Given how 2020 unfolded, it isn’t surprising to see how virtual experiences have exploded, but they’ve been gaining in momentum for some time, with online gaming at the vanguard of this growth. Online communities are expanding as well, as are people’s acceptance and understanding of them. It’s fair to say that what was once a subculture has become mainstream, forcing organizations of all kinds into a turbocharged evolution as they pivot to adapt to this global digitalization.
For our latest Mind Sparks round table, we sat down with some friends with deep roots in gaming and online communities to examine these developments and asked ourselves, “What can brands learn from gaming communities and online experiences? How can they leverage those lessons to create more inclusive storytelling and humane interactions, both online and off?”
Eric Cruz, Executive Creative Director, Innovation & Design at Sid Lee, Los Angeles
Anick Beaulieu, VP Growth & Partnerships at C2 International, Montreal
Kelly Peters, CEO and Co-Founder of BEworks, Pioneer in Behavioral Science, Researcher, Educator, Toronto
Kathryn Guess, Product Marketing Manager, Storyteller in Chief at Microsoft Game Stack, Seattle
Going online and getting gamified
“Gaming itself as an industry is no stranger to having gone online. World of Warcraft and Quake, two of the most pioneering online games out there, fostered virtual communities since even about 20 years back. But perhaps the bigger conversation to be had here is how gaming is transforming the planet and evolving our way of life today.” — Eric Cruz
Our interaction with technology is ever-expanding. Perhaps less obviously, it is also increasingly gamified. How we quantify and qualify our real-life experiences has been affected. Think of tracking your health and fitness goals on a smartwatch or posting your kid’s milestones on social media. Think of the “figital” checking in you do with your virtual communities for likes and updates. These are behaviors that have been shaped by gamification.
This new wave of digital transformation has accelerated in the last couple of years as gaming has moved in from the fringe. Games are the new primetime platform, surpassing film and TV broadcasting in the battle for both attention spans and dollars. Gaming defies geography, crosses demographics, bridges political divides. Consequently, we’re seeing everyone — from brands to education to healthcare to government — try to find a way into this space.
Brands and community: Neighbors or infiltrators?
“Will people think that we're being opportunistic in showing up here? Or will people think that we're a part of this community? Those might be some of the same questions that we might have about brands as they move into the virtual world.” — Kelly Peters
Eyebrows are raised when a brand approaches a community. What are their intentions? Are they authentic? The answers to those questions determine if they’ll be trusted and welcomed. When approaching gaming, brands can’t just put on the right jerseys, use the right lingo, and hope for the best. As brands and marketers, our intentions have to take the community’s identity and interests to heart. Our approach has to be based on positive and beneficial action.
One way we might achieve this is by working with tech companies and governing bodies to help make gaming a safer place. Technologies like Azure and PlayFab, developed in partnership with the communities they serve, act as guardrails. This collaboration with the virtual-world citizens they seek to protect is crucial, and a key takeaway for brands and marketers.
Relevant action is another potential way in. Rock the Vote’s “Build the Vote” and H&R Block’s “TaxCraft” virtual tax center in Minecraft are good examples of engagement with a generation growing up in the virtual world. But this kind of engagement takes developing an understanding of new contexts, and there is no shortcut to understanding that gets around research.
2020 underscored the importance of R&D in helping organizations weather quick change; the same goes for exploring new territory. Technologists, data analysts, behavioral scientists, and the creatives who love gaming must be let into marketers’ bubbles. They’re not only a source of insight into gaming as a new brand frontier, but a lodestar for ethical engagement, the critical performance index in community marketing.
The communities we hope to reach online are cohesive but incredibly diverse. There seems to be something in gaming that helps blur the boundaries keeping us apart in real life. That gaming principles bring people together is an obviously compelling idea to marketers and brands, and it prompts inquiry into whether they can do the same in other contexts.
Competition, play and community
“The reason that gaming works — where you can have a Trump supporter and you can have the most liberal Bernie democrat play a game and get along — is because we all like to have fun…. And because we're all in pursuit of fun, in pursuit of happiness. It works because we all want it to work.” — Kathryn Guess
Competition is central to the gaming community. It pits players against each other, but it doesn’t preclude community. Take a look at the Olympics for a sense of how those facing off against each other for the win can feel a sense of unity in the endeavor. Competition pushes us to perform and it teaches us to be better, to win better and lose better, to maintain perspective no matter where we end up on the podium. And in the struggle to win is always — ideally — a sense of the value of the act in and of itself. This love of the engaging in the game is the glue that holds together the diverse communities of online gaming. It is, in essence, play.
