In a world that is becoming more diverse, yet at the same time increasingly partisan, gaming can be a common connector. You don’t need to speak English to pick up a controller, you don’t need a degree to solve a puzzle, you don’t need to be an athlete to be a world champion and you don’t need to be able-bodied to be able to join in. Pictures are a universal language and play is a democratic behaviour, so gaming clearly has the opportunity to connect us all. But, right now, it’s the most mainstream thing that isn’t mainstream.
Gaming isn’t some strange new medium or technology that needs influencers or one breakthrough event to become part of our everyday language and culture. It already is. Most of us have played Super Mario and know that a mushroom can help a small Italian-American plumber save the princess. We know that you go down green pipes and jump on turtles.
We also know that health bars indicate power, floating hearts give you a boost and furiously hitting buttons will make you dash. So it isn't just a culture that’s unique to Mario; it has become part of our everyday lives, from "level up" or getting a "high score" to an announcer’s proclamation of "Perfect" being featured on nearly every rap freestyle last year. The names, nuances and nouns of our virtual adventures have become part of our everyday lives.
Gaming is more popular than Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter in the UK – the average 11- to 64-year-old in the UK spends more than 10 hours gaming a week, according to UKIE, the UK games industry trade body. But it’s a medium, behaviour and culture that is still perceived to be outside the mainstream. Why are we ignoring it?
The World Cup last year was awash with players from around the world celebrating by mimicking dance moves popular in Fortnite such as the Floss and the Dab. Of the 10 biggest YouTube live streamers, half of them are video-game streamers. More people watched the League of Legends World Championship final last year than the Super Bowl. More people typed "Fortnite" into their Google search bar than either "Trump" or "Brexit" in the UK last year. And yet it’s still seen as secondary to all other forms of entertainment, despite the fact that gaming revenues outstrip the UK film and music industries combined.
It’s a language we all speak, a culture that surrounds us but no-one wants to celebrate. There’s an opportunity for everyone to get involved: dancing US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez popped on to a Twitch live gaming stream and nearly broke the internet, while Drake manages to keep on top of the viral charts by regularly playing Fortnite with one of the biggest gaming stars, Ninja. But where are the brands? Like music and film, brands can advertise, sponsor, co-create and develop bespoke content.
We’ve seen brilliant campaigns from games themselves – 2018's "El Tornado" for Fifa or the Alexa Alexios for Assassin's Creed are two standouts – but look further than the category itself and it begins to dry up. Samsung Galaxy and Avengers: Endgame both created skins for Fortnite, winning a lot of attention from gamers but not much from the creative industry.
It feels like gaming is at the same tipping point in adland as social media was 10 years ago. The numbers tell us the audience and eyeballs are there, but there’s a reticence to invest. Do our clients know enough about the medium? Who owns the proposal – the creative or media agency? Are creative directors au fait enough to encourage gaming ideas or would that suggest they haven’t been working hard enough? Or is it a case of "chicken and egg" and there just aren’t enough case studies?
Difficulties aside, the simple truth is that gaming is now too big a giant to be ignored. In the same way that we used to stipulate what newspaper our target audiences read and now say what TV they binge-watch, every brief and audience profile should include a piece on what games they play and where. You’ll struggle to find another medium where there is that much lean-forward attention and potential to engage. There is a mountain-sized opportunity to connect with an audience, if we just pay enough attention to it.
Ben Shaw is the head of strategy at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London