In the first in a new three-part series which draws on its new Gaming dataset, Market Intelligence Manager for GWI Chris Beer, dives into the social side of gaming, and the potential for marketers in video game worlds.

Gaming has entered more and more marketers’ radars over the last 12 months, but misconceptions and stereotypes about the field are still plentiful. There’s a lingering image of the young, male, and usually antisocial gamer. Think of the Big Bang Theory guys doing “Halo night”, or the kids in South Park playing World of Warcraft.

As has been covered on this blog before, gaming has moved on from that stereotype, if it was ever accurate in the first place. And with persistent multiplayer worlds easier to drop into than ever, gaming has become a kind of social media; a network of people all focused on doing something they enjoy and sharing their interests with others.

And just as with social media, it offers brands the chance to make meaningful activations with an engaged audience – assuming they get their execution right. 

Just looking at players of specific devices or even franchises doesn’t quite give the whole picture. Someone might play Minecraft on their own in survival mode, without ever touching the multiplayer. So it’s important to really delve into who your audience is and craft meaningful gamer segments, as you would for any other demographic, drawing particularly on their motivations to play.

Gaming is a “third place”
It’s eye-opening to see just how central the social aspect is to gamers in 2021. More gamers play to socialise with friends (26%) than to escape from reality (22%), or to immerse themselves in storylines (18%). 

Here’s another way of taking that insight – players are more likely to see gaming as an enabler of their social networks, and not a retreat from them. Fundamentally, it’s something that brings people together more than it splits them apart.

This has been cemented in recent years by the creation of bespoke “hangout spaces” in online video games, where there is less emphasis on gameplay mechanics and more on relaxed social interaction. This includes Fortnite’s Party Royale mode, Roblox’s Party Place, and GTA Online’s casino and resort. 

Coupled with other social-friendly franchises like Minecraft and Animal Crossing, these are sometimes referred to as “metaverses”, more akin to fully-fledged virtual worlds than games per se. We can also understand them according to the sociological concept of the “third place”, spaces where people socialise outside of their home and their workplace. 

Without wanting to get too technical, the implications for brands are fairly simple – these new universes create opportunities for impactful campaigns. 

Social gamers are committed and skew young
So who exactly plays games to socialise? 

You might expect social gamers to be more “casual”’, with all that that entails, but they do skew more male, and they’re more likely to have a “hardcore” interest in gaming, saying they’re extremely or very interested in it. 

Playing to socialise is particularly pronounced among the youngest gamers, the 16-24s. It’s sometimes missed just how much persistent multiplayer worlds have shaped their experience of gaming; younger players don’t really know the medium without it. 

Older generations might still remember gaming as more of a single-player experience, and online servers were a more niche part of playing, but it’s now as easy to jump into a gaming world online as it is to log into Instagram.

In fact, 16-24s are unique in playing games to socialise more than for the challenge. It’s the clearest sign of a generational shift in how they view the medium, and one that should overturn many long-held conceptions about it.  

Community and competition go hand-in-hand
Our Gaming dataset uses a recontact methodology, which allows us to profile different types of gamers against data points from our Core dataset, which gives further detail about how they think and behave when they’re not gaming.  

Broadly speaking, two themes emerge when analysing social gamers which, at first glance, may seem contradictory. They want to feel part of a community, but also to stand out. They’re team players, but also individualistic. 

The best example of this is in their most favoured brand actions. Their largest over-indexes are for brands who improve their image/reputation, run customer communities and personalise products. A real mix of self- and group-directed actions. 

Likewise, for their personal values, they over-index for saying both standing out in a crowd and contributing to their community are important to them. 

Putting these qualities into a gaming context, though, helps shed some light. These social gamers want to feel part of the communities around the franchises they play, but also to stand out from other gamers within them. 

Gamers will have avatars, characters, teams, vehicles, and just about anything that can be customised and curated to represent them. Being a Fortnite player, for example, is a part of someone’s digital identity, but that is in turn reinforced by how they turn out in the game. 

This is why cosmetics and skins in games like Fortnite can be so successful, as they’re effectively another layer of aesthetic competition between players underneath the traditional battle royale. Nike’s work is a good example, as it brought the exclusive, limited-run culture of footwear “drops” into the game. It was delivered in a way that added value to the players (new gaming modes) but understood the competitive dynamics particular to gaming. 

Even outside of competitive contexts, the principle of standing out while being part of a community still applies. Animal Crossing players can feel bonded through their shared experience of playing the game, but the islands they look after are very much their own. 

This is a crucial point that brands looking to get involved need to grasp. It’s not just a case of understanding the culture around specific franchises and gaming worlds, but also tapping into these virtual projections of a player’s identity. 

See you in the lobby
Gaming is a kind of social media, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all. You wouldn’t expect to copy/paste campaigns across any other social network, so brands have to do their due diligence on the community “feel” that is particular to each gaming world.

More to the point, gaming is a social media where competition and socialising are finely intertwined. Respecting that community has to be done in tandem with boosting the profile of individual gamers. 

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In our next gaming deep-dive, the GWI team will be taking a closer look at the characteristics of individual platforms and how marketers can cut through on them.