When you think about gaming, does a picture of a socially-inept teenager, with long hair and an attitude, pop into your head?
This characterisation might have been true a decade or two ago, but gamers today are more likely to be responsible adults in management positions within companies that value them for the very traits that make them successful gamers.
Kathy Gibson delved into the world of gaming in South Africa and found a healthy market catering to enthusiasts ranging from sportsmen to some of the country’s top executives and their pre-teen children.
Business executives are confronted with difficult choices all time: they need to internalise a variety of inputs, rapidly calculate all the likely outcomes and make seemingly-snap decisions about which direction or option to take.
Much of this calculating takes place subconsciously, in a matter of seconds; and the decision can have dramatic impacts, either positive or negative.
This quick, analytical thinking is something that gamers do a lot: and they add value to the companies they work for when they bring these skills into the workplace.
Typical gamers, the kids who grew up playing Super Mario and Sim City, are economically-active adults today. They are mostly between 24 and 36 years old, educated, obviously computer-literate, and economically able to buy the often-expensive kit that supports their passion for gaming.
In fact, they are the backbone of the economy: they are typically to be found among today’s entrepreneurs and mid-level managers; and they are the corporate leaders of the near future.
Pop into Nexus Hub in Randburg and you’ll find a teeming hive of activity, with gaming enthusiasts from all walks of life trying out the latest products; taking part in competitive challenges; buying all manner of games – from PC and console products to board or card games – and accessories; or enjoying one of the famous milkshakes in the Cat’s Pyjamas coffee shop.
The fact that the social retail environment that Nexus has created exists at all is testament to the nature of the gaming market.
“People want to spend time in an environment where they can find the products they want, but also chat to like-minded people who are knowledgeable and passionate,” says Nexus co-founder and CEO Tex Hartog.
The business started out 17 years ago as a stall in the Randburg Waterfront fleamarket, later progressing to hole-in-the-wall shop before graduating to a larger (and lighter) store in the same centre.
The Nexus Hub today is unrecognisable as the same establishment. With 27 000 subscribers on its mailing list, Hartog and business partner Trevor Sporen realised there was a lot more they could be doing to serve the gaming community.
They looked at what was available locally, borrowed ideas from overseas, and came up with what they believe is a unique concept.
A spacious two-storey office block near the centre of Randburg offers space for a wide variety of activities, and addresses the full gaming spectrum.
What the space also does is scotch the popular characterisation of the gamer as a loner, isolated behind their computer. “This environment lets gamers engage with other gamers or hobbyists in a friendly environment,” Hartog says.
Hartog sees gaming as a subset of pop culture that spans all forms of entertainment, and which has long ago lost its “geeky” connotation.
“It’s embraced by many different people: CEOs, moms, dads – and their kids. In fact we’ve got some customers who were teenagers 17 years ago, grown up now with their own children, who they spend time with here.”
Gaming builds skills
Hartog, himself a dedicated gamer and successful businessman, believes that gaming helps users to build valuable skills.
Hand-eye co-ordination is possibly the first skill that gamers develop, and stands all age groups in good stead.
Strategy games make the user think about actions and consequences, and help to develop the analytical thinking skills valued in business.
Adventure games are not only fun but also an opportunity to learn. “For example, in Assassin’s Creed, the user gets to explore tombs and museums that are replicas of the real thing,” Hartog says. “Most of these games are built on facts, and draw inspiration from reality.”
Hartog particularly enjoys the fact that, in many games, the user can influence or even change the outcome. “Gaming can e a very deep intellectual medium,” he says. “It is engaging and interactive in a way no other entertainment is.
“The user doesn’t just experience the game – he makes decisions and can change the course of events.”
‘There’s a growing understanding that there are benefits to be had from playing games,” Hartog points out. “And gaming is also very inclusive – anyone can play, and every player is on an equal footing.”
Most of all, says Hartog, gaming is fun. “For example, I don’t do competitive gaming: for me, it’s about stepping away for a while, escaping into a game where I can explore and have adventures – it’s pure escapism. I think a lot of gamers in the 30-plus age group do it for that. The competitive gamers tend to be younger players.”
Francois Rheeders, head of the gaming business unit at Rectron, points out that gaming can hone gamers’ reflexes while helping them to destress or unwind after a day at work.
“It’s very personal entertainment,” he says. “Games let users choose their own path through a story. You don’t have to watch a mind-numbing television show: instead, you get to create your own story.
“Gaming is definitely a lot more stimulating than many other forms of entertainment.”
Immersion in other realities
New gaming technology is using virtual reality (VR) to make experiences even more life-like, and offers users the opportunity to experience places in a very realistic way.
Using VR, gamers can immerse themselves in a new environment and, using avatars, they can also engage with other players in a realistic way.
“You can make you avatar a replica of who you are in real life – or you can become something else entirely,” Hartog points out. “Because you can take on a different persona, you can become more than you are.”
While VR makes the gaming environment very real and believable, artificial intelligence (AI) will make it possible for gamers to have very lifelike conversations and interactions with the game.
“These advanced technologies are leading to the development of more believable and immersive environments.”
Shane Alborough, who represents gaming kit supplier Coolermaster, is excited about the possibilities that new technologies open up for gaming.
