How Social Identity Theory Predicted the Console Wars of ’07

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.”


Typical Fans

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.

Valve uses social identity theory for fun and profits

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.


1. And don’t even get me started on the whole “table versus jetski” debacle.
2. There’s the bulk of your console war soldiers right there, in fact.
3. Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178.
4. In case you were wondering, Soldier won the shootout, but just barely –6,372,979 Soldiers gibbed vs 6,406,065 Demomen.

25 thoughts on “How Social Identity Theory Predicted the Console Wars of ’07

  1. That was my first thought too Matthew! 🙂

    Another great article. So many potential “us and them” situations in the gaming world.

  2. The meat of the article seems fairly obvious, but kudos anyway for the spelling joke. Gareth would be proud.

    “One word, two syllables: demarcation.”

  3. It works in politics, too. It’s a great way to keep people’s attention directed. Whether or not that’s nefarious is perhaps up for grabs.

  4. It’d be interesting to know what factor double-agents played in the final outcome; i.e. soldier fans playing as demoman (and vice versa) for the sole purpose of providing a non-lethal, easy target for their buddies.

  5. @ Bart Seaman
    Yeah, I wondered about that. In the end, though, there were 12 million points in play. It would have to be a pretty large, concerted effort in order to not be a drop in the bucket. And I’d hypothesize that that error variance would be evenly split between Demo and Soldier teams, so it wouldn’t affect the outcome.

  6. Your point about social identity is well made.

    When I read the title of this post, I thought you were going to speak of group polarization (particularly when you asked why players would not admit to liking both Halo and Killzone: groupthink would strongly discourage that kind of thing).

    It’d be interesting to consider how the ability of group members to communicate within the group has helped create a fiercer, more loyal bunch of fanatics. (Were SNES v. Genesis fanatics as intolerant of one another as are 360 v. PS3 today, thanks to Live, PSN, and web fora?)

    Also, it’s fun to think about how the inability to carry out any direct, inter-group interaction (say, in cross-platform competition) might protect fans from any sort of reality-check, or even co-operative activity, that could work against their natural tendency to polarize.

  7. @ Lucas
    Those are really interesting thoughts. I bet that game designers and hardware manufacturers who create tools for players to communicate and form groups are going a long way towards creating that kind of cohesion.

    @ gribbly
    Hah, yeah. I had kind of forgotten about that (I try not to pay much attention to Twilight stuff) but that’s pretty much exactly the same thing.

  8. Hmm, interesting point. Althought I still think a large motivation behind the creation of fanboys comes from cognitive dissonance.

    As I understand it, most fanboys (usually kids) only have financial resources to purchase one of a generation. So let’s say they ask their parents for an Xbox 360. They are now invested in that decision. When Uncharted 2 comes out, the fanboy sees two possibilities:

    1) That exclusive game is awesome. I chose the wrong console. I made a dumb move. I am fallible or even worse — stupid. Obviously that can’t be true.

    2) That exclusive game sucks. I made the right choice. Obviously anyone who says anything different must be out of their mind and therefore there’s no point in trying to reason with them.

    I think in my time with younger gamers I saw a lot more of the above than the Social Identity thing — which does seem to come in a lot more in the other examples you mentioned.

    It is indeed a powerful effect… I remember how, once I bought a folding bike to commute to work, I started seeing other commuters with the same kind of bike with different eyes. Suddenly, we were a group. And most incredible was the contempt that I couldn’t avoid feeling when faced with someone who had a different (in my eyes, inferior) brand of bike. It doesn’t fold quite as small. He just can’t be a very good person. (Yeah, a little “affect effect” for you keeping track at home. 😉 )

    Congratulations on the blog, I’m very happy to have found it. Maybe now people will believe me when I equate loot to slot machines. Cheers to Raph Koster for linking here!


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