Fanboys. You don’t have to be a very experienced browser of gaming-related forums to see your share of discussions fouled by flames between people hysterically defending their favored game/console/genre/whatever and attacking everything else in sight. Some of it is deliberate trolling, for sure, but not always. There were (and still are) way too many Xbox owners ready to point and laugh at the Playstation 3′s lack of games. Or good luck trying to find someone who will stand up as a fan of BOTH Halo AND Killzone. 1
Why do gamers do this? One word: “social identity theory.”
This theory explains (or at least predicted) the Great Console Wars of today and tomorrow. In one study, psychologist Henry Tajfel and his colleagues brought together teenage boys 2 and asked them to express preference for one of two sets of paintings, saying that their choice would place them in one of two otherwise arbitrary groups. Thus sorted, the boys then participated in a separate study where they distributed (fake) money to their fellow subjects under a variety of conditions. But here’s the key: each boy was told whether those to whom he was doling out the virtual cash were in “his” group or in the “other” group.
I’ll bet you can guess the results: subjects showed stark favoritism for people who had liked the same set of paintings as they had and who were thus in “their” group. Remember that like messageboard denizens, these kids had absolutely no self-interested reason to do this –they weren’t rewarded for favoring their group and they weren’t given any reason to expect their fellow group members to return the favor and be best friends forever. They just did it because they considered those strangers to be “us” and –perhaps more importantly– the rest to be “them.” 3
Tajfel and his collaborators theorized that people have a natural tendency to construct identities based on group membership. Part of who you are –and how you communicate that to others– is defined by what groups you belong to. And we naturally want to belong to high-status groups, right? Okay, fine, but everything is relative; a group isn’t high status unless there’s a low status group for it to be contrasted against. So not only do some people identify themselves as Xbox fans, they attack Playstation owners in order to raise their status. This tendency is human nature, the researchers concluded, and a lot of other data support them. What’s more, we’re perfectly willing to do it at the drop of a hat.
Some savvy game designers even build this kind of thing into their game, the biggest example being Blizzard’s long-standing “Horde vs. Alliance” rivalry in World of Warcraft. Some folks will roll toons on either side of the divide, but many hardcore players will vigorously stick to just one side, and Blizzard happily plays this rivalry up in the player versus player aspects of the game.
One of the most interesting uses of social identity theory I’ve seen, though, was pulled off by Valve Software during their recent “Demoman versus Soldier” event for Team Fortress 2.
Harnessing their flabbergasting ability to track gameplay stats through Steam, Valve promised a new in-game weapon for the class (Demoman or Soldier) that scored the most overall kills against his opponent during a certain time frame. The results were nuts as people chose sides, let rockets/stickies fly, and created renewed buzz for the game. 4
I think the Soldier explained it best on the Official Team Fortress Blog:
Gentlemen, I have NO IDEA what this weapon is. I don’t even know if I’ll WANT it. But BY GOD, I know what’s IMPORTANT, and it’s that WE get it and the DEMOMAN DOES NOT.
This is psychological warfare at its finest.