Gaming at the tipping point: The rise of the new gamer

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Sony "Doctor" by TBWA.
Sony "Doctor" by TBWA.

The category has expanded from niche into Gen Pop, bringing with it an expectation that the industry will observe a broader social contract

In the wake of this year’s CES, the tech industry’s annual Vegas extravaganza, the world’s gaze falls once again on the gaming industry’s marketing execs. After a somewhat scandalous year, they must now be accustomed to scrutiny.

Not long after the most recent #gamergate dustup, Sony’s European marketing faction stirred up fresh cries of misogyny with an ad on its YouTube channel. The video in question featured an attractive, buxom female "doctor" leaning suggestively over a desk while insinuating that viewers were, as Business Insider put it, "furiously masturbating." Scathing reviews from mainstream press sent Sony reps scurrying to whisk the ad off the air, but not before viewers were left wondering why this industry can’t seem to graduate from puberty.

Surely its data must reveal what the rest of us know from the universal presence of Cut The Rope on our morning commutes — everyone’s a gamer today. For every pallid, angry basement-dwelling teen gamer is a mom hooked on Candy Crush.

Gaming as a category has tipped from niche into Gen Pop, bringing with it an expectation that the industry will observe a broader social contract. After all, with great power, comes great responsibility.

Brands today are expected to take a moral stand on issues far beyond the scope of the products they make. As consumers, we vote with our dollars. Believe in marriage equality? Buy the right vodka (see SKYY Vodka’s #CheersToEquality campaign). Disgusted by the exploitation of low-wage workers? Abandon Walmart.  Want to help supply eyeglasses and shoes to children in need? Slap on your Warbys and slip on your TOMs. Gaming is no longer just for gamers.

For decades, video games were largely the bastion of the prepubescent male set. Not anymore. People from all walks of life are spending more time playing more games, more often than ever before, with women, younger girls and boys representing the bulk of growth in electronic gaming. Of course, this isn’t surprising, given the constancy of mobile technology and the resulting flood of addictive new games designed to fill our sporadic and unpredictable pockets of vacant time

Take the lens back further and we see other socio-cultural drivers for the huge growth in game playing that CMOs need to consider:

  • An always-on culture: With the death of the old 9-5 and today’s round-the-clock work ethic, the American living room is closed for business. No longer do we habitually unwind with two dedicated hours of evening sitcoms. Instead, we take our diversions where and when we can get them. Seven minutes of Flappy Bird in the grocery line, 22 minutes of "Homeland" on the iPad in bed and an hour of Minecraft after supper (if one’s homework is done, that is).
  • Digital fidgeting: Now that we’ve grown accustomed to filling every spare moment with on-screen entertainment, we’re increasingly intolerant of even a few moments of boredom. Witness the texting-while-driving crisis: legions of drivers willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to find the hotdog emoji at 60 MPH.
  • Satisfaction guaranteed: Games satisfy in ways that real life, with all its complexities, no longer does. Emerging from school with few appealing job prospects and forced to live at home with Mom, young people feel powerless, as though their actions have no hope of yielding desired outcomes. Games, on the other hand, deliver consistent rewards for our efforts and deeply satisfying levels of control all around.  Five minutes of Resident Evil will reliably furnish a few dead zombies.  In video games, seemingly unsolvable problems can actually be solved.

Google "Candy Crush addiction," and you’ll get about 805,000 results. Casual gaming addiction is a thing.  In a hyper-efficient culture, when more people are under more pressure than ever (with less dedicated time to unwind), gaming has never been more universally appealing and relevant, leading more diverse audiences to adopt it as an accessible and convenient source of contentment.

So the question is this: Why is it that gaming brands insist on replaying versions of the same old tropes – large-breasted women and hackneyed shoot-‘em-up scenarios? Clearly these are lowest common denominators appealing to the young male gamer. But that guy’s no longer the one to win. He’s just a small slice of a shrinking pie. There’s a much bigger opportunity in those who can’t get enough playtime but never thought of themselves as gamers before.

According to Nielsen, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) play games on some kind of device. And yet no brand has come forth to challenge gaming elitism.  Just as Target democratized design and Nike championed the athlete inside every body, we await – no, we desperately need – gaming’s Great Equalizer. Will our long-awaited iconoclast emerge now that the dust has settled on CES 2015?  Time will tell. … But, while we wait, we might as well off a few zombies.

Shireen Jiwan is founder and CEO of Sleuth.

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