Before exploring the ways in which video gaming has become social, let's first recognize that games have been a social experience for centuries. Take card games as an example; games that can be played by oneself, such as Solitaire, are the exception whereas social games such as Poker, Bridge, Cribbage, Canasta and Pinochle are far more common.
Playing early computer and console games was an isolated experience out of necessity. While some games, such as the classic Pong, were designed for two people to play simultaneously, the limited controller, CPU, and graphics capabilities of early PCs and gaming consoles required that most games be single-player activities or, at best, turn-based games that permit one person at a time to play. In addition, the lack of online access made it impossible for gamers to play one another except in physical proximity.
All of this changed with the Internet. Yahoo Games, which is one of the most popular casual gaming sites on the Internet, has been permitting geographically-dispersed consumers to compete against each other via simple games like poker and backgammon for around ten years.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) have their roots in pre-Internet mainframes and online services such as Genie, but they exploded to huge audiences in the late 90s with games like Ultima Online and EverQuest. Today, MMOGs such as World of Warcraft can draw subscriber bases of greater than 8 million players.
Gaming has also grown more social in a face-to-face way. Unlike most PC games, consoles such as Playstation and Xbox were designed to facilitate real world competition between players sitting in the same room. The biggest change in face-to-face gaming came in 2006 with the release of the Nintendo Wii; the Wii created a huge wave of social gaming, drawing a far more diverse group of players than had been typical of video games up to that time. The popularity of Nintendo's gaming platform is such that today there are roughly as many Wiis as Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s combined.
With the current state of console games and online gaming, it should come as no surprise that video games are popular. According to a new national survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 97% of kids play video games. This is not shocking, but this next fact may be, particularly if you subscribe to the stereotype of the lonely gamer: Nearly two-thirds play video games to socialize face-to-face with friends and family, while just over a quarter said they play with Internet friends.
The old gamer stereotype has to change in another way: Not only aren't gamers isolated, they also are not overwhelmingly male. Pew says that 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls are video game players.
Marketers can draw two insights from this new data: The first is that gaming is widely accepted among both genders (and this is true not only of kids but also of adults, as we've noted in the past.) The second is that creating a truly engaging game that draws and keeps attention will increasingly require social features such as head-to-head play, competitive challenges, and in-game chat and communication.
A recent example of an advergame with social hooks is Spicy Town, a simple game of exploration launched by ConAgra's Slim Jim at SpicySide.com. Players can create their own demented-looking Slim Jim avatars, explore a side-scrolling 2D environment, collect Slim Jim points, challenge other players to combat, and chat with folks who are strolling through the virtual environment. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for the Slim Jim consumer, it provides an engaging game-like experience.
Let us have a moment of silence for the passing of a stereotype. The world is a better place thanks to all those teen boys who valiantly dedicated their lives to the ideal that anyone, regardless of their age, race, and gender, could enjoy gaming as a part of everyday life. Those early adopting males have delivered to marketers a golden gift--a means to capture and hold the attention of consumers with branded games that offer consumers a fun and memorable experience while imprinting a positive brand impression.
Note: I'm on vacation this week but worked a little ahead to keep the content flowing on this blog. If you comment, I won't be able to read and respond to your message until this weekend.