Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Navigating virtual playgrounds: how lockdown made gaming essential

By Pete Maginn, Director of Insight at Beano Brain, the insights consultancy from Beano Studios.

Animal Crossing, Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft. Before lockdown, these were just computer games for kids. Now, they have become the virtual playgrounds for an entire generation, key for communication, friendships and happiness and a channel that is particularly fascinating to explore throughout the pandemic.

Generation Alpha and Generation Z are a digitally-savvy group. They are pre-disposed to hack tech for their own purposes and, as lockdown progressed we saw them evolve gaming from an entertainment platform to an essential tool for communication. As kids struggled to talk to their friends through video calls without shared experiences, the ease with which they could chat whilst playing games made gaming the new virtual playground.

In the first week of lockdown 60% of the 2 million UK kids aged 7-14 we spoke to agreed that keeping in touch with friends made them feel better about the virus. But one month on, how they kept in contact had evolved. Initially, FaceTime and WhatsApp video dominated (42% had used each of them) but a month later, platforms that allowed them to play together and chat were seeing huge growth.

For example, by April, over a third (39%) of 7-14-year olds were connecting with friends each week via gaming app Roblox. Xbox Live use had increased by 6% from April to March and a quarter (25%) had connected with friends using Houseparty in April, compared to only 9% in March.

Roblox has seen a boom since lockdown as a result of launching “Party Place”, an additional function within the platform which acts as an online hangout and was created in response to the pandemic. Similarly to Minecraft, it has also benefited from a high degree of parental consent – being seen as an acceptable gaming entry point even among the stricter parents with games such as Adopt Me letting kids raise and dress their own virtual pets.

Fortnite has experienced highs and lows in popularity over the past year but, since lockdown, is now back on top. It has also shown what can be possible when platforms extend and experiment – its Party Royale mode broke new ground. Now, it is not just about being competitive, but is a space for players to mess around together and take part in light-hearted competitions and mini challenges.

Video games are also becoming venues for huge shared experiences. Fortnite hosted the virtual Travis Scott concert, Astronomical, a month into lockdown which drew more than 12.3m concurrent streamers on its first day, demonstrating the scale of the audiences that could be attracted to this new type of virtual event.

These in-game events also satisfy kids need for escapism, which has been hard to come by during lockdown, so it is unsurprising that Animal Crossing New Horizons role play and simulation offer has proved popular after its timely launch in March this year.

Virtual playgrounds inevitably offer opportunities for brands wishing to reach children and their families but there are several considerations advertisers must bear in mind. Firstly, and most importantly, these are platforms young children inhabit and will be subject to rules and regulations around advertising to children, including privacy and safety requirements.

Advertisers should also consider that Gen Alpha are incredibly confident online and don’t take information at face value – this is a generation that can and will question what’s online and brands looking to tap into Gen Alpha through gaming must have an authentic voice in this space. But the creativity and desire for connection of these children opens opportunities.

In our landmark study on Gen Alpha last year, we found that 86% of Gen Alpha kids enjoy designing, making and building things, so any activity that engages this trait will likely be more successful than a virtual billboard.

Fortnite has been one of the most creative platforms when it comes to advertising so far. Fast-food restaurant Wendy’s hosted a livestream of the game on Twitch where it co-opted one of Fortnite’s limited period food fight missions. It went on to win multiple awards and was seen as pioneering a new trend for brand gaming activity. 

Social gaming has been building for some time but, overnight, it has become the only way to meet children’s need for sociability. How these new behaviours evolve when school (in theory) restarts in September remains to be seen, but some are likely to stick beyond this period of separation – even as they once again experience the joy of real-life play and interaction.