Let's Begin at the Beginning
Lucy Gillespie — Managing Editor, The Lydion Magazine
My interest in video games began at age nine, when my upstairs neighbor/rival Jeremy brought home a Sega Mega Drive. One afternoon over cream-cheese and jam sandwiches, he introduced me to Sonic. What came next was less about “gaming” than that game: the heart-quickening chime of the intro music, the Blue Dude’s caffeinated ready-for-action bounce, his punky hairstyle and “come hither” smirk…the feelings were complicated, but one thing was clear: I had to have him.
We got the Mega Drive and it quickly transpired: I was no good. I spent weeks struggling through individual levels, only to return to Jeremy’s house and find that he’d finished the game and was on to something new. Sonic was “babyish” now, and the focus of my addiction—and unshakeable lack of skill—was deemed pathetic. But I’m an Ox in the Chinese Zodiac, and failure spurred me on. Now it wasn’t about Sonic, but revenge.
For the duration of puberty, I continued to be bad at video games…in secret. I was awful at Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, dire at Day of the Tentacle and miserable at Myst. It’s possible that with encouragement and healthy camaraderie, gaming could have become a healthy outlet for me. Instead, the pot was so soured with shame, jealousy, and criticism that I spiraled inward, suppressing my natural inclinations in the universally-understood origin story of trolls. To this day, games trigger a Pavlovian panic attack.
Just my luck, then, that I’d go on to marry a self-identified capital “G” Gamer. Oh, the irony. Perhaps he reminded me of Sonic? Perhaps he embodies the innocence and playfulness I’ve lost? While I believe we attract those who help us work on our problems, the relationship is less karma than culture. My partner introduced me to The Stanley Parable, Spiritfarer and Disco Elysium. He’s the reason I’ve followed the rise and implosion of Axie Infinity, and is responsible for my fluency in Twitch chat-speak.
But it would have happened without him.
Once a niche subculture, gaming and interactive experiences have become an integral part of everyday life and pop culture. Video games were conceived in the anti-establishment spirit of Gen X, then came of age through mass consumerism of the dot com bubble, but have outgrown both paradigms. Now we’re waking up to the myriad applications of gaming beyond entertainment. Advancing technologies like VR/AR and blockchain only increase gaming’s potential and potency. Like social media in the early 00s, gaming is beginning to show itself as a primary medium of human communication.
As the Managing Editor of The Lydion Magazine, I’m curious about how decentralized technologies are tackling the world’s “Big Problems”. To that end, I’ve devoted this five-part series of The Lydion Magazine to the gaming industry. As hot as things are today, what lies ahead is even more exciting–and inclusive.
To kick things off on an auspicious note, I sat down with our Guest Editors—Arka Ray, Jennifer Yi, and Jonathan Bankard—for a chat about the topics that motivated us to bring you this Edition. As veterans of the gaming industry, each of them has a deep passion for and unique perspective on the future of gaming. Enjoy!
The Rapid Expansion of Gaming Across Culture
Before we begin, it’s important to note that a conversation about gaming today would be irrelevant if it didn’t touch on game streaming platforms. The rise of Twitch, YouTube Gaming and the like show that audiences are no longer satisfied with traditional forms of entertainment. They demand charismatic characters and bold storytelling souped up with interactivity and community.
Gen X and Millennials once had to beg their parents for precious minutes to spend on 8-bit sidescrollers; they have now become primary advocates and spenders. Subsequent generations see gaming as a natural aspect of life. Where gamers were once a narrow subset of the population—largely young, male, and tech-savvy—gamer demographics have now spread across the spectrum. That player in your Fortnite games might very well be a girl in her early 20s who’s discovering shooters for the first time or a guy in his 50s who has been gaming since Doom. Mobile games such as Golf Clash, Rocket League, and Wordle are being played by even more varied demographics (like my Boomer mom).
Jen, as both a lifelong gamer and gaming industry professional, what do you see as the driving forces of this ubiquitous growth?
Expanding Psychographics for Gamers and Appetite for Games
Jennifer Yi — Co-Founder, Popularium [20-yr game industry marketing veteran, responsible for shipping Halo, Forza and other AAA and blockbuster indie titles]
JY: Gosh, so many things! I attribute the mainstream accessibility of gaming experiences to four evolving key factors: Hardware, infrastructure, software, and sociocultural impacts.
