About 30 years ago, CBS News ran a video report for their evening news talking about the rise of arcade games. Most of the article was fun featuring excited teens dumping their money into games like Pac Man and Galaga. They veered off the fun path for just a second and played a clip of psychologists talking about the effect of video games on people in general. They warned mostly of an increase of isolationism. I’ve heard a lot of psychological effect arguments, some real (like video game addiction) and some that tend to be harder to prove (like the effect of violent video games and movies for that matter on children and teens) but this was this first time I had gone back and seen a clip that mentioned isolationism. Of course, I can no longer find the clip but it got me thinking of how ahead of it’s time it was and how thoroughly dismissed the idea was.
That’s sort of the one that people tended to laugh off. Video games were a public social experience after all, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. Arcades were a place you went and were with friends or around other people. Video games most often tended to be two player in person affairs where you went to someone else’s house and hung out in a social environment that the games worked as glue to tie together. In the 1990s video game systems wanted even more in person multiplayer so they created multi-player taps. Starting with the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 4-way Play and with NEC’s TurboGrafx (their multi-tap allowed 5 players) and then multiple tap devices for the Sega Genesis there was no lack of social element to gaming.
That changed a bit once the consoles started to make the shift to online gaming. It’s something they attempted years earlier but North America in particular wasn’t really ready for the change. Once the Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo consoles in the early 2000s figured out how to make online gaming a bit smoother and of course the ramping up of broadband speeds made a major difference, they were off. The goal was pretty much clear. There was so much more money to be made in isolating the multiplayer gaming experience. Consider this: Say you bought Madden ’94 for Sega Genesis. A game you and three other friends could comfortably play in your living room and have a blast doing it. That game retailed for $59.99 new. Buying the extra controllers was something Sega or some other third party unrelated to EA made money on and it was a one time purchase. As was the four way tap you bought – which Sega offered their own and EA offered theirs. Again, a one time purchase. But now if you bought NHL or FIFA or a number of other games that utilized 4-way play, there was no real way to capitalize off of it.
Online multiplayer was a whole other beast. In order to play you had to purchase an annual online subscription ($60), the game itself ($60-120 these days), a headset of some kind of you want to chat ($30-$200+). Oh yeah, the systems themselves ($200-400!). Wait, did I mention that EVERY PERSON PLAYING THE GAME had to buy all of this? Now that four player game means 4x the revenue and games are hardly limited to four players anymore. If you have clans on games they can expand pretty dramatically and some games can have dozens of players all in one game. That’s a ton more money than those old cartridges made. And we’re not going to even dive into all the money made on loot boxes or other in game purchase items or DLC content. Not to mention in an age that physical discs are becoming less and less a thing, the publishing companies now own all the sales as well. Game Stop and some used game stores are losing a ton of money and on their last legs. At some point I fully expect them just to switch into physical Think Geek retailers. The used game market beyond the last console generation is dwindling. They have all of your money. They win. Just like a Casino that keeps you playing really.
There’s something else they have that very few people think about until it gets really ugly. Isolation. People never have to interact with anyone to play online or if they do, they can do so with people so far away they never really have to meet them at all. It creates a lot more pseudo relationships where people make “friendships” they can never really follow up on in real life. People are still comfortably away from the public, in their own homes, away from any interactions they don’t like. Until they can’t. Situations like #Gamergate proved that there can be a pack mentality and as soon as someone goes after your personal life, you’re not truly safe anyway. The isolationism feeds loneliness in teens and often pushes people to feelings of jealousy or low self esteem.
This is not limited to gaming but gaming sort of opened the flood gates. See the online experience has existed for years and years. Dating back to BBS gaming decades earlier or all in one services such as Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL and others in the mid-90s. There was for a time a true limitation to the isolation in these communities: cost. For a long time the cost could be exorbitant. Unlimited internet wasn’t a thing on the all in one services. Often you were paying $3+ an hour to interact. Prodigy offered a 30 hours for $30 plan which was somewhat reasonable until you figured out 30 hours was very easy to exceed. Additionally not all of these services or the BBS services before them had local dial in numbers. Now you were calling long distance as well and that was no cheap feat. You could easily double or triple that internet bill just by hitting your budgeted hours for the month. This didn’t mean there wasn’t a pack mentality or abuse on the older services, just that it wasn’t as easy to pull off as it is today.
