Is gaming the new social?

BY EMMA -LILY PENDLETON

Nothing stands still for long: technology is infiltrating  every aspect of our lives – most significantly, how we interact with each other. But this isn’t limited to the influence of social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat and TikTok – today, the ways people are interacting socially online are far more widespread than that.

Gaming is where the most exciting developments in social media are currently taking place. And when you think about it, that’s not so surprising – for two main reasons:

Firstly, while Gen Z and Millennials still post on mainstream social media channels, they’re increasingly wary of doing so. They understand the power and pitfalls of the public domain. Younger generations are increasingly using anonymous accounts, or less obviously monitored places, where they can be their “real selves” online.

Gaming fits squarely into the latter category, with platforms introducing numerous ways to chat to other players, both via text and voice during gameplay. Gaming also provides young people creative opportunities for self-expression, such as buying virtual clothes for their avatars to wear, or specific dances for them to perform.

The second factor is the growing popularity of gaming itself. By 2019, the UK gaming industry was worth £3.86 billion: more than music and video combined. Then came the pandemic, and gaming’s popularity grew even further, unsurprisingly due to lockdown restrictions.

According to a report by Ofcom, nearly two-thirds (62%) of UK adults played games in 2020, with that figure rising to an astonishing 92% among 16-24-year-olds. This led to an additional£1.6 billion being spent on games compared with the previous year, a massive 30% year-on-year increase.

Gaming has long been a highly social activity, thanks to features like cross-platform play and multiplayer modes. And with most people trapped within the same four walls during lockdown, that social opportunity was heightened, as players yearned for a way to connect with each other during the height of a pandemic.

New social features

Lockdown measures have since ended, but human beings remain social creatures at heart. So it’s not surprising that these social gaming habits have stuck. Gaming developers continue to add new social features to heighten that experience, and keep players engaged with each other on their platforms.

For example, Epic Games has added cross-platform voice chat to Fortnite, the multiplayer game where 100 players fight to be the last person standing. That means players can use Fortnite as a platform to socialize, whether or not they’re actually playing the game at the time.

This kind of functionality means titles like Fortnite have become more than just a game. They’re now more of a virtual space to hang out in; a space for players to come together and socialize. And this trend isn’t just happening in multiplayer online games: even single-player games are now offering a more sociable approach.

The PlayStation 5’s Screen Share mode, for example, overlays a small ‘picture-in-picture’ window on your screen. That way, you can watch your friend progress through a single-player game, at the same time as playing it yourself.

The rise of the metaverse

At the other end of the scale is the ‘metaverse’, where millions of players come together in enormous, complex and sophisticated gaming worlds.

Fortnite, for instance, sees an average of 24 million players visit throughout any specific day, and over 260 million players every month. That’s ten times the population of Australia.

You don’t have to be a numbers genius to realize the opportunities for brands seeking to create a sense of community around their product or service. And some companies are already ahead of the curve, hosting virtual live events to capture the attention of this huge audience.

Logitech, for example, was the main sponsor of the first music awards show in the metaverse, held in April 2022 on Roblox; the popular game platform that lets users create their own games and play them with each other.

The Song Breaker Awards was hosted by social influencer Bretman Rock and featured a live virtual performance by pop star Lizzo. Tellingly, this event had migrated to Roblox from TikTok the previous year; further evidence that gaming is increasingly where the social action is.

Similar examples include the virtual concert performed by DJ Marshmello within Fortnite this February, which attracted an audience of over 10 million. But while it’s these enormous concerts that get most media attention, brands can often make more impact in smaller, more targeted campaigns.

For example, last October, Chipotle partnered with Roblox to host a virtual storefront, along with a spooky Halloween maze and virtual costumes for people’s avatars to wear. The brand gave away $1 million worth in burritos to the first 30,000 players who visited the store in a costume, and followed up with a similar event in April.

A SOCIAL Experience

It’s all a far cry from the days when gamers were characterized as sad loners, sat in their basements, playing only against themselves. Today, gaming is hip, mainstream, ever-evolving and above all, a social experience.

Gaming, in short, has come a long way. But it’s arguable that the biggest cultural shift is yet to come. What’s really exciting about the industry right now are the new possibilities offered by emerging VR and AR technologies.

Currently, most players experience games on flat, 2D screens. But new devices such as Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset offer a much more immersive experience.

Virtual Reality has been around for decades, of course. But it was until recently, quite a clunky, low-fi and disappointing experience. However the latest headsets, when teamed with the fastest computer hardware, are a whole new ballgame; they really do make you feel you’re immersed in a new world. If you haven’t tried VR for a while, give them a go and you’ll soon grasp what a huge revolution is just around the corner.

At the same time, Augmented Reality (AR) has also come on leaps and bounds. We saw a glimpse of AR’s potential impact when Pokemon Go swept the world in 2016, but that interest quickly died off for most people.

But now, Apple is strongly rumoured to be working on a set of AR glasses, and Meta has already launched theirs, albeit as a developer-only version. Augmented Reality may be back soon in a big way, especially when combined with VR, in what’s known as mixed reality.

All that will dovetail nicely with the increasingly social nature of gaming. After all, if you can see each other’s characters in 3D Virtual Reality, or overlaid convincingly onto the real world, it’s only going to heighten the experience of gaming, and the sense of community and belonging surrounding it.

In short, the metaverse is coming, and brands are hustling to play their part in this new world.

Brand opportunities

Nike has been utilizing in-game sponsorships with Fortnite, creating an exclusive Nike Air Jordan outfit for in-game avatars. Similarly in March 2022, Selfridges, Estée Lauder, Bulova, Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana and Etro all took part in the first Metaverse Fashion Week. Hosted by virtual platform Decentraland – the event featured over 60 brands and over 500 looks.

As gaming worlds become more like virtual cities, will brands create their own billboards and other sites to market themselves to players? Another opportunity could be hosting live shopping experiences, allowing consumers to view products, clothes and more in virtual space. The possibilities are endless.

It’s important, of course, not to get too carried away by the hype. After all, back in the early 2010s, we thought 3D television sets were the next big thing, and look how that turned out.

But the thing to remember is that the metaverse is not just a prediction about the future. Many of its building blocks are already in place, and the main question mark is less about whether it will happen, and more about how it will evolve. Either way, whether gaming takes place in Virtual Reality, mixed reality or just on 2D screens, it’s fast becoming the next frontier in social media.

The brands who ignore this new reality run the risk of getting left behind. But for those who get on board at this early stage, the opportunities for engaging with young audiences, in the place they’re inspired  and most active, are immense.

At Dialect, we’re an integrated agency specializing in creating content that connects brands with gaming and tech audiences. If you want to discover more about how we work or collaborate on a project together, get in touch!


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