favor of the «pocket displacement» hypothesis. The form factor of most mobile gaming devices make it clear that they were never intended for pockets, and the 3DS would not be selling so well if it only sold into the «things I carry in my pocket in addition to my mobile phone» market.

Further Reading

Pierre Lebeaupin:

When my little sister got a Game Boy Color in 1998 or so, we all used it at home (including her), with only a few exceptions like road trips (where we would take a lot of things with us anyway). On the other hand, these days I use my Nintendo DS Lite during my daily commute, and it seems from various online and offline interactions that I am not alone; it is hard for me to tell whether Nintendo portable consoles are being displaced in that market: I do see a lot of people playing on their iPhones and Android devices in the commuter train, but would have (even part of) these people been playing on portable consoles instead were it not for smartphones?


  1. Just look at how huge the original Game Boy is. That thing never fit into most people’s pockets. back

  2. Maybe this accounts for part of the difference in DS sales, and 3DS sales. But personally, I think it’s mostly due to games. The 3DS lacks the kind of fresh, novel killer games that made the DS such a compelling device: Nintendogs, Pokémon, Brain Age. Given its current selection of games, I actually think the 3DS is selling better than it should. back

  3. Or, as a kid, when I went to school. But even then, bringing the Game Boy along was a rare occurrence. back

  4. The difference in the games available for the two types of devices also shows why this is not the same as mobile phones displacing point-and-shoot cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras provide a specific feature: they allow you to take an okay picture quickly, without knowing much about photography. Well, mobile phones do the exact same thing. Mobile phones cover that feature flawlessly.
    The same is not true with portable videogames. Mobile phones don’t provide the same kind of gaming experiences that portable videogames do. They don’t cover that feature. back

  5. Unless you wear Tactical Internet Pantsback

  6. Game Boy Micro excluded. back

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