Today social media platforms have filled the communication gaps left by the all in one services. In these places, people don’t have to be outside, to communicate with anyone. From the comfort of your keyboard, you can like or dislike anything you want and you can join groups that attack things you mutually dislike or disagree with. The most susceptible are those who want any form of confirmation bias they can find as they often are pulled into crazy conspiracy worlds or recruited by hate groups that have convinced them they are under attack. It’s nothing new politically, groups of secret political societies go back centuries and here in America everyone has heard a yarn or two about those nefarious Free Masons or even in the late-1950s, The John Birch Society. Now though, the internet is our only reality for some. Facts and fact checking are extremely difficult tasks, not because there are not true or untrue things that can be proven or disproven but because the viewers are so skewed in their own warped machinations of reality that fact checks feel like attacks to them, especially if they counter that internal bias they have.
Social Media is a war zone. Made up of political and religious factions sometimes. Sometimes it’s a racial divide. Sometimes it’s worse. Go to an ESPN or heck, any sports page’s comment section and you’ll see some of the worst comments of the internet in terms of hateful, angry and yet macho and boastful. Sports fans on those comment threads often feed into the unfair stereotypes that all other sports fans have to live with. (Note: younger generations are in much larger numbers ditching sports altogether for eSports or other entertainment. Some of this is likely relative to the environment that I am talking about here constantly breeding a lot of negativity and hostility in general towards other fans.)
So why does this matter? Because this environment where everybody is angry, hostile, a keyboard warrior willing to talk in ways to someone that they would never do face to face means the environment is toxic enough where a whole lot of people have decided to forsake other people at all. They see the toxic place of the internet and know that subtext lies beneath the surface of every potential interaction and thus drive the demand to stay in their homes as much as possible. They want to shop from home, converse from home, even work from home. The less they have to get out the better and honestly this is a terrible thing for society. The lines have blurred considerably. What could and should be offensive is called out on the internet but there’s no nuance to take each individual situation as separate incidents with varying details (and for that matter varying levels of offense or guilt). You get people angry about sensitivity to anything but you get people oversensitive and potentially looking for sleights when there may not have been any intended ones. It’s an impossible bridge to gap. With all of that and the political climate and the absolute negligence towards the financial or environmental situations that many generations of people care about the best solution is the following: Shell up and stay in your apartment.
As mentioned before, the video game market made a turn towards catering to this isolationism (if not outright fostering it) and made a ton of money on it. Online shopping is bigger than it’s ever been and grocers are getting in the act with Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods driving companies like Kroger to come up with the Click List where you can shop online and just pick up your groceries. Even that’s being expanded to delivery service in some areas.
Of course that also means restaurants are feeling the pinch. If they didn’t offer delivery companies like Grub Hub, Door Dash and Uber Eats exist to deliver from those places to you for a premium. It may be what helps turn around restaurant business as there has been a downturn in the amount of people eating out but that will definitely be at the expense of the dining experience inside of these restaurants and another social experience is gone. And look, it’s not just millennials to blame here as much as sometimes the lazy media wants to float it out there. Their generation isn’t the one typically fighting the constant internet Facebook or even Twitter wars. They were brought up to be isolationist. The video games of their childhoods, the communication methods of their youths pushed them in the direction of having no reverence for say, going to a mall and buying from a department store versus shopping for the cheapest prices online and just buying there.
Ultimately that brings us back to the main point of the article. If you’re thinking of what kind of business to create, think of where the consumers are. It’s good to discuss this backstory to know how they got there – history after all is something we learn in hopes of not repeating it – but also to know it’s likely never going back. I still believe that there is a place for some of those older business models if they can both modernize what they’re doing as well as blend in the experience for other consumers outside of the isolationist crowd. Sears and JC Penney used to have Wish Books that were internet shopping basically before there was an internet. Mismanagement has put them on the brink but what if they could blend the magic of the Wish Book experience with the internet shopping experience in a way that made shopping fun again? And what if they could utilize new tools to lessen shipping time and expenses and have in store incentives as well as other experiences that would draw people online and in house?
When you consider that start up – are you thinking of ways to bring things directly to consumers and doing so in a fast, innovative and non-obtrusive way? Are you considering the thriftiness of the millennials who are struggling to find a footing an investor based economy?
Every interaction from here on out is a fight for the hearts and minds of the consumers but make sure you remember – their hearts and minds are tucked safely away… in their homes.