In 2000, Sony introduced online gaming to the PlayStation 2. For many Millennial males, this was a huge paradigm shift, moving from four-player Mario Kart or GoldenEye on Nintendo 64 to playing Call of Duty against thousands of players around the world. However, for many Gen Z males, this game-changing innovation roughly coincided with their birth. They have grown up with a controller in their hand, a high-speed internet connection at the ready and a social circle around them always ready to “hop on the sticks.”
Similarly, if Millennials wanted to chat about the latest games or cheat codes when they were growing up they relied on word-of-mouth, gaming magazines or AOL chat rooms. But when it comes to communicating about games, this behavior has also greatly evolved. Gen Z have YouTube videos and devoted social platforms, like Twitch, where games are live streamed and chatted about in real time. Jorge, a 22-year old from North Carolina explains why YouTube is such a great source of information for him:
“I’m a gamer. I like to watch videos that are related to gaming… and I go to YouTube always to watch those kinds of videos. I think there’s no better place to look for videos of that kind.“
With such drastic innovation in the gaming space, it is no surprise that the role that video games play within the lives of Gen Z males has also evolved. In a recent study From Nerdy to Norm: Gen Z Connects Via Gaming conducted by Whistle, 68% of Gen Z males agree that gaming is an important part of their identity. For this generation, gaming transcends a hobby and is in fact a primary means of identifying themselves – a vital facet of their social lives, component of their media habits and driver of their brand choices.
Some aspects of gaming identity are shared by Gen Z and Millennial males – the Whistle study found that playing video games is virtually universal: 91% of Gen Z males regularly play video games, only incrementally higher than Millennials (84%). Similarly, among both generations, the stereotype of gamers has eroded. ‘Gamer’ no longer conjures the negative affiliation of a lazy guy in his parents’ basement. In a separate study conducted by Ypulse, 84% of Gen Z and Millennial males say it is cool to play video games, and 71% agree that they would call themselves a gamer. They are more likely to associate gaming with the words “fun,” “social” and “friendly,” than “nerdy.”
However, there is a generational gap between Gen Z males and Millennials because the younger cohort is forming a deepening connection with gaming through community building and social engagement. More than three in four Gen Z males claim to regularly watch video games, a 25% increase over Millennials. Born out of this engagement is a new branch of Gen Z’s social life. Twitch has become not just a platform to chat about games, it is a place where Gen Z builds online communities, unified by common interests. Ian, a 16-year old gamer from Utah said this about why he enjoys Twitch:
“The fact that I’m part of a community on Twitch, and so there’s a lot of people I know. You can watch your video of interest – for me, my gaming – while talking to people in the Twitch chat, and I think that’s a cool element.”
The social components of Gen Z’s gaming identity extend more broadly than Twitch communities to their day-to-day interactions with friends. Significantly more so than Millennials, three out of four Gen Z males believe playing video games help them stay close with their friends. Although some have categorized Gen Z as anti-social, it seems more so that socialization has evolved and communication has been digitized to mediums like text messaging, social media and, now, gaming. This immersion in digital communication, specifically around gaming, provides myriad opportunities for brands and marketers to enter into Gen Z’s gaming dialogue.
Brands do not need to focus their marketing and advertising dollars solely on integrations into games or Esports events to become relevant in the gaming space. There is ample opportunity for a brand to form authentic engagement with the Gen Z male by being present where the gaming conversation is happening. Sponsoring or co-creating Twitch streams and YouTube content are effective avenues to connect with Gen Z and enter their primary consideration set. Many of the most successful partnerships to date have been for brands that facilitate or enable gaming behaviors (i.e. Uber Eats and Red Bull partnering with Ninja). As Gen Z males continue to make gaming a larger part of identity, brands must challenge themselves to understand these evolving social behaviors and insert themselves in a credible way.
Whistle conducted an online survey hosted by Qualtrics, among 304 U.S. men aged 13-34, nationally representative by age, region and race. Gen Z is defined as age 13-24, Millennials are defined as age 25-34. The survey was conducted from December 3 to 6, 2018.
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ABOUT ALEX STRAUSS
Alex Strauss leads consumer research at Whistle, focusing on better understanding Gen Z and their content consumption habits. Alex previously worked as a brand consultant and researcher for Hall & Partners, helping to develop consumer insights for B2C and B2B brands like Delta Air Lines, SAP, and Community Coffee. Alex is an avid sports fan, formerly contributing content to the sports blog “The Sports Quotient” focused on Tennis and the NFL. He currently lives with his wife in Stamford, Connecticut.
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