The generation born between 1997 and 2012 – commonly referred to as Gen Z – is entering adulthood en masse. Around one in three people alive today is Gen Z. More than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce will be Gen Z by the end of this decade.
Gen Z’s influence on gaming is already significant. This is the first generation born into the internet age. They are best known for their digital fluency, and their willingness to congregate, socialize, play, and create, in online spaces. During their childhood, they transformed the gaming world as they played metaverse-signaling games such as Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox.
They have already made significant inroads into the creator economy. Their most desired career choice is still “influencer”. It’s a fair assumption that they have already taken over as the generation that most effectively defines “influence,” and that gaming will have a larger part to play in their emerging cultural milieu, than in any previous generation’s.
In the years to come, as they assert themselves further, and as their economic and cultural power increases, they are likely to create major changes in the world of digital entertainment, not least through the understanding, development, and deployment of tools that aid content creators, and that resolve current monetization limitations.
Figuring out solutions
“I think every gaming company in the world should be scared,” says Connor Blakley, the 23-year old CEO of marketing agency Youth Logic, which has worked with companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi on Gen Z-related campaigns. “The world is full of kids who are figuring out solutions to problems that will take these companies to task.”
Scott Humphries is a co-author of the white paper “Impact of Gen Z on the Gaming Market” for game development agency Amber, where he is head of product development. He says: “Gen Z wants to be relevant, authentic and digitally connected. They are digital artists using platforms like TikTok and Roblox as their form of expression. They are the largest consumers of video games and digital entertainment in the world. They enjoy playing together more than alone and their play habits will shape our industry for the next 20 years.”
Amber’s white paper goes into detail about the habits and expectations of a generation that currently spans adults in their mid-20s, down to middle-schoolers. As you might expect, they are a diverse bunch, with marked differences between those who are younger, and those who are older. But they share a generational commonality through their relationship with digital spaces.
“Social media apps, online community forums and video games allow Gen Z to engage with each other without the constraints of previous generations like geography or proximity or even language barriers,” says Humphries. “From a cultural and psychological standpoint it’s much more natural for them to connect socially through digital means than previous generations.”
Knocking down borders
He says that while previous generations necessarily spent their younger years in physical spaces, Gen Z and younger kids spend a great deal of time in online places, like Discord, while they are sat at home. This is where, he says, “broader groups from all over the world with similar interests aggregate and co-create millions of entertainment hours for each other through these experiences, really, knocking down any borders that hindered previous generations from connecting in digital experiences and games.”
This affinity with digital social spaces, and this appreciation of games as social hubs, comes with its own frustrations. Countless millions of childhoods were marked by the recent pandemic, in which children were required to play and to learn online, for months on end. This has created an urgent problem of creating digital spaces that are both enjoyable, and useful, not to mention democratic. Thus far, efforts by the likes of Meta have failed to deliver results.
COVID also saw an explosion in the popularity of collaborative games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, or highly social games like Among Us. While Gen Z is not the first generation to enjoy multiplayer games, its usage of them is far higher than previous generations. The variety of available options is also much higher.
“Online game experiences – both competitive and collaborative – will remain at the top of Gen Z’s list of preferred experiences for the foreseeable future,” says Humphries.
Another defining characteristic of Gen Z is their relationship with digital information. Although they read books less than previous generations, they have enjoyed unprecedented access to a dazzling amount of information, all their lives, through smart phones, and social media apps. The unreliability of this info has produced a generation that is accustomed to disinformation (though not immune to its effects) but also one that has a sophisticated understanding of how information is presented, consumed, and repackaged.
“I think it gives us a different appreciation for face-to-face interaction,” says Blakley, echoing the current mania among social-entertainment companies to create VR metaverse-like spaces with human avatars. “Gen Z really looks at technology and social media as a tool that’s always been there, and not something they just got sucked into at some point in their lives.”
Blakley believes that Gen Z will be at the forefront of solving the user-interface and business model obstacles that current companies are struggling to understand. “No company out there has cracked the code [on metaverse]. I’d bet the house on Gen Z delivering the entrepreneurs and the communities that bring it to life.”
He adds: “Gen Z has a certain lens and a certain set of skills to be able to translate the future into something that is practical for consumption and inherently valuable, but also, really made for Gen Z.”
In the meantime, Blakley warns today’s executives against making too many simplistic assumptions about an entire generation of young people. “There are levels of nuance in Gen Z subcultures that data-driven research is failing to detect. The only way to understand Gen Z is to have an ear to the ground, to have Gen Z people in the boardroom. I spend a lot of time in boardrooms and I have not seen an example of us doing that for a company where they didn’t thank us.”
Image credit – Fox / Pexels
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