I’ll try to explain this succinctly:
The proliferation of mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, and the like) globally has essentially put a gaming device in everyone’s hands. For those who want devices specific to gaming, such as a gaming console, size-friendly and accessibility-focused gaming controllers have played their parts in opening gaming up to more people. Size was a problem I would relate to: fifteen years ago, gaming controllers would cramp my hands in just thirty minutes of gameplay. Going back even farther, remember the Sega Nomad? Super fun games, super achy hands. Now, I have gaming controllers in sizes that are far more comfortable.
Finally, if you’re a productivity nut (like I am) and you want to game, gaming PC prices have been steadily declining over time. As a teen, I built my own gaming PCs because it was cheaper buying the parts and building one yourself. Today, in North America, it’s actually the opposite when you factor in time. You can purchase a reasonably-performing gaming machine for less than $1k.
With infrastructure improvements happening all over the world, many more people have better access to gaming software through wireless connections, whether through broadband or cellular networks. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the U.S. has seen double-digit growth over the last ten years in not just access but improvements in the availability of data size, and speed as well.
What came first: more diverse games or more diverse gamers? That would be interesting to determine; regardless, today there’s a game for everyone. Like cookie-based RPGs? There’s a game for that. Like testing your wits as a space blob in a spy vs spy-type match? There’s a game for that, too. Like running…just…running? Yup, you guessed it!
While there’s room for more growth, game development is light years beyond the basement shooters and hardcore puzzlers of thirty years ago. Changes in hardware and software have opened the doors to an incredible number of new developers. Unity, for example, has created an engine simple enough for virtually anyone with time and elbow grease to build a basic video game.
Diverse types of game experiences pave the way for new audiences. One career shift I made at one point was to work for a casual games company. I wanted to better understand the “casual games” genre and audience. I went from marketing primarily to 16-25 year old men to creating marketing materials for women over the age of 40. It was fascinating.
There are three key sociocultural aspects to consider in relation to the growth of gaming:
- We continue to move (thank goodness) away from gendered notions and stereotypes of boy vs. girl interests. As a young girl I was tagged as a “geek” for having such a "boy’s" passion for video games. It’s absolutely normal now to assume girls play video games.
- The introduction to games is happening at increasingly earlier ages. Whether screens act as default babysitters or easy entertainment, a 2020 Pew Research study demonstrated that 50% of children under the ages 0-4 (and over 80% age 11 and under) are using mobile devices. It’s likely that pandemic shelter-in-place policies increased screen use by children.
- Gamification is the explosion of gaming as a business tool, which also normalizes the concept of and participation in game experiences. The frameworks that allow "players" to collect hotel points and air miles are subtle forms of gamification. These function like games by satisfying fundamental human desires for reward, recognition, status, achievement, love of competition (or collaboration), and a desire for self-expression.
None of these aspects addresses another key gaming trend: the opportunity for non-gamers to participate in gaming. The creators and viewers of game experiences have grown over time and it’s exciting. There’s so much room for more growth with non-endemic audiences, and what can be achieved with them.
Now that gaming is ubiquitous, game developers and publishers need to evolve how they approach gaming audiences in order to maximize the reach of gaming experiences. Historically, the gaming industry would a) combine demographics and qualitative studies to target an audience, and b) only consider players rather than creators and viewers. As gaming audiences continue to diversify, and our ability to reach just about anyone improves through search and AI, psychographics are playing a much larger role in audience definition and targeting.
A psychographic approach to game development might encourage developers to take more creative risks. I would find it incredibly interesting to start with a blue ocean by saying “let’s build a game that does ‘x, y, z’ with interesting ‘a, b, c’ new features and concepts”, then use psychographics to identify and size a player base that is custom-fit for the game. Usually, a developer jumps right into, “Let’s make a [genre] that does ‘x, y, z’…there’s nothing wrong with this, for sure, however, leading with psychographics may do a better job of pushing boundaries.
There are some challenges with psychographic approaches that will be resolved over time. Most quantitative data sources used by the game industry collect data in traditional demographic formats. If I’m going after an audience who loves battle royale games, for example, there isn’t a database I’m aware of that says, “x number of people love battle royale games”. Instead, I need to look at how successful battle royale games perform as a genre. Then I need to layer other game elements that may be appealing to existing players to come up with a Venn diagram of what our audience might look like. Yet the sophistication of search and AI now allows me to test qualitatively via the Internet for audiences I may not have found through demographic searches and quant databases. I believe you broaden your audiences if you look for psychographic intersections. I might even pull in creator-first audiences interested in writing game fanfiction, or curious enough to check out a few matches. I’ll welcome them all.
LG: Considering Jen’s insight, one major point for psychographics is that growth in the gaming sector is not just limited to the audience of players, but of viewers. Jonathan Bankard, with your background in developing games with and for streamer-influencers, can you talk more about audience behaviors?”
