People who have been on a Zoom call with me can undoubtedly tell that video games greatly impact my life. Having been an avid gamer since the Atari 2600 days, I have seen the gaming world evolve over the years. According to IDC Data, what was once thought of as a kid-friendly pass time has matured, posting revenue that rivals the movie industry and North American sports combined with a whopping $180 billion in global sales in 2020.
Gaming is big business, and companies like Microsoft, Valve, Nintendo and Sony are making investments into their platforms to ensure they keep the needle moving. New players are entering the gaming space like Amazon, Google and most recently, Netflix. So we can expect to see even more innovations as these behemoths battle it out in the gaming wars.
Apart from the money side of the industry, the profile of the actual gamer has changed. The days of video games being just a “Dude Bro” platform for teenage boys have ended. Women now make up a significant percentage of Core gamers. The age range of gamers has also shifted. Data from ThinkNow audience segmentation tool, ConneKt shows that of self-identified Core gamers surveyed, those ages 23 to 38 are the largest segment, and gamers ages 39 to 54 represent the second-largest.
From a multicultural perspective, the race and ethnicity of the average gamer in the U.S. today is changing, with Asian, Hispanic and African American gamers now making up approximately 44% of Core and Hardcore gamers as seen via ThinkNow ConneKt in 2020.
The gaming industry is big and growing. As a gamer myself, experiencing this evolution over my 50+ years of engaging with the various gaming consoles and devices has been fascinating. But with growth comes growing pains. This is especially true in regards to storytelling. Game developers have struggled to tell more mature stories within the gaming ecosystem. Games like The Last or Us 1 & 2, for example, are visual, interactive tales of gritty apocalyptic scenarios that rival Hollywood scripts.
But as gaming audiences expand in both age and diversity, there is a longing for more inclusive and representative stories here. If the gaming industry can accomplish that, they provide a richer experience for gamers and cement their seat at the table of the world’s elite in the entertainment industry.
The challenge is figuring out how to deliver that inclusive and representative game authentically. For die-hard gamers, the fictitious worlds they play in is an escape, where their alter egos save the world or score touchdowns. So, simply checking the diversity box by introducing a character of a different ethnicity or capability without context may appear disingenuous.
Take The Wolfenstein, for example. For those not familiar, this is a First-Person Shooter game featuring B.J. Blazkowicz, the main hero protagonist whose sole purpose in every game in the series is to take down an oppressive regime. When the game launched, the storyline was very basic. In 2014, the developers released Wolfenstein: The New Order, featuring enhanced visuals and an updated storyline. Now set in 1960, the regime had won, and the hero was charged with forming a resistance.
There was a fantastic cast of well-developed, diverse characters introduced to the series at this point that made the game, for the first time, feel like it was written for a more mature and modern audience. The game was well-received, and sales soared.
Fast forward to 2019 to the launch of Wolfenstein: Youngblood, which experienced fewer favorable reviews and less love at checkout. The core complaint was the story and its new protagonists. Gamers can now play as either Soph or Jezz Blazkowicz, twin daughters of the previous series protagonists B.J. Blazkowicz. That may sound exciting, but it didn’t feel native to the game and rung hallow. Equally underwhelming was the use of the diverse supporting cast introduced in previous games. Diversity – check. Cultural context and authenticity – not even close. The ill-attempts to incorporate diversity and inclusion into the game failed, not because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but because they didn’t do it well, which diminished the brand in the eyes of the gaming community.
While this is just one example, the lesson to learn from the Wolfenstein series (and other games trying to do similar) is that it’s not enough to check the boxes now. A lack of thoughtfulness and authenticity in developing characters and their narratives in video games will be quickly and loudly criticized by today’s more mature gamers.
There are tangible benefits to creating well-written inclusive stories, and ConneKt data validates that. Over 41% of Core and Hardcore gamers indicate having openly criticized and unfollowed brands for content or messaging they felt was not authentic.
Does this mean every game needs inclusive or diverse angles to it? No. There are a number of genres and play types that don’t have story elements to them, or they are just basic and don’t support that kind of inclusive element. However, today’s mature gamer will reward developers who put in the effort to craft diverse, inclusive stories that are thoughtful and genuine.