Lockdowns inevitably meant more people spent more time gaming, but you might be surprised by some of the changes that have taken place in the gaming world, says Richard Thomas, Insight Director at Future.

Gaming has become a leading player in the new mainstream. Before COVID-19, the market was already well into its stride after two decades of impressive growth, outpacing long-standing entertainment favourites such as music. Since the outbreak, however, gaming popularity has reached a whole new level, driving major changes for publishers and brands, as well as players.

Now valued at over $175bn globally, gaming is thriving and only due for more expansion – it’s tipped to exceed $268bn by 2025. Part of this success is thanks to its ability to pivot in line with emerging opportunities; from boosting digital distribution to seizing the potential for greater monetisation through in-game payments. But ultimately, its core power comes from audiences. Where and how players choose to spend their time dictates the direction of gaming development – which makes understanding their activity vital.

The latest research from Future plc, among more than 2,000 active gamers across the UK and US, paints a mixed picture. Alongside expected adaptations, there are many underrated trends that businesses hoping to drive better connections should be looking to leverage.

Gaining diverse player appeal

One obvious reason behind the spike in gaming adoption is, of course, time. Amid lockdowns, UK gamers have had greater capacity for play; with 65% increasing activity and two-thirds putting this surge down to the influx of free time. Other motivators, however, show that gaming is about more than just wiling away the hours. For over a quarter of gamers (27%), its main appeal is enabling them to socialise with friends, while 16% point to making new connections; highlighting a crucial social element that has grown under pandemic conditions and is now poised to provide lasting engagement opportunities.

Similarly, recent amplified desire for escapism has left its mark, with action and adventure featuring in the top three genres. The inclusion of casual gaming in this ranking also speaks to ballooning gaming adoption among audiences outside of the traditional user base of ‘hardcore’ passionate gamers. In fact, wish lists for 2022 include a blend of classic high-octane titles and casual games, which are especially beloved by multiplying numbers of mobile gamers. For brands and publishers keen to maximise impact, it’s clear that ensuring their campaigns and content resonate with broader gaming communities is going to be crucial.

Spotlight on under-served audiences

Tied closely to fast-widening gaming horizons is the sizeable growth in the number of female gamers. Anyone familiar with industry progress over the past few years will know stereotypes of mostly male gamers have been outdated for some time, but the fast-expanding prevalence and influence of women is worth noting, particularly as they remain an under-served segment of gamers.

The data illustrates UK women are 30% more likely than men to cite overall enhanced interest in gaming and to have upped their general playing time during the pandemic. And of the six in ten respondents using mobile devices for gaming, women are 10% more likely to class themselves as active gamers. Additionally, where total weekly gaming across mobile phones and tablets reaches 10 hours and 37 minutes for the average UK gamer, female gamers clock in 11 hours and 50 minutes.

To drive sustainable growth – and tap lucrative mobile opportunities – paying attention to audiences that have historically garnered little attention is paramount. Accommodating the preference of mobile-heavy women gamers for casual, word and puzzle games is a key starting point, but working on improving understanding of what female players want is still crucial for industry forces at every level.

The future isn’t just digital

Alongside the low barriers of mobile adoption, another element of what’s drawing diverse players to gaming is its democratisation. Sector heavyweights have been quick to identify the potential to extend customer bases by making access easier for new and devoted gamers alike through cloud-based services, such as the Xbox Game Pass.

Consequently, the last year has brought less urgency to acquire the latest hardware and more device agnosticism, especially coupled with supply-chain issues and micro-chip shortages. This is evidenced by the resilient popularity of PlayStation 4 (29%), the Wii (21%) and Nintendo Switch (18%) with UK gamers, despite the much-anticipated launch of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft.

However, before publishers and brands are carried away by predictions of a software-based future and headlong dive into the metaverse, it’s crucial to recognise that this doesn’t mean gamers have entirely lost their appetite for hardware or physical games. For instance, findings reveal that while 56% of UK players have bought games digitally in the last year, almost as many (42%) also purchased physical copies. Moreover, interest in new tech is still considerable.

Only around one-third of respondents across the UK and US currently own a next-gen console, but more than half plan to invest in one this year – citing the lure of better graphics, speedier loading, and access to next-gen ready games as top motivators. Eagerness to improve setups is equally strong across PC and laptop gamers, with 60% of UK gamers due to build on or upgrade their unit in 2022. Looking ahead, an overwhelming 96% of respondents aim to buy more gaming-related tech, particularly VR headsets (51%).

The discovery of multiple nuances shouldn’t be all that surprising; gaming has always been a varied and rapidly shifting sector. But it’s crucial to recognise that as its mainstream position is cemented, the gaming space is no longer just home to a small population of dedicated players; it is welcoming an ever-growing range of different communities, each with its own preferences, and needs, and motivators. For publishers and brands, aligning content with the increasingly mixed gaming picture will be crucial to ensure effective connection and, critically, better serve diverse players.