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Navigating virtual playgrounds with WARC

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Play is a fundamental part of being a kid.

It’s a random process encompassing adventure, roleplay, competition, daring, physical exertion, skills, teamwork and humour, and depending on the age, personality and location of the child, all these elements occur at varying degrees.

Considering its variables during normal life, play has been particularly fascinating to observe throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. With varying restrictions and experiences for kids across the last 16 weeks, we’ve tracked how they have coped and adapted.

Generation Alpha, those born after 2010, are a resilient bunch. They are pre-disposed to ”hack” tech and use it for their own particular purpose. And over the last 16 weeks gaming platforms have exploded for this young audience. As it was no longer possible in the physical world, through gaming, kids have created a virtual space where they can chat, hang out and play with their friends,

Although connecting with friends through gaming isn’t new, during the pandemic, kids have become much more reliant on it. As lockdown progressed it emerged how important it was as a means of communication - not just for entertainment. As kids struggled to talk to their friends through video calls without shared experiences, the ease with which they could chat whilst playing games made gaming the new virtual playground.

Gaming has always tapped into fundamental motivations for kids’ behaviours, which we’ve mapped at Beano Brain, such as mastery, competition autonomy and socialising. But previously they could also meet these through other activities – for example football and gymnastics for mastery. During the disruption and change that 2020 has brought for Gen Alpha, gaming has now become their key outlet.

In the first week of lockdown 60% of UK kids and young teens (aged 7-14) surveyed through Beano Brain agreed that keeping in touch with friends made them feel better about the virus. But one month on, how they kept in contact evolved. Initially, FaceTime and WhatsApp video dominated (42% each) for UK kids and teenagers but a month later, platforms which allowed them to play together and chat were seeing huge growth.

For example, by April, over a third (39%) of 7-10 year olds were connecting with friends each week via gaming app Roblox. Xbox Live use had increased by 6% from April to March and 25% had connected with friends using Houseparty in April, compared to only 9% in March.

Roblox, an online game platform and gaming system, has boomed given its variety and subsequent appeal to kids young and old. It has also benefited from a high degree of parental consent – being seen as an acceptable gaming entry point even among the stricter parents with games such as Adopt Me letting kids raise and dress their own virtual pets.

Minecraft has also enjoyed a relatively high degree of parental acceptance, being seen as softer, highly creative, less aggressive gaming. It’s gained traction again in lockdown, seeming to offer the antidote to children’s restricted physical worlds, allowing players to build and explore their own worlds.

Fortnite has ebbed and flowed in popularity over the past year but since lockdown, is now back with a vengeance. It has shown what can be possible when platforms extend and experiment - its Party Royale mode broke new ground. It’s not just about being competitive, but has created a space for players to mess around together and take part in light-hearted competitions and mini challenges.

Epic Games’ Battle Royale also showed its virtual Travis Scott concert, Astronomical, a month into lockdown which drew more than 12.3m concurrent streamers on its first day. This live set activity was first executed by DJ Marshmello during the Superbowl weekend in February 2020, demonstrating the scale of the audiences that could be attracted to this new type of virtual event.

These in-game events tap perfectly into the escapism that gaming offers. It also opens opportunities for brands to get involved –tapping into the digital socialisation trend – although that level of involvement comes with a hefty price tag.

The need for escapism has been particularly pertinent – especially in April and May. Covid-19 was something it was hard to protect children from. They were faced with the reality that their schools were shut, they were not allowed to see their friends and barriers were erected around their playgrounds.

Life simulation games profoundly tapped into a need for escapism and offered an element of role play missing from real world play. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Animal Crossing New Horizons – which launched at the beginning of March on Nintendo Switch – proved popular.

The establishment of gaming as a virtual playground for children inevitably offers up opportunities for brands. But advertisers need to recognise that this is a world that young children inhabit – often younger than the advertised age recommendation of a game – and comply with rules and regulations around advertising to children. This may involve privacy and safety requirements.

Fortnite has been one of the most creative platforms when it comes to advertising so far. Fast-food restaurant Wendy’s hosted a livestream of the game on Twitch where it co-opted one of Fortnite’s limited period food fight missions. It went on to win multiple awards and was seen as pioneering a new trend for brand/gaming activity.

Within the Fortnite ecosystem, most advertisers choose to sponsor Fortnite’s most popular players across multiple platform such as Twitch and YouTube. In addition, branded content can be coded into the game – as seen with NFL where players could buy NFL jersey skins.

But not all businesses have the budgets of Wendy’s and NFL. The rise of gaming during Covid-19, and its increasingly important role in all social aspects of children’s lives means there are opportunities for brands to connect with gamers in a myriad of ways. For instance Beano Studios created a random island name generator on to complement Animal Crossing: New Horizons which was one of the top performing pages on its site during Spring.

Brands looking to tap into Gen Alpha through gaming must have an authentic voice in this space. Anything jarring or incongruous will be instantly spotted and deemed fake. But the creativity and desire for connection of these children opens opportunities.

The trend of video to enhance game play will continue. Connected play and social gaming has been building for some time but it has now became the only way to meet children’s need for sociability. How entrenched their new gaming behaviours prove to be as school starts in September remains to be seen but some are likely to stick beyond this period of separation – even as they once again experience the joy of real-life play.

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