Streaming is Expanding the Definition of “Gaming” and Gamers
Jonathan Bankard — Co-Founder, Popularium [Xbox Live, Blizzard, built Hearthstone business from launch onwards]
JB: “Despite the explosion in active gamers, and the variety and scope of playable content, the most sizable increase has been the non-player audience. More people spend time streaming gameplay than playing themselves. Unlike radio, TV and film experience, the role of the audience is far from passive. Their follows, dollars, community participation, and loyalty to streamer-influencers are the wind catching the sails of the entire industry.
Of course, it’s one big feedback loop. Audience participation affects the type of games that streamers want to play and that studios want to develop, which then pushes innovations in audience participation. Gamers are the chicken and the egg.
As the scope, volume, and variety of gaming experiences increase, gamers are receiving an increasing number of options of where they spend their gaming time and dollars. Consequently, gamers are already looking for, and will look for even more, control and rewards from their gaming experiences.
LG: Jon’s insights bring me to ideas that I know Arka is very passionate about. Arka Ray, given your background in working with game developers, how would you say the definition of “gamers” evolving, as well as the definition of who a game developer is?
Changing Definition of Game Developers
Arka Ray— Co-Founder, Popularium [Launched Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, shipped 100+ titles on Xbox platforms]
AR: Like a lot of my fellow millennials, I saw video gaming evolve from its infancy to its current state. I believe it’s on track to become the primary mode of entertainment in the coming years.
In many ways, we’ve outgrown the old paradigms of interactive entertainment that we grew up with. Due to nuclear growth of audience, scope and technology, the lines between gamers, content creators, and game developers are increasingly blurred.
So let’s first look at the phenomenon of gamers evolving into developers—in gaming, “mods” refers to new games created from other games by changing elements of game design, structure or code to tweak the game operation, tailor the environment, or edit the overall experience.
For decades, mods have been a driver of gaming innovation, so the phenomenon of gamers creating games is not really that novel. Seminal games from Counter-Strike to Dota to PUBG/Fortnite can trace their roots directly or indirectly to gamer-created mods. Now, platforms like Roblox (to varying degrees of success) give gamers powerful foundational tools to build their own games—and I believe that these tools are in their infancy. Gameplay has become a creative, rather than iterative, process.
Another aspect of the phenomenon, as Jon talks about in his piece, is the creation of derivative content by streamers and gamers in general. The rise of Twitch and YouTube have turned gamers into content creators. The original appeal of streaming was the streamer’s advanced skill at difficult or popular games, but in an increasingly crowded market, streamers learned to garner followings based on charisma, direct connection with the audience, or unique high concept content. Once again, the potential of this market and phenomenon I believe is vastly untapped, but won’t be for long.
And finally, the trend of games-as-a-service models creating true accountability in the marketplace. Once upon a time, developers were in charge. They could make a game, ship it, and let gamers hash it out. But now, more and more games are moving towards service-based models, where gamers expect perpetual content to be delivered and the quality of ongoing content determines the long-term fate of the game.
With the advent of streamers, social media, Discord, and a lightning fast global meme-wire, developers are at the mercy of gamers. They can’t get away with shipping disappointing games, making revenue off retail sales, then ghosting until the sequel is ready.
In all these ways, gamers have never been more motivated, connected or empowered. But it’s not enough. The future health of the industry depends on democratizing the evolution of gaming experiences, facilitating ownership (over usage) of in-game digital assets that create true value for gamers and developers, and supporting more options for engagement with games beyond simply playing them.”
LG: What stands out from my initial conversations with Jen, Jon and Arka is the degree to which gamers now have a wealth of options when it comes to their gaming experiences and mediums. As a result they are demanding more power and control over their experiences, and game developers are delivering.
Aforementioned advances in technology, game design, game economics and community-building tools are empowering would-be game-developers with a wide range of tools allowing for:
- The creation of new types of experiences powered by new, emerging technology
- The construction of games as storytelling engines—developers are not just creating stories for gamers, but enabling gamers to create new stories for each other
- Experimentation with new and innovative economic models that gamers also embrace
- Reciprocity with the community through early access and leveraging networks to help develop, refine, and evangelize the game
Our current moment heralds an exciting transition of power. Until recently, the generation and ownership of narrative was controlled by gatekeepers. Now, the world is truly a playground.
Subsequent Editions of The Lydion Magazine’s five-part series on the gaming edition, will spiral deeper into the cyclical weeds of technology’s influence on human behavior. We look forward to entertaining and engaging with you.