In marketing and advertising, knowing who your audience is, how they’re changing, and how best to reach them is the job. That’s the work, and it’s no different when you’re marketing to gamers. But in marketing, there’s been a perception that we’ve figured out that audience — gamers like what they like and it’s not going to change.
The claim that “gamers are dead” famously isn’t a new one, but it’s really only existed in the context of cultural critique up to this point. But as an advertising creative at an indie agency and someone who has more combined hours in Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch than most people have at their current jobs — I have to say that it’s true.
Gamers — as a generic, singular, targetable group — are dead, and the ad industry is coping with the loss.
The gamer demographic has widened
To call gamers dead is slightly hyperbolic, in the same way that any headline saying millennials are killing whichever industry is hyperbolic. But there is a kernel of truth to both, in that the culture at large is changing to such a degree as to render our previous beliefs obsolete.
What our industry believed about the gaming population, from the demographics they encompass to what drives their purchase behaviors to their more abstract beliefs about the medium (Are games art? Should they be political? Is releasing on one digital storefront instead of another some sort of anti-consumer practice?) are being disproven constantly.
So, we’re adjusting. Marketers have been abandoning gamers as a monolithic audience and instead are embracing the nuances that come with an ever-growing and increasingly diverse population.
We know that more people than ever before play video games, with current statistics showing around three-out-of-four Americans indulging in them. And the demographics of these people stretch beyond the typical gamer stereotype in just about every possible way, encompassing people of any and all races, sexes, genders, ages, income brackets, living situations, behaviors, and beliefs.
As time goes on, more and more factors are driving this gaming proliferation. The physical barriers to entry are eroding, as we’ve gone from needing a high-end PC or game console to having the most popular shooters and fighting games on mobile devices — and in the very near future to needing no dedicated hardware whatsoever. Add to that the natural generational shift, where millennials and Gen Z have grown up with video games as a medium just as culturally dominant as television was for their parents (analogous to the changes in how Americans engaged with television in the 1950s versus the 1980s). Video games have escaped that niche media status that continues to hold back things like comic books, whose stereotypical audience is much more apt than with games.
There’s no single word for people who watch movies
To butcher a quote from The Incredibles, “When everybody is a gamer, nobody is a gamer.” That is to say, gaming has become so ubiquitous in American life (especially to younger generations) that the label of “gamer” isn’t useful anymore. We don’t have any use for a specific word that describes people who watch movies or listen to music or eat tacos. All of these (tacos and gaming included) are major parts of culture and life — but not defining parts of that life.
But that’s just part of it. The label of “gamer” is attached to an audience that isn’t just large, but broad, as well, with a variety of niches and subcultures that all intersect in various ways. Even the casual-to-hardcore spectrum is fairly useless in discerning distinct audiences, because casual and hardcore gamers alike will have wildly different individual habits, attitudes, and beliefs tied to their preferences in genre, hardware, content creators, and beyond. All of these influence the subgroups these people fall into, and these subgroups carry their own incredibly distinct cultures, the markers of which can be incomprehensible to outsiders even if they’re hardcore gamers themselves.
Often, brands will try to tap the gaming audience by attempting to be more authentic and “speak their language.” But that’s the issue: There’s no “their language,” because there isn’t a “they” anymore. Sure, having your finger on the pulse of gaming in general could tell you why the most-watched live gaming event on Twitch this year was a Fortnite stream displaying absolutely nothing as fans awaited the game’s biggest update since launch. But unless you’re attuned to the history, rivalries, and personalities of a niche gaming population like the fighting game community, you’d never know why this Street Fighter IV match from EVO 2015 was so incredibly special and emotional — a story some 20 years in the making by one Alex Valle (who I had the pleasure of getting handed a loss by at Combo Breaker 2018).
But it’s exactly that kind of emotional connection and cultural commonality that stays with people long-term and drives the purchase behaviors that brands so desperately seek.
Marketing to gamers doesn’t move the needle
The point is that when it comes to brands marketing themselves to these folks, a blanket approach to “gamers” isn’t the best one. For the most part, advertising to gamers writ large isn’t going to move the needle, and can even result in a negative response if a brand comes off as trying to visibly market to them, as younger generations who make up the increasing majority of gamers have a much different relationship with ads than others. Purely digital marketing efforts also leave much to be desired for gaming audiences, as most ad marketplaces don’t offer much nuance in audience data with regards to gaming behavior, rather grouping audiences based on the binary of “do you play any games whatsoever?”
That said, I don’t expect us to stop seeing first-person shooter characters on soda cans or GAMERS RISE UP-style ads any time soon. But because gaming is an increasingly endemic cultural medium, the brands that are going to best capture and keep that audience are going to be the ones who can establish meaningful cultural connections and up their share of culture.
Lately, the gold standard among well-known consumer brands for this has been KFC. Though we’d expect nothing less from the chain that was able to convince a whole country to eat fried chicken every Christmas, the Colonel has been able to capture attention across several cultural lines with some of the most out-there marketing stunts a fast food chain has ever put together. The most recent attention-grabber, a Colonel Sanders dating sim, not only garnered a huge number of headlines for the chain, but also demonstrated a much more nuanced understanding and cultural connection to niche gaming audiences in a way that few big-tent brands ever do.
All this leaves brands with two options to successfully message and tap gaming audiences (i.e. three-quarters of Americans): Study all of these super-specific niche groups, how they cross over and interact with each other, and how to sell them without pissing them off, or they can find people that already do. Whether it’s in the form of partner agencies, influencers, or creating in-house teams, it could be the difference between crossover success and talking to a stereotype that barely exists.