“There is huge potential in the realm of virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR), especially for the businessperson who wants to escape from reality for a while,” he points out. “These technologies will make games much more interactive and immersive.”
Rheeders thinks one of the big selling points for VR is that gamers won’t be distracted by what’s going on around them in the real world.
Conversely, the same technology could lead to a resurgence in family gaming. “It could evolve on from the kind of family or team games that are associated with devices like the Nintendo Wii,” Rheeders says.
“With VR/AR, there could be a shared reality that everyone is in. In some ways, this technology would make gamers less isolated.”
He imagines that role-playing games would become much more immersive in a VR/AR world. “Players need not be alone in this rich environment: the whole family or group could participate in different roles.”
Gaming goes mainstream
Gaming is rapidly becoming mainstream: competitive gaming and e-sports are growing in South Africa to the point where some players are making a career from it.
Competitive gaming is a growing business worldwide – statistics show that about $93-million in prize money was up for grabs last year – and it is taking off in South Africa too, with some gamers now becoming full-time professionals.
The sector is attracting substantial companies in Econet Media’s sports content platform Kwesé Sports and the more recent launch of Telkom’s dedicated e-sports company, VS Gaming.
As a long-time sponsor of e-sports, Telkom decided to increase its focus on gaming with a separate company.
It has also partnered with SuperSport to be the official broadcast partner of upcoming Dota2 and CS:Go tournaments run by VS Gaming.
VS Gaming has announced that it will host a FIFA 17 tournament in July, with thousands of participants and a “substantial” prize pool.
Alborough expects that the emergence of e-sports as a spectator sport, along with the promise of bigger prize pools, will raise the quality of the game.
“Hopefully the more formalised structures, and competition between the brands, will lead to an improvement in standards and gamers in general.”
E-sports are also becoming recognised extra-curricular activities at schools, and learners get as much credit for gaming as for rugby or cricket.
Gamers should also be aware that addiction is a very real thing, Hartog adds.
“There are instances where people would rather stay home playing, so they skip social engagements and stay away from school or work,” he says.
“The escapism in gaming is a great experience, but it can be addictive and users need to know their own boundaries. As with any addiction, the user needs to recognise they are in that state and seek help.”
Even without becoming addicted, some users can end up spending more money than they should on buying games or on in-game purchases. Hartog relates instances where people have spent thousands on the seemingly-innocuous and free game Candy Crush.
Of course, game designers understand the psychology of players and attempt to make games as engaging as possible. “Games fulfil people’s need for gratification,” Hartog explains. “They address a basic human need to achieve an objective or get ahead on the leaderboard.
“It is very fulfilling, and drives the player to the next level or episode. And the more engaging or interactive the game, the more fulfilling it is.”
Some countries are banning the inclusion of elements like loot boxes in games.
In other instances, social commentary or political inferences in games have come in for criticism. “You have to be conscious of this,” Hartog says. “Some games can be controversial, but we think it is up to the user to make up his own mind.”
When it comes to younger players, Hartog warns that there are age restrictions on some games for a reason. “With children, parental control is always advised to ensure a safe environment, especially when they are online.”
Online gaming comes with the same threats as any online activity, and he urges all gamers to exercise a reasonable level of caution.
The technology behind the games
Gamers are spoilt for choice when it comes to the hardware they can use to indulge their passion.
A lot of design and science has gone into creating the best-looking and best-performing gaming devices and accessories, says Coolermaster’s Shane Alborough.
“Even gaming components and peripherals like keyboard and mice are specifically designed to give gamers an advantage,” he explains.
“Product design focuses on improving the gaming experience, creating tailored products that offer improvements. Even if something gives the gamer a minor improvement in the game, they are going to want that.”
Depending on the particular game and on the user’s preference, different products offer different advantages – and there are even products that the user can programme to their individual taste.
For instance, some keyboards let the user decide on how the keys sound, feel and react, explains Rectron’s Francois Rheeders.
Device aesthetics also cater to different tastes, or allow for personalisation, he adds.
“Some gamers prefer particular aesthetics and are able to indulge their own personal taste.”
Gaming can be played on a variety of hardware, Rheeders explains.
There are the gaming consoles like PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo; or gamers could buy one of the gaming PCs marketed by commercial PC brands.
Examples of these include Dell’s Alienware, Acer’s Predator, Asus’s Republic of Gaming, Lenovo’s Legion and HP’s Omen. There are also gaming-specific products from Gigabyte and Auris.
There is also a vast array of components and peripherals to choose from. These can either be added to brand-name PCs, or users can mix and match to build their own customised gaming rigs.
Rheeders explains that the variety is vast, and includes gaming chassis – both air- and water-cooled; power supplies, central processing units (CPUs) and graphic processing units (GPUs), motherboards, memory and storage.
“Almost every component range has products that are designed for gaming,” he says.
“And that’s without getting into bigger peripherals like monitors – yes, gaming monitors are specially designed; and even chairs.”
Gamers want their peripherals to look good and to perform excellently, he adds.
“Aesthetics and advantage is what it is all about. So gamers would opt for membrane keyboards because they make responses that much quicker.”
Alborough points out that even the humble mouse mat is specially designed to improve gaming.
“Gaming mouse pads would have an optimised texture that will improve response times. The mice would be designed with optical sensors that prevent lag and other glitches.”