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Wordle’s shameless gaming: what marketers can learn from ‘anti-gamers’

By John Baxa | Associate director of strategy

Known

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May 17, 2022 | 7 min read

John Baxa, award-winning indie games developer and associate director of strategy at Known, has seen first-hand how people who play digital games reject the ‘gamer’ label. For The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive, he argues that one popular word game has a lesson to teach all marketers.

Gaming is ubiquitous in the US, where 180 million people play a digital game at least once a month. The demographic landscape is expanding in profound ways. Women play games. Older people play games. The wealthy and well-educated play games. Despite the statistical evidence, however, you would be hard-pressed to find 180 million people who openly identify as ‘gamers.’

Known on the growing acceptance of games in popular culture.

Known on how marketers can appeal to ‘anti-gamers’

Games are intertwined with modern life, as seamlessly as taking your morning coffee with a splash of Wordle, the once-a-day word game The New York Times acquired for “a low seven figures” earlier this year. Wordle is the latest game for those who don’t consider themselves gamers. Marketers can glean some important insights about understanding audiences from the counterintuitive path it took to find its popularity.

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As a director of insights and a video game developer, I’ve interviewed people who both play and pay money into games, while also working in the trenches of creating video games. Seeing players struggle in games is nothing new to me, but watching them struggle with the identity of being a ‘gamer’ stands out.

I remember interviewing a suburban dad who likened playing his beloved mobile farming game to “making his bed in the morning,” yet recoiled at the idea of being considered a gamer.

‘Don’t call me a gamer’

Millions of people love playing games, but shy away from the identity or (even more intensely) feel shame at the label ‘gamer.’ In fact, Google Play found that less than a third of women in the US who play games daily or weekly identify as gamers.

Despite the demographically-diverse millions who play regularly, the common image of a ‘gamer’ is still a man with few real-life friends who scarfs down energy drinks, spending all his free time fused to his console. This stereotypical gamer has no interest in the ‘real’ world, only the digital one. I hate even surfacing this stereotype or lending credence to it, but it persists.

The hesitance to consider oneself a gamer is understandable when the characterization is so narrow and insular. Representation matters, and this cultural trope hinges on people living and breathing video games as an escape from reality.

Games are soothing; they offer escape and challenges. They give players problems to solve that feel manageable when real-life challenges feel insurmountable. Yet spending time on a game, time with yourself and potentially others, still can be perceived as shameful – especially in the US, where the glorification of work is a linchpin of the American identity.

Wordle: the ‘anti-game’

Viral sensation Wordle somehow understands the competing impulses these anti-gamers have. Based on Mastermind, the player has six guesses and contextual clues to puzzle out a five-letter word. It doesn’t ask you to spend your day inside its universe. In fact, you can only play it once daily.

“I just wanted a game that’s just three minutes of your time a day and that’s it,” developer Josh Wardle told the 2022 Game Developers Conference, noting his creation flew in the face of mobile game orthodoxy, which demands that players be lured into endless loops. Wordle flips that script, making it a welcome refrain from games that want users playing for as long as possible.

As Wordle gained popularity through word-of-mouth and social media (it’s incredibly shareable), it captured the anti-gaming ethos. A game that’s challenging, occupies only a moment of your time and feeds back into your real self? Where people are proud to share their results daily? Do you feel the same about your Candy Crush progress?

The concept of the ‘anti-game’ gives marketers a better understanding of the expansive ‘don’t call me a gamer’ audience. Wordle doesn’t ask players to shift or abandon their real-world identities; nor did the game’s marketing welcome potential players into some imagined pre-existing customer base. Wordle won by understanding what the player who refuses the gamer label really wants: a game that fits into and heightens their existing identities.

Perhaps neither ‘anti-gamer’ or ‘gamer’ is the right term. For marketers it’s about understanding the lives these people lead – and how and why these games fit.

It’s a simple, but not easy, lesson applicable to all brands and marketers: it’s difficult to market to an audience that doesn’t want to be known as a user of your product. But, more importantly, you must meet consumers where they are and address their unique needs. For gaming, that means creating broader marketing campaigns that understand the millions of ‘anti-gamers’ to increase conversions and make the industry more inclusive. I call that a win-win.

For more on all the different ways brands can advertise in gaming, from virtual billboards to product placements, social lenses and even games of their own, check out The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive.

Modern Marketing Agency

Content by The Drum Network member:

Known is a modern marketing company that pairs Ph.D. data scientists with award-winning creatives, expert research teams and strategists who leverage machine learning, AI and the company's proprietary media operating system, called Skeptic. Known is anchored by two decades of groundbreaking market research and data science capabilities, which uniquely empower our marketing strategy and acclaimed creative groups, who produce some of the most innovative, cutting-edge creative work in culture. The result? Marketing that is predisposed to succeed and be persistently optimized, directly impacting clients' bottom lines.

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