Why there is no Barbenheimer moment for games

Why is it so hard to market to gamers?

I am involved with several marketing groups of varying sizes. Invariably, when there’s a big pop culture moment, marketers rush to tie themselves to the moment. Some of those efforts are big. But, most are limited to thought leadership. (e.g., “What you can learn from Barbenheimer/Messi MLS/Taylor Swift “Eras”?). You learn much about marketers’ priorities from what they post on LinkedIn.

At this point, I’ve stopped expecting that gaming makes the list of pop culture moments. Outside of gaming, marketers are not particularly interested that one of the best-selling video games of all time was released this summer. Or that the largest tech deal ever is nearly completed.

Ignoring gaming is patently dumb. But convincing skeptics with data doesn’t work. So I’ll start with a charitable position: gaming differs for non-gaming marketers. But why?

We often use a play/share/experience lens in our work because there’s so much happening in the space. And the scale of gaming activity generates choice fatigue that compounds cultural illiteracies.

So we encourage clients to take a big step back to outline why getting a handle on gaming is difficult. There are three main ways gaming “happens” and creates opportunities for marketers to plug in.

Play refers to any marketing activity inside a game universe (e.g., in-game ads). Share refers to any social interactions about a game. Experience refers to products, services, and events.

So for something like Roblox:

  • Play would be a custom world in Roblox
  • Share would be Twitch streams about Roblox.
  • Experience would be attending a Roblox meetup.

It’s all complex without a guide or internal resources, but each layer has unique marketing challenges. I will tackle Play first, and we’ll revisit the others later.

The nature of the gaming product itself is complex. Gaming has a dynamic relationship with its audience.

Other media is generally static. What happens from one game to another, or even one player’s experience to another in *the same game* varies widely. I’ve always enjoyed this chart from Michael Nitsche’s Video Game Spaces to illustrate what’s happening when we play.

We won’t get into the theory here (although I will return to it!), but Nitsche’s point is that playing a game is a complex dynamic. “Lean-in Media” doesn’t even describe what’s happening here.

When dealing with static media, like film/TV/music, there’s a sense that every fan has heard or seen the same thing. Their perception, opinion, or feelings on a media piece will differ wildly, but the source material is familiar. This is helpful when building messaging that speaks to fans of a specific franchise or genre.

By contrast, finding familiar touchstones with video games is tremendously difficult. Nothing is the same between players.

We’ve been following a popular title Baldur’s Gate 3, a Dungeons & Dragons-based game last released 20 years ago. You may not have heard of it, but it is currently one of the most popular PC games ever. But the range of possible experiences is immense, from having deep conversations with animals to sending your character into battle naked. (Also, sex. You can romance in quite a few ways.)

No two gamers experiences with the game will be the same. That’s a nightmare for marketers. Variance creates fear and fear creates bad marketing. It’s easier to work with stereotypes about gamers, specifically around competition. Getting granular is just too hard.

So what should you do when assembling a marketing activity inside gaming ecosystems?

First, look for “cohorts.”

In sociology, there’s a concept called “cohort effects” in research.

When there’s a considerable societal impact on a group (e.g., the Great Financial Crisis, COVID-19, an election), researchers have to explain how that event might change what they’re looking at. If you don’t, you might draw the wrong conclusions.

Video games create cohorts. Open-ended games, in particular, make it difficult to guarantee that there will be shared experiences among all players. But talking to players about their experiences can yield specific commonalities, frustrations, and achievements. Since your audience doesn’t only play one type of game, you’ll need to look across game titles to find connective tissue.

Second, look for themes.

Growing up, the life cycle for games was brief. A game would be released, I would finish it, and then I would move on.

Games are now transitioning to longer service-based models, which means the content is released on a rolling basis. The median age of the top 10 Twitch games is seven years.

Think about how much can change over a seven-year period. A player that started in middle school is entering the workforce. A young couple is now sending a child to school. Players have moved in and out of the space and share different experiences.

There are also moods for player communities that change as the game changes. New characters, stories, and game modes all change the tenor of what’s being experienced. You’ll need to actively track what has happened to determine what to say next. Don’t tell jokes if the mood is gloomy.