Play is key to gaming, as well as the joy, thrill, and sense of engagement derived from it — it’s a chance to lift yourself out of your life and into an active, imaginary adventure. Is it escapism? Some people may live virtual lives, spending all their time in game worlds, and maybe to some degree this is to avoid real-world challenges. But these channels actually help people connect in healthy and productive ways. Play in this case is what builds communities and it benefits from the freedom to take risks – a freedom emblematic of frontier spaces. Marketers and brands hoping to enter these frontier spaces should regard risk-taking as full of a similar potential.
Taking risks on the virtual frontier
“It might be scary for people who didn't grow up gaming to recognize that the pioneers have started to, you know, build the play. How do you, as someone who doesn't have a history of gaming, understand that ethos, the community, and also maybe the risks?” — Kelly Peters
Frontier communities thrive because they are free. But left too long without oversight or legislation, they’re apt to become lawless. It’s why the West was wild. Gaming jumped from entertainment’s bargain bin to its top shelf very suddenly and its communities are vital and evolving. The freedom that allows them to take risks and play is the same freedom that makes them exciting but risky to engage with. Marketers must be open to the expertise of the frontier’s pioneers for help navigating and deepening their understanding of it.
Part of the freedom of online life lies in anonymity. It enables play and fosters healthy risk-taking, but it makes the virtual frontier volatile. Its darker side manifests as bullying, trolling, loss of restraint, and warring tribalism, and the greater part of online behavior is not systemically policeable.
It’s not a brand’s right or role to impose dictates or membership criteria on communities it enters. We must rely on personal responsibility, trust, and the individual’s sense of civic duty, despite the armor of anonymity. A community’s parameters have to arise organically as a reflection of its ethos, but if a brand is welcomed as a neighbor or a partner, perhaps it can lead by example. Given its recent direction, narrative evolution might be a fruitful avenue for brands to effect positive change.
Narrative inclusivity and diversity IRL
“There is a push from the very tops of all industries, gaming in particular, for diverse stories. And so not only are people making them, there's a push for them: ‘Hey, we want to tell these stories.’ And I think that is a huge difference from where we were 10, 20 years ago.” — Kelly Peters
“I think we usually have this notion of seeing a gamer as a 17-year-old in his basement, but that's drastically changing; it's becoming way more diverse. Can storytelling and gaming foster a more inclusive and diverse society? Can they propel gender and racial equality?” — Anick Beaulieu
We want to experience stories through the lens of people we identify with, and gaming is in a period of increasing inclusion and representation. But this doesn’t limit our desire to people just like us. Fiction, creating it and participating in it, perhaps especially for interactive gaming, is an act of empathy, of putting ourselves in the shoes of another.
Representation has been an important element in narrative for a long time and the initial push for diversity in stories usually comes from those who feel underrepresented. But it is also the result of a natural evolution of the narrative arts, an organic change that reflects as well as feeds the society producing it. From this thinking, it isn’t too much of a leap to imagine that more inclusive, diverse gaming can help foster a more inclusive, diverse society.
Brands have a role to play in increasing narrative inclusivity. They can provide frameworks to be filled by diverse imaginations, foster communities within those frameworks, and help ensure that community life stays inclusive, civil and respectful by being inclusive and treating the community with civility and respect.
Real-world brand action online
“I think it's like a spice, or sugar. You can have just enough or you can have way too much. And one of the unfortunate habits of the marketing industry is to just dump the whole thing in right away.” — Kathryn Guess
“Brand say” versus “brand do” is one of the most important paradigms to ever affect marketing. To ignore it can be fatal. The last decade has seen companies work hard to bridge the gap between doing just advertising and having a positive impact. Recently, much of that work has aligned with the United Nations’ sustainability goals, with brands and agencies trying to make the world better, not just making and moving product, however much that product might benefit us or contribute to our happiness.
This will be as true in the virtual world as it is in everyday life. Because remember: more and more of everyday life is being lived online. One important thing that brands can do is to actively foster civil engagement and radical inclusion. They can tackle the tribalism, polarization, divisiveness and hate infecting communication technologies. Or at least they can try, and — this is paramount — really try. Because optics will not matter to the gaming communities they want to reach. Authentic action will.