The Return of Tabletop RPGs: Musings from GenCon and the Branding of Inclusion

gen-con.jpgGrowing a Belief

Gaming is not going anywhere, but the business does need to grow. Even with the successes and growth of RPGs in recent years, there is always a need to secure old fans and new fans alike. As the industry matures, the established brand names wield the power to influence, build, and shape gaming culture as a whole. Brands like Paizo Publishing and Wizards of the Coast are among the foremost cultural creators, especially considering the recent mainstream popularity of properties like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D is, for the world, the bastion of play). Of course, gaming culture mimics culture as a whole, reflecting or even predicting waves of great social change as they happen. When calls for accessibility, inclusion, and diversity ripple through the country, they also sound in the gaming community. Brands recognize this. They also understand that their core audience is at risk should they pivot too quickly to answer. This creates a limiting cycle wherein a brand cannot evolve for the sake of preserving its core audience, and the core audience defends the brand to the point of excluding potential new fans. Likewise, society takes baby steps forward while simultaneously bolstering the status quo. But in looking ahead for both culture and gaming, these trends signal the strongest long-term return will come from investing in and standing with this inclusive, belief-based audience. And each of these challenges is a tremendous opportunity if brands focus on them correctly.

While belief-based messaging is not new, the trend within advertising and strategy is in a rekindling stage. This means researching, pinpointing, and applying the ideals shared by customer and brand alike, allowing brands to get themselves a piece of their audience’s cultural pie. And it’s more than penning some messaging that strikes a fleeting chord with a tenuous audience – it’s shaping a brand oeuvre that, while nimble, will stand with its target audiences and embody their beliefs throughout their lives. At the same time, value exploration lets a brand rediscover and project its own authentic personality and voice, meeting overlooked or untapped audiences halfway and effectively breaking out of the self-defeating cycle of audience preservation. It leverages the belief that a brand isn’t so much an object as it is a dialog. It’s a tactic that both strengthens a brand’s link with established customers and strategically hones branding to attract new fans. This belief-based approach has proven itself valuable and lasting, and we use it to bring the same enduring brand legacy to clients.

GenCon 2018 – The Year of Inclusion

Being headquartered in Indianapolis gives us a vantage point for attending and analyzing GenCon every year, which allows us to watch the evolution of the con’s internal culture and also its effect on the city and larger gaming world. This year we observed that diversity and inclusion featured as centerpiece topics for many panels and as major considerations in convention participant guidelines. While the con carried on with its usual electricity, these voices for inclusion stood out as louder and more numerous than they have been in years past. The national zeitgeist has been around movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and representation, accessibility, and gender nonconformity. Ever a microcosm of the larger cultural conversation, these audiences’ voices are finally, actively being heard at GenCon and in the gaming world, and they are waiting for a response. While they wait, it creates a reverberating cultural dissonance between rapidly evolving cultural demand and what influential brands slowly say and make.

While some segments of gaming culture have made strides to represent these values, the demand for outwardly inclusive products is not being met by the major players in the market. Any movement toward these values is usually driven by proactive community members rather than brands themselves. Of course, smaller brands have popped up with products and communities that serve these belief-based buyers. Blue Rose and even well-established games like Shadowrun are considered inclusive RPGs. Outside of RPGs, One Deck Dungeon and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn are well-received for their representation. Major brands may actually have comparable products that would serve this audience well. But overall, big brands seem tentative about directly catering to those outside their core – in all likelihood because they do not want to risk alienating segments of their cornerstone players. And if you looked at overall sales and brand awareness, these major brands would appear to be winning; D&D and Magic the Gathering remain the biggest names in the RPG and deck-building game markets. On the other hand, brands taking belief-based stands and fostering inclusion-focused communities are responding to this potent cultural calling and gaining long-term edge because of it. In the end, it is up to the bigger market leaders to recognize this shift and join in riding the wave now, rather than being left rudderless in the current. Being one of the biggest names in gaming, Wizards of the Coast is in a unique position to both capitalize on this demand and expand its keystone audience in the process, influencing much of the industry to do the same.

