Since the days when crowds gathered around the pinball machine in the local arcade, video games have attracted audiences as well as players. Now social media has taken those audiences worldwide, super-sized and extremely profitable—some Twitch streamers reportedly make $50,000 for every hour of playing new videogames, and in 2018, the channel had more viewers for January than CNN or MSNBC did. The growth of mobile games and streaming videos, letting people access content from virtually anywhere, has contributed substantially to this phenomenon.
The communities formed around playing, watching and talking about video games can become valuable subcultures, not only to the people who find friendships and support there but also to game developers and other companies. Celebrity gamers as influencers, customization and personalization and increased means of connection are all community features that organizations can tap into. Whether marketing new games and additional content, hardware such as graphics cards and PCs or even products associated with the lifestyle, like energy drinks and apparel, communities provide a ready-made point of connection to gamers.
Communities are also a useful source of organic feedback, particularly at a moment when more automated forms of data collection are coming under increased scrutiny. Regularly monitoring community activity — particularly during and after events, tests and new content releases — can provide game developers with vital contextual insights so that they can properly interpret the analytical data that they do collect.
Henri Holm, director and CEO of Fandom Sports and former senior vice president of “Angry Birds” creator Rovio Entertainment, says that it’s important to let these communities develop naturally. “Fan communities are born around great games and IP. They are self-sustained and hosted, rather than centrally maintained,” he explains.
However, there are times when companies should get more directly involved.
Online communities have their dark sides, as the major social media sites have recently shown, and gaming is no exception. The 2014 “Gamergate” movement involved harassment of and death threats against many women and LGBTQ people, and the abusive nature of some game chats and streams is still prominent. Game companies are starting to recognize this, however, and have taken steps to curb offensive behavior: endorsements from fellow players, official suspensions and bans for using slurs and even simple must-read codes of conduct have had definite effects.
Holm agrees. “The key is to build strong community rules from day one and positively enforce them as part of the social interaction so the community recognizes the rules,” he writes. “Machine learning algorithms support the community and set rules to cross-check inappropriate content that covers text, picture and video content.” He also endorses blockchain as a solution for one of the other problems gaming communities face: bots, often hired by gamers, that wreck the economies of games.
It’s important for developers to get involved with shaping their communities this way, and not only to harness sources of feedback and potential sales or to prevent toxic individuals and deceptive bots from taking over. Properly managed, healthy gaming communities can be a significant source for good in the larger world, as when a Twitch streamer recently raised $340,000 to benefit a trans rights group in the United Kingdom by playing “Donkey Kong 64” for nearly 58 hours straight. The marathon attracted the attention of U.S. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as well as celebrities such as Chelsea Manning and Cher.
Young people stay in one place, or at one job, far less frequently than they used to. Coupled with the rise of the internet, particularly on mobile devices, this means that they often form close bonds based on shared interests or hobbies — and video games, whether watching or playing, certainly qualify. Marketers and developers can benefit immensely if they can strike a balance between allowing natural growth and curbing harmful behaviors, skillfully blend monitoring and analytics and be alert for opportunities to get their brand associated with top-shelf influencers and popular causes.
Isabel Kunkle is SmartBrief’s telecommunications editor.