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What does it even mean to be a ‘gamer’ when there’s supposedly 2 billion of them worldwide? As part of our deep dive into all things gaming, Luke Aldridge of Dentsu’s gaming division DGame argues that the industry needs to reach some kind of consensus on the term. He even offers up his own definition.

As the marketing world gets to grips with the inexorable rise of gaming as a new and exciting marketing channel, we are slowly and quietly attempting to move away from a polarizing word (‘gamer’) that is a compliment to some, an insult to others and somewhat confusing to many.

When people describe someone or themselves as a gamer, they mean someone who plays video games. This is a fair starting point, but lacks context. How often do they play? Is gaming their main passion or hobby? Have they built their own gaming PC? There are many factors that make it difficult to pin down exactly what being a gamer means in 2021.  

Back in the ’90s and 2000s, the term wasn’t as problematic. It came with nerdy connotations, a sub-text that anyone identifying as such probably spends a bit too much time indoors, transfixed by the latest arcade game or fantasy RPG (with dwarves and elves and the rest), and probably doesn’t have the greatest social life. But gamers themselves were not necessarily ashamed of being referred to as such. And between friends, being good at video games has always carried a certain amount of social capital. Even if it wasn’t the kind of topic you’d bring up at dinner parties.

Changing demographics

When reports claim there are close to 40 million people in the UK who play video games – and more than 2 billion who play globally – it has little strategic marketing value lumping them together in a single group. Those numbers encompass very different types of people, comprising different sub-categories or tribes with their own micro-cultures. Over time, as more and more people grew up playing video games (and, perhaps more importantly, became less likely to grow out of playing video games, continuing instead to game into their 30s and 40s) it was perhaps inevitable the meaning of the word ‘gamer’ would need a rethink.

Describing someone as such doesn’t make a lot of sense if it can be applied to most of the world’s online population. You wouldn’t call people that use the internet ‘browsers’ (you can have more fun with this line of logic – people who watch Twitch?) Therefore, context in 2021 around ‘those who play games’ is vital – it’s necessary to read the methodology to understand who is included in that number. It might be someone who plays online games at least once a week, once a month or even ‘once in the last 12 months’. Those of us who fall into the first definition might have trouble calling those in the last ‘gamers’.

The new world

Nowadays, if you say you are a gamer you are more likely to elicit a positive and curious reaction instead of a raised eyebrow and a hasty exit. This, one could argue, is largely down to two inferred possibilities – that you might be an esports pro-level athlete or a famous streamer. Both are now legitimate career paths, with financial rewards going to the winners – Ninja made $15m in 2019 off the back of a successful esports career (Forbes). Popular US streamer Timthetatman made $8m in the same year, the majority of which came through donations, ad revenue and sponsorships (also Forbes). He’s never been a serious esports player.

Segmentation (or the rise of the tribes)

To make things more straightforward, publishers and research firms often break down the audience by device, claiming that the PC gamer is different to the console gamer is different to the mobile gamer. This has some logic, but many of us are all three – so how does that work? Is one a ‘console gamer’ if they spend most of their gaming hours each week on the PlayStation rather than their Android phone? Is one automatically a ‘core gamer’ (meaning hardcore gamer) if one plays across multiple devices?

The real difficulty with this line of thinking is that, across platforms and devices, asymmetries exist in the likelihood of a user of one platform or device being a user of another. For example, one might speculate that someone who goes on Twitch every day is more likely to play games on their phone than someone who plays Candy Crush is likely to go on Twitch. This is true, even though both audiences are vast.

We seem to be moving further away from a consensus around what it means to be a gamer, rather than towards one. But rather than pontificate, it is time to stand and be counted. So, here’s my definition of a gamer: a gamer is someone who considers playing video games their main passion, pastime or profession. Everyone else falls into an audience who play games. For marketing purposes, we need transparency on methodology for reporting so we can segment the audience accurately and speak to them in a way that reflects their relationship to gaming, the platforms they use and how they wish to interact with brands.

Luke Aldridge is co-founder of DGame, a division of Dentsu UK&I.

For more on what the gaming sector’s pandemic-propelled popularity means for marketers, head to The Drum’s gaming hub.