Recently, our research focus has been on roleplaying games. And Dungeons & Dragons is the grandfather of them all. Roleplaying games are, at their core, inclusive. In an ideal world, all audiences recognize that they provide a dynamic system of play and a fantastical world that anyone can adapt. The basic system is a sandbox for

people to build whatever adventure they want to play and be whoever they want to be. So, a brand might focus on this versatile content, touting its inclusiveness and their willingness to rewrite the source materials. Yet, for its myriad merits, D&D has become stereotyped and, effectively, owned by a niche audience. The universal appeal of the brand and the game itself is still there, but this core audience has culturally constructed walls impeding adoption. In other words, many of the core audience are perceived as gatekeepers. An RPG is only as good as those playing it – and D&D’s current core, targeted audience is loyal, but not perceived as inclusive. Wizards of the Coast is presented with a worthy challenge: both the product and the audience need to become more welcoming to diverse, new fans, but only the product seems directly controllable.

Focusing on shared values solves this disconnect among brand, product, and audience. And integrating the correct shared beliefs both into what a brand says and does publicly and the brand’s parent company itself will only further this connection, creating lasting brand love. Streamlining this integration and closing the gap between audience and brand ideals allows the brand to bottle cultural lightning for themselves. For a brand like Wizards of the Coast, inclusivity should be the value integrated first on the controllable side – the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the integration standing in the way of any knee-jerk claims of inauthenticity. A diligent transformation will spurn some fans but invigorate others to adopt and practice these values. It all starts with the brand itself, changing the product and the culture from within, and then without. To put it simply, a shared value approach amplifies the brand’s stand for inclusivity and diversity and transforms the core audience from gatekeepers into welcoming advocates, opening the floodgates for long-term returns.

Importantly, when it comes to inclusivity and diversity, a brand must show – not tell – its intended audiences their shared values. Continuing the example, Wizards of the Coast has spoken of inclusivity as a marquee value for a long time, but the meaning of the word loses effect on these potential audiences when it’s not fully ingrained in brand infrastructure. This means not focusing the conversation on small updates, but going above and beyond internally to get product elements right. This means not only relying on a trusted team, but bringing in diverse writers, creatives, and community leaders to work with them. This means not campaigning to point out the steps you’re taking, but behaving as usual while thoroughly melding these values with the brand’s day-to-day process. And those potential audience members who have been critical before will be the ones paying attention to this internal shift, adopting the game out of curiosity and appreciation for the brand’s evolution. It is a slow, deliberate, and thorough process that culturally galvanizes increasing long-term audience payoff. It is added value without taking away any offerings the core audience loves. The value-based audience pays close attention to authenticity when deciding which brands they share their values with, meaning in this case, the practicing is leagues more important than the preaching.

As curious new folks take an interest in the brand, the gatekeeper members of the core audience step into action. Some fans act as a welcoming committee, excited by the prospect of new players. While others become more entrenched, seeing themselves as righteous defenders of the purity of their game and brand. These feelings are not all bad, as the passion can be redirected in Wizards of the Coast’s favor. But, by standing for inclusivity, Wizards of the Coast takes back ownership of its brand. Core audience members, gatekeepers or otherwise, will tend toward reflecting the brand and practicing shared values. New people are interested in the game, which the brand shows them means better products and new adventures. A growing audience then acts as a catalyst, rather than a trap trigger. Beyond controlling the product, a brand with a firmly held belief can, via ripple effect, influence its current audience, bolstering the welcoming committee by converting others from territorial soldiers into fierce brand advocates.

So What

In the end, a brand taking a stand for something is a big idea. It’s a change, no matter how steady the adoption or smooth the transition. Yes, brands like Wizards of the Coast may lose some people from its core audience. But if a brand officially aligns itself with a value it, theoretically, always had, those fans were never core brand evangelists to begin with. Simply, those who don’t share brand beliefs will self-select out. And this is, in the long-term, ultimately a positive. This venting of wall-builders will allow new fans in, healing, diversifying, and growing the core audience. It is a long play brand strategy built on the brand’s values, broader audiences, and a growing foundation of fans. Standing with those who call for inclusivity, diversity, accessibility, and visibility is a brand investment in a burgeoning audience that will become part of its core audience in the future, allowing Wizards of the Coast and similar tabletop gaming brands to reclaim ownership of their principles and, potentially, lead the entire industry forward.

 

Advertisements

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: