BY COLIN CAMPBELL
In a recent interview with AdWeek, Electronic Arts’ vice president of brand, Elle McCarthy, reflected on the ‘gamer’ identity. “I often get asked about how brands can partner with gaming or talk to gamers, but there’s really no such thing as gamers at all,” she said. “Did you know that only 14% of players self-identify as gamers and that is as low as 6% for women?”
McCarthy is well-placed to address the problem of “gamer” as both an identification, and a useful descriptor of a common activity. EA is a behemoth, spending $689 million last year on marketing. McCarthy’s job is to reposition EA as a brand, and that begins with understanding its base of consumers.
“Gaming is no longer a medium or an industry, it is simply interactive. You can now interact with almost everything through play, from an interest area like interior design to a movement like Black Lives Matter or exploring your sexual identity.”Elle McCarthy, vice president of brand, Electronic Arts
To modern marketers, a person who plays games is someone who interacts with digital worlds, often as an expression of self, or as an investigation of selfhood. This is a long way from the target consumer of yesteryear, who was generally a young man, or a teenage boy, who consumed games media, like magazines and websites, and whose tastes were reasonably homogenic and easy to predict.
Just take a look at games ads from 20 years ago, and how they differ from today’s creative output. The difference is a matter of breadth. Games are not marketed to gamers, but to strategic sub-demographics who play games.
Those young, male consumers still exist, and they are a significant sector. Most young men who play games wouldn’t dream of calling themselves “gamers”. Unfortunately, there remains a section of that demographic which is less happy with the way the world has moved on. Reactionary and toxic online activities – from “gamergate” to today’s Twitch hate raids – has changed perceptions of the gamer identity, and not in a good way.
The word ‘gamer’ is loaded with an imbalance of meaning. For the layperson, it merely signifies someone who loves to play video games. For others – most particularly people inside gaming – it also signifies someone whose identification with video games is a major problem.
This is a problem for marketers, and it’s particular to gaming. I follow a few hundred game journalists on Twitter. They are generally young, smart, and culturally attuned. I’ve noticed that whenever I see them use the word “gamer,” it’s in the context of some new culture war controversy in which identity intersects with gaming. It’s almost always used mockingly.
In contrast, movie and literature critics who use fandom identifiers like “movie-goer” or “book-lover” do so with respect, not scorn.
I searched for the words “gamer,” and “gamers,” on Twitter, for the first two weeks in September. Among a mess of bots and ads for streamers, the most successful result was this tweet, which posts pictures of an overweight man, and a Black woman, both of whom are bad-ass characters in the forthcoming game God of War Ragnarok.
The tweet says:
“Retweet to scare a gamer.”
It has over 9,400 retweets.
The tweet is funny, because we know that “a gamer” will find the mere existence of those two characters discomforting. In the past, games rarely featured fat people or Black people as powerful entities.
The discourse surrounding their reveal proved the point. Outraged gamers argued (wrongly) that Thor could not possibly be obese, and (idiotically) that Nordic mythologies could only conceptuallize white people.
The God of War developers at Studio Santa Monica purposely included a Black woman and an obese man as major players in a triple-A game, both as a signal that they want their stories to be representative of human diversity, and that they wish to distance themselves from gamers who find this shift uncomfortable.
For everyone who retweeted that tweet, a gamer is not a person who plays games, but an ill-informed reactionary. Gamers’ horizons are limited to an outdated concept of themselves as standard bearers for the pastime of playing and caring about video games. In short, gamers are seen as being sad and outmoded.
This isn’t mere semantics. The most common word for an entire industry’s core customer has morphed into an insult. If it’s difficult to name your consumers, how much more difficult is it to identify and to find them?
Game publishers skirt this problem by embracing the notion that gamers are a demographically useless identification. In the past, these same companies marketed their products, relentlessly and unimaginatively, at young men. But they understand that to do so now – or even to be seen doing so – is to turn away from a much larger opportunity.
A 2017 report from Pew Research found that 24% of men play games “often,” compared with 21% of women. About one in five people aged 18-20 play games often, but the same holds true for people ages 30-49. Around one in four people over the age of 65 plays games often, or sometimes. Those numbers are all going to go up. A report by NPD in 2019 stated that 73% of Americans ages 2 and older play video games, an increase of 6 percentage points since June 2018.
The Entertainment Software Association represents the interests of game publishers. Its annual report glows with positivity about gaming’s universal reach. Certainly, the data is impressive:
“Today, nearly 227 million Americans play video games. Two thirds of adults and three quarters of kids under 18 play video games weekly. Across all ages, 80% of players are over 18, and the average age of a video game player is 31.Entertainment Software Association Annual report 2021
In total, players are about half female (45%) and half male (55%). Players agree video games can bring together different types of people (89%) and create accessible experiences for people with different abilities (89%).”
The ESA report does not once use the word “gamer,” preferring “game player”. Gaming has become one of those quasi-universal pastimes, like enjoying music, movies, novels, sports. Nobody asks “do you like music?” on a first date, but “what kind of music do you like?” The same can now be said of games.
We are passing through a time in which gaming has transformed from demographic specificity, to something approaching universality. ‘People who play video games’ is no longer a useful category.