The global games industry continues its ascendency, responding and adapting to both technological changes and user behaviour.
This has been the case since the emergence of interactive entertainment back in the 1970’s.
Today, looking at Facebook alone, 53% of users have played a game on the platform - that’s 290m people each month accessing games through this single channel.
As far back as 2005, research conducted for the BBC identified 26.5 million gamers within the UK, But mass market adoption of gaming isn’t a new trend.
What’s different now is that users aren’t just playing games on consoles in their front room. The emergence of mobile applications and innovations in streamed media and input devices means they can access and play games across multiple devices wherever and whenever they choose to.
So, it’s little wonder that brands are getting excited about games and seriously considering how they can leverage the massive reach and engagement they offer.
In a world where PlayStation became synonymous with TV-based gaming, we’ve become obsessed with labelling entertainment according to the device we play it on and the glossary of gaming - from mobile, social, browser and PC to Wii - keeps on growing.
But by trying to label and categorise this diverse spectrum of entertainment content we’re obscuring the true essence of what a game is.
Defining social games
A social game should imply that the user has accessed the game through their social network of choice and that the game in some way promotes competition or collaboration between friends.
In the majority of cases this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many of the most popular 'social games' utilise mechanics to incentivise the user to invite new friends or persuade lapsed players to reactivate.
But 'social' games are defined by their utilisation of complex multi-player gaming mechanics.
Scrabulous, for example, introduced many people to gaming on Facebook. Its simple turn based game-play delivered a genuine interaction that still counts as a better social experience than many current games.
So why is this important? Over the past twenty years games have become very adept at engaging and retaining users.
Users get a sense of achievement through improving skills, beating friends, progressing through the game and sharing their experiences.
This explains why after five years, so many users are still wedded to their Warcraft account - they can’t walk away from the time invested in nurturing a character.
Pokémon met our desire to build a collection and fill in the gaps. In user responses, Tomb Raider fans always pointed to a need to protect Lara Croft.
All of these are mechanics used to elicit user behaviour and reaction. Central to all these great games is ‘user skill’ - and this is what truly defines a game.
Mechanics that are widely used in games, such as rewarding a user with an achievement for clicking a button five times or visiting the same coffee bar everyday aren’t a game - they merely add depth to the skill at the core of the experience.
And if the marketer’s aim is to engage and retain users through games, then the addition of mechanics like this to existing digital propositions won't achieve their goals.
Gaming as a marketing platform
Games are about performing repetitive actions to increased levels of sophistication and difficulty, creating long spells of user dwell time.
For brands this offers a great canvas, providing they present themselves in a natural way that is additive to the game.
Some brands lend themselves naturally to this - Volkswagen’s iPhone applications were successful in driving tangible footfall, while Who wants to be a Millionaire? made the leap from passive TV show to interactive game with huge success.
Brand integrations within game worlds need to be both naturalistic and relevant to the user.
'Gamification' as it’s widely understood is a label that we need to lose if brands are to realise the power of gaming as a marketing platform.
The UK has a rich heritage in the creation of skills-based games that utilise complex multi-player gaming mechanics to deliver deep user engagement.
If we can harness these skills and integrate brands in a way that enriches the user experience then the opportunities become very exciting indeed.