Gaming was often considered to be a solitary pastime by outsiders. It has traditionally suffered from the stereotype that it’s populated by middle-aged men, alone in their parents’ basements, or pasty teens who are reluctant to get off the sofa into the great outdoors.

However, according to our 2020 Global Digital Report, more than four in five internet users around the world play video games every month, which would equate to a global gaming community of more than 3.5 billion people, if that figure was applied to the total internet user population. Of these, 37% are female. It’s not just something for the boys.

And gaming has had a boost in popularity since Covid-19 shook the world. More than a third of internet users have been spending more time playing video games since the beginning of the pandemic. Amazon-owned Twitch, the big gun in game streaming, has been growing at a phenomenal rate since March and now has 22 million+ daily active users globally.

The motivation behind the rise in gaming during a time when we’re confined to solitary indoor lives seems obvious. The boredom factor means that people need something to fill their time. But there are other significant aspects to gaming that have made it a lockdown success.

When the pandemic first hit, people felt the pressure to perform and be productive. We saw this displayed across social media feeds – from baking sourdough to DIY, people felt as though extra time at home should be put to "good use". But after a while, this started to wear thin. Gaming is intensive productivity’s antithesis - a chance for people to switch off. Much like reading a good fiction novel, gaming allows people to get immersed in a world that’s not their own, much-needed escapism from the pressure of real life.

But gaming has also become a place of community, somewhere people can maintain a sense of emotional connection to others. When I speak to my mum, she’s brimming with anecdotes of her time on Animal Crossing. It almost makes up for the limited socials she can have in the real world, for now.

My mum isn’t the only one. Discord, the app messaging platform aimed at gamers, has grown by about 50% since February, and has been downloaded a massive 74 million times since the beginning of August. Gamers want the ability not just to play games, but to chat, connect, build relationships and communities. The emergence of gaming features like Fortnite’s Party Royale mode point to a future in which people go to games to hang out first and foremost. As a recent Warc report stated, gaming is “becoming more social”.

While there’s been a lot of discussion about gaming as a potential space for brands to play in, this growing sense of community makes it an even trickier prospect. All communities have their own rules and marketers who don’t respect them can expect to be treated harshly. Understanding the way a gaming platform works, its tools and functionalities might be enough for a media buy, but for any creative campaign, you also need an understanding of the people within that community.

This is particularly important when looking to execute something cunning and creative in a gaming space. Travis Scott’s much talked about Fortnite concert was beautifully executed, but essentially a great media opportunity in a fresh space. Experimental, hack-style campaigns are more difficult to pull off – Burger King fell foul of Twitch users by hijacking streams with ad messages in exchange for small donations. It had failed to recognise that this went against the values of the community, where many users pay specifically to not see ads by subscribing to each streamer. While Burger King was smart in spotting an untapped opportunity to use Twitch’s tools in a clever way, it didn’t consider how the community would react.

There are examples of organisations that have managed to get it right. This year, due to the lack of real-life Pride parades in various worldwide lockdowns, Global Pride took its annual parade to Animal Crossing. It recognised the growing sense of community that the game allows, and amplified it with great success.

The work that we do needs to speak to the people we’re trying to reach as a priority – it’s about an idea that works for the community, not making use of a particular tool or functionality. This is a lesson that is equally as applicable in the gaming space as it is on social media.

The culture on gaming platforms is led by the communities that exist there. Engaging correctly with these communities is key to finding success when you’re there.

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This article was originally written for Campaign Magazine by our Chief Strategy Officer, Mobbie Nazir.