Tribalism is a form of a social system, where human societies are separated into smaller, more independent groups called tribes. This system has underpinned our species for millions of years and was the very first system that humans lived by. You may be wondering what this has to do with gaming, well, many of the behaviours and thought processes that result in tribalism are present in gaming communities today.
The most historic example of tribalism in gaming is the “Console Wars” between Sega and Nintendo. This was when underdog Sega, aggressively tried to outsell the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) with the Sega Mega Drive or Sega Genesis as it was named in Europe. The Genesis was deliberately designed to look more sleek and mature compared to its