Like many facing the prospect of several weeks (so we thought) stuck at home, the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons seemed like the best-timed launch in the history of gaming. As James reported recently, gaming has fared exceptionally well these recent months. But Animal Crossing has distinguished itself as a cultural force. As lockdown went on and Zoom pub quizzes grew wearisome, Animal Crossing continued to be a place to reconnect with friends, but without the pressure of trying to find something new to talk about. Instead, visiting friends on their islands was a chance to do something fun with people again.
Since then, other games have grown in popularity. In particular, Among Us has become the rival for cultural dominance as the game that not only is everyone playing, but also talking about. I found the game through internet chatter and played just to understand what made it so worth talking about. While Animal Crossing became the new way to grab a coffee and relax with friends, Among Us became the new way to desperately lie to them in the name of fun (for those who have never played, the game is like a virtual version of Mafia, featuring blobby space people).
As we forged a sense of “new normality” over the summer, businesses restarted and began to re-strategize. As James discussed in his latest blog, some clear victors emerged, unsurprisingly, in e-commerce and online gaming. For more traditional retailers, the new strategy involved finding a way to pivot, often involving sharp transitions to ecommerce platforms, or else to piggy back on the victors of the lockdown economy.
The adaptability of Animal Crossing, in designing clothing, decorations, and the island itself, lends it to adaptability and use by a huge range of brands and causes. R/GA’s Head of Strategy Rachel Mercer has said Animal Crossing is such an ideal place for brands because of its clean and wholesome image. In the last nine months, product launches from banking to skincare, and fried chicken to designer clothing have found a place on the game.
Brands’ Animal Crossing islands offer in-game benefits, like custom makeup and clothing designs and high turnip prices, but others have even offered real life giveaways of face wash and discounts. For music fans, Gorillaz and Beck gave a virtual concert of “Valley of the Pagans,” from their new collaborative album, followed by an interview. And so while brands’ presence on the game is somewhat opportunistic invasion of the wholesome experience that Animal Crossing promises, there are benefits for the player to reap too.
Where collaborations with the game have been especially surprising are in the realm of politics. Most notably, Joe Biden launched his own island on Animal Crossing, with the goal of educating voters about his campaign and encouraging voter registration and turn out. Seemingly more successful, however, is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)’s arrival on the gaming scene. She started by joining players on Animal Crossing, going to people’s islands with her own avatar. Then, closer to election day, AOC joined several prominent gamers on a Twitch stream to play a few rounds of Among Us. How AOC’s strategy has differed from Biden’s, and most brands’, is her personal touch. She herself is a recognizable face playing with the game’s community to interact and get closer to voters.
Forgoing potentially enormous profits in brand collaborations, Nintendo and Animal Crossing have made the bold inclusion of a selection of new rules in their latest update. Most notably included are bans on “politics,” “marketing,” and “financial benefit,” meaning an end to much of new political and brand activity on the game. For players like me, this move feels like a major decision from Nintendo, a major games company, to value, rather than monetize, player experience.
Digitisation is an unstoppable trend in every industry, with covid just accelerating a runaway train. A McKinsey survey has found that the digitisation of services and products has advanced by the equivalent of three to four years in the past few months. That same McKinsey survey found that “the organizations that experimented with new digital technologies during the crisis, and among those that invested more capital expenditures in digital technology than their peers did, executives are twice as likely to report outsize revenue growth than executives at other companies.” Stuart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, has said in a recent statement, ‘the opportunities for digital transformation are expansive and wide-ranging. Businesses that do it well will drive engagement, achieve organisational agility, maintain alignment and empower teamwork across all disciplines and locations. They will have a competitive advantage in this new era of work.’
But because these changes are inevitable, there is all the more reason to be cautious and considerate with them, or at very least, balance social benefit with financial gain. We spoke, early in lockdown, about how museums and other cultural institutions have made the shift to digital, and digital game platforms. This has continued, with museums now embracing Minecraft to digitise museum learning experiences. Arguably, this change is one of many inevitable digitisations expedited by Covid, one that meets young learners on a platform they may enjoy more with the result of better learning outcomes. Digital platforms circumvent some of the barriers that might normally prevent visitors to museums, including time and geography. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, digital transformation can be hugely positive.
With a new study from Oxford University finding a significant correlation between video game play and overall happiness – specifically on Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants Vs. Zombies – Nintendo’s decision feels especially important in these times. Rates of depression and anxiety are at all-time highs, and as benefactors and advocates of fun, video game companies stand to be natural allies to mental health causes. For a similarly worthy cause, Ukie, the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, already demonstrates the value of video games, particularly with their recent #RaiseTheGame initiative to improve diversity and inclusion, involving every level of the industry, from students through to some of the most major companies in the industry. The underlying theme between them is to value the people, on both sides, of the video games community.
Like Nintendo, every company – from those with great success through to those facing the need for enormous transformation – must place their customers and community at the forefront. In business terms, this is the time to remember UX and CX, to find ways to help the customers who can then help you.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.