The gaming industry is not what it once was.
Gaming is not what it once was. It’s a bigger industry than movies and music combined. It’s more social than social media. It’s not a space to market, it’s a marketplace.
Some titles are playable movies. Some a distraction to get you through your daily commute. Others are fueled by competition.
Rage quits. Nerfing. Camping. Noobs. These are all things I’ve experienced whilst getting my ass handed to me on Call of Duty by some random squad of elite level teenagers. But I’ve started to see more and more examples of what I have been referring to as empathy gaming.
With the growing desire among marketers to create immersive brand experiences, the confluence of empathy and gaming presents an interesting opportunity.
Empathy is a vital marketing tool. Arguably more so than data. So the brands that can empathetically or emotionally connect with audiences are the ones that inspire loyalty, are memorable and trusted.
When brands enter the world of gaming, they reach new audiences. Acting in appropriate and empathetic ways means they can authentically influence and elevate the player experience. Game designers often put the player at the heart of the narrative, playing as the core protagonist and experiencing their journey in the first person, but what happens when those journeys become so deeply personal and representative that the virtual experience can only be matched by its real world inspiration?
Sexuality, gender, grief and war are all subjects game developers and storytellers have wanted to explore and players are given an opportunity to step into their lived experience, no matter how delicate or traumatic the output may be.
There have been plenty of games in the past that aren’t necessarily about winning. Hideo Kojima’s genre-defying Death Stranding features a lot of gametime spent delivering cargo to various post-civilisation locations, with some stunning supernatural twists, but really it’s all about connection. Connection to life and death, and connection to one another, whether that be geographically or emotionally.
Taking that one step further, Gerda: A Flame in Winter is not only just not about winning, because there is no way to win, it’s about making the best decisions you can in the moment, in an impossible scenario. A role playing game that never fully puts the main character (or player) in control, as you play through the tail end of WWII, navigating moral dilemmas, showing compassion and instilling courage as you tell your own story through the lens of real life experiences and events that inspired the game.
An even more personal experience is developer Taylor Mccue’s semi-autobiographical playable narrative of the author’s experience as a trans woman who gets drawn into sex work. He Fucked the Girl Out of Me presents itself as a perspective on specific traumatic events, that doesn’t hand full autonomy to the player, they are there to experience what happened. And what happened hurt. It was not easy. And nor is the playable experience, but it does present itself as a representation and chance to comprehend trauma.
It’s a technique filmmakers have utilized since the dawn of cinema. For example, the Oscar nominated film Aftersun found success with its intimate portrayal of a father and daughter relationship based on director Charlotte Wells own life.
An even more immersive cinematic experience can be found with This is Not a Ceremony from filmmaker Ahnahktsipiitaa, who originally hails from The Piikani Nation. “This is not a metaphor. This is not a simulation. This is real life”. A VR world that shines a light on the grim realities Indigenous Peoples have experienced, showcasing systemic racism and laying bare the cruelty of colonial oppression. It then leaves the audience with a challenge, “Now that you know, just what are you going to do about it?”.
These empathy-centered storylines can also be used to connect the audience not just to personal trauma and social issues, but also ecological ones. The new BBC Earth Experience in London aims to inspire visitors to protect the planet by providing an immersive journey through the natural world narrated by David Attenborough. Spending 1 hour in this type of experience can make the climate crisis message feel more real than a dozen non-descript news stories about carbon emissions. Experiencing other perspectives is vital to driving behavioural change.
And it isn’t about the budget. Whether it’s an 8-bit computer game, an indie film with a micro budget or a deeply personal virtual reality experience, storytelling and documentation that puts audiences at the heart of a narrative or experience is a powerful tool for creators to generate awareness and empathy. Brands don’t need to be constructing a metaverse to put their audiences at the heart of the world, IP or product, they can develop a simple playthrough or RPG to communicate their story and connect more deeply.
Turning up in other worlds is another way to bring interaction and impact, but I’m not talking about overt brand or artist collaborations in Fortnite. First person shooter Borderlands teamed up with a scientific research programme to collate data for a real world project. A mini-game housed inside an arcade machine that not only played into the wider Borderlands world and game narrative, but rewarded players for taking part with in-game loot. Tapping into the gaming community to create a virtual experience that has genuine impact in the real world.
Elevating, not interrupting the gaming experience is key for audiences to accept moments of marketing in their worlds.
Heinz has achieved this with Hidden Spots. Knowing that players struggled to find a window to grab a bite to eat during gameplay, Heinz teamed up with Activision to identify safe in-game locations where players could park their characters and fuel up in the real world.
Insight + empathy = genuine in-game utility.
In a world where audiences are more accepting and expectant of entertainment from brands, it’s most effective when brands work to better communicate and connect through gaming and playable narratives. Most importantly gamification doesn’t mean players or audiences are always looking to win. They are looking to progress, develop and level-up, but the focus should always be on the experience they have along the way.
Cover image source: Anton