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Gen Z and playing to change the world

Posted by Flux on 

25 May 2020

Real-life Parallel Universes

Massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are much more than just a way to pass the time. Increasingly, immersive gaming environments are emerging as a testing ground for new radical ideas on how to redesign the way our very real societies, economies and political systems are structured. 

Social distancing / distant socialising 

One of the first ways gaming is changing society is how gaming platforms are morphing into social networks, as virtual destinations for socialising with friends and family members all over the world. Instead of meeting friends at the movies, the beach or the mall, young people (and older ones) are hanging out with each other using their avatars in online gaming environments. This sort of connection enables people to be alone together; enjoying real time multi-dimensional communication and shared experiences from bedrooms scattered all around the world. What is of particular interest here is how for many people the primary purpose of logging into a gaming platform has become social connection – actually playing the game has become secondary.

When South Africa went into lockdown in March 2020 to mitigate the effects of the global COVID-19 outbreak, divorced and separated parents who share custody of their children found themselves separated from their families for an indefinitely long time. In order to maintain connection, some of these parents started playing Minecraft quests with their children which allowed for meaningful real time conversation in a shared virtual environment despite being in different physical locations.

Brands and businesses are also capitalising on the new worlds of attention open to them, choosing to meet their fans and customers where they already are – hanging out in virtual worlds – often with great financial success. MMOGs have become the new medium of choice to launch and build entertainment brands to a massive global audience. The latest Star Wars trailer was launched in Fortnite first before any other mainstream media platform. Similarly, during the peak of the global COVID-19 lockdown, the musician Travis Scott performed a live virtual concert, inside the Fortnight environment, through his lifelike avatar “skin” to millions of fans, across time differences at the same time. 

Of course there is a downside to distant socialising. The World Health Organisation has listed gaming addiction as an official mental health illness. Not unrelated is, the rapid spread of the hikikomori phenomenon which started in Japan, where people (typically young men) are locking themselves away from society and the real world, choosing instead to live as hermits, only connected to the outside world through their internet connections.

For better or for worse though, immersive online experiences offer an entirely new way to think about meaningful social connection – as separated from our physical bodies.

Online activism gets real

Online activism is changing dramatically. While Millennial’s have been mocked for their armchair twitter hashtag “activism”, Generation Z is deadly serious about using social games to inspire real world change.

After COVID-19 locked people in their homes the world over, preventing the possibility of physical street protests, young activists took their serious causes to their gaming environments. For example, Joshua Wong, the young leader of the Hong Kong pro democracy protests, led a campaign to place pro-democracy messaging all over Nintendo’s popular Animal Crossing game’s virtual world (which is common territory to all players from all over the world).

This is not insignificant, considering Animal Crossing sold over 12 million copies within the first few weeks of its launch this year.

Radical markets re-thinking the post capitalism world

Animal Crossing has been described as fundamentally political. The game is built around building, growing and trading in the turnip-based economy of a civilization of cute animal avatars ruled by a raccoon. However, the game’s economic and political structure is also, quite obviously a reflection, commentary and criticism of our own very real global socio-economic structure (for example, there was an uproar in April, when the racoon lowered interest rates from 0.5% to 0.05%, upsetting millions of players financial plans, something most real world citizens can relate to). The Animal Crossing economy (known as the “Stalk Market”) subsides “poor players” transport costs and offers interest free mortgages, hinting at a social democracy alternative for our own post-capitalist future.

Similarly, other virtual gaming environments, such as RuneScape that allow players to mine digital gold and sell it to other exchange it for real-world money, or the blockchain based environment  Decentraland that facilitates a real estate market in virtual (that is non existent) property plots valued at hundreds of thousands of (real world) dollars. This merging of real and fantasy economics makes us question our relationship to value, worth and and our economic models based on an underlying assumption of a scarcity of resources. When value is decoupled from reality, everything changes.

Preserving history with censorship resistant digital time capsules in the age of digital fragility 

Animal Crossing is not the only game with growing real world socio-political connotations. Minecraft users have begun building a 1:1 replica of Earth to preserve a record of our planet in event of its destruction. Not only that, there is also an ambitious Minecraft project led by Reporters Without Borders to build a censorship-resistant in-game virtual library. The Uncensored Library, like a modern day Library of Alexandra contains full copies of journalistic articles, texts and banned books otherwise inaccessible to citizens living in nations with press censorship under oppressive regimes.  

This use of gaming platforms as archives for real world content and physical spaces is also interesting from the perspective of future historians. Information in contemporary society is subject to digital fragility. Not only is digital data physically corruptible in that the hardware devices required to decode that information may one day disappear, but it is also figuratively corruptible, as technology allows us to edit textual, photographic and video evidence and therefore erase or rewrite history, thereby making fake news a threat to past as well as present information integrity.   As such, gaming platforms, such as Minecraft may well become to be regarded as valuable time capsules, recording life on Earth in the early 21st century. 

Reflect and change

From all this, it should be clear that gaming platforms are a lot more than mindless escapism. They are a mirror of real world society that both reflects the physical world and changes us in turn as we interact with and through them.

If you want to connect with generation Z, get ready to step into a whole new world.

For more on how brands and businesses can connect with Generation Z on a deep and meaningful level, the new Flux Trends virtual presentation is designed to help bridge the intergenerational divide. For more information, go here: https://www.fluxtrends.com/virtual-open-session-gen-z-2020-architects-of-our-new-world-order/ 

Bronwyn Williams

Foresight | Futurist | Strategist | Economist | Trend Analyst

Image credit: Florian Olivo

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