Towards the end of the 20th century, researchers went to great lengths to understand the Internet user. Now, with access to the world wide web much wider, no one sees Internet users as a homogeneous social group. Are gamers at the end of a similar road? Who is the Polish gamer today?
The news that Andrzej Sapkowski brought claims against CD Projekt Red, the developer of games based on his series of novels, has been widely reported in the Polish media, with many commentators being quite harsh for the author of the Witcher saga, reminding him of what he had said about his lack of interest in the game: “I know a few people who have played this game, but not a lot, because I tend to surround myself with intelligent people”. Sapkowski voiced a view expressed by some in the age group that grew up without this form of entertainment. The chances are that the writer, with little experience in this field, voiced a stereotypical opinion about those who enjoy gaming, offending a large and ever-growing group of Poles. Sapkowski’s opinion is broadly consonant with the view that computer games are a product of low culture, which had prevailed in Poland for many years. Games were seen as unworthy of extensive analysis by the social sciences, and if they were examined at all, they were devalued, e.g. their adverse impact on the development of children and youth was analysed. This perception, though, started to change rapidly a few years ago. One example is the 2014 book Gry komputerowe w perspektywie antropologii codzienności [Computer games as seen from the perspective of the anthropology of everyday life], where Radosław Bomba offers an extensive analysis of gaming. He points out that games are an important part of the convergence culture in which corporate developers collide with the bottom-up activity of gamers. An essential component of this type of culture is participation, which not so much not alienates individuals as leads to the emergence of unique social bonds that Manuel Castells calls a network society. In this perspective, computer games are not just entertainment but an important space of grassroots organization and struggle for representation.
In recent years, the change in the perception of games and gamers has significantly accelerated. The stock market valuation of CD Projekt Red has exceeded the value of Polish industry giants such as the metal mining heavyweight KGHM, and the rise of e-sport has paved the way for mass events and a TV channel, Polsat Games. Not surprisingly, according to Newzoo data, the Polish gaming market is valued at about USD 0.5 billion. The local community of gamers, which numbers 16 million Poles, is a large group of consumers and a huge market for games, equipment, and services, and increasingly often gadgets and other products, such as furniture or supplements. One Polish brand that is worth a mention here, CFX, is currently expanding into the global market. Gamers are not only targeted by brands directly linked with the gaming industry, as evidenced by food brand Wedel which teams up with influencers to market its products at Poland’s most popular e-sport events. But who exactly is the gamer? Should not the diversity of game formats and gamer habits lead to splitting the group into subgroups, even if only into die-hard gamers and casual gamers?
Gamers are a mixed bunch
An interesting construct is becoming more and more widespread in brand communication. As one user of a popular forum ironically said in response to information that a new product was designed exclusively for gamers. “I don’t have a player’s ID card, so I won’t buy it. I guess they’ll be checking the ID”. The ever more common personalization of products, if taken as a marketing gimmick, can have the opposite effect. The gamers tax, similar to the pink tax (e.g. where gear consists of nothing but designer components), can produce the opposite effect of what is intended. On the other hand, skilfully targeted offers, such as selling games in discount stores, can win stores gamers’ recognition.
Depending on which source we go with, we can assume that every second, or third Internet user in Poland plays games. The long-overdue Polish Gamers Observatory, a research project backed by the Polish Ministry of Culture, proves that the gaming community has a much broader membership than teenage boys, though this statement is, fortunately, a truism now. The gender breakdown in the research panel turned out to be almost equal, with 51% of players male and 49% female, and in a sample of gamers aged 15 to 55, 75% were over 25. Every other player had a permanent job and more than a third boasted a degree. However, there were significant differences between players as regards their preferred platforms, game types, and forms of entertainment. For example, almost half of the gamers who use computers (48%) cited the need to relax as an important factor in the choice of this form of entertainment, while mobile players most often chose to fight the boredom (46%). Games can help their players meet a number of different needs and feel different emotions, which makes it difficult to profile players as recipients of communication, and all this will only deepen due to generational change, with gaming on the rise among the crucial commercial group year on year. E-sport is now the most conspicuous marketing trend targeted at players. It is worth remembering, though, that the 2018 Polish Gamers report puts interest in e-sport at 28%, with only 27% of gamers watching or observes games regularly (at least once a week).
Almost half of the gamers who use computers (48%) cited the need to relax as an important factor in the choice of this form of entertainment, while mobile players most often chose to fight the boredom (46%).
Games are bound to shake up the media market, but will they also shake up research?
A clear sign that the perception of gaming in Poland was changing was Filmweb’s 2011 decision to add games to its online resources and catalogue. In fact, films seem to trail games more and more when it comes to financial results. The global single game revenues can reach more than ten billion USD. For comparison, the most popular film, Gone With the Wind, has earned USD 3.4 billion (adjusted for inflation). More and more non-gaming companies are wondering how to secure a slice of the cake themselves. Netflix’s plans are interesting in this context, with the company planning to add games to its video platform. The recent financial woes of Telltale Games mean that their plans to expand their offering have been delayed, but the giant sticks to them and continues developing its planned projects, including a game set in the world familiar from Stranger Things series. In the coming years, we are bound to hear of many more projects combining the TV model with a gaming component. What’s more, the growing hardware options and capabilities will see the share of players in Poland catching up with the number of Internet users, challenging brands to better understand the habits and attitudes of players, as this will be necessary for effective communication. Does player research require the use of new research methods? I don’t think it does. The observation of consumption habits linked to this form of entertainment is another field of ethnographic research. Perhaps sometime in the future technical novelties will be introduced enabling direct analysis of players’ behaviour in digital worlds and their interactions in multiplayer communities and for drawing further conclusions from this. This is an interesting field where Big Data and Thick Data can be combined. On the other hand, video games, and not only them, are becoming a research method. Various types of simulations, gameplaying design, and behaviour assessment have already become an interesting area of research, and the coming years will see this trend gaining steam. Just as many of us are Internet users, more and more of us are joining the ranks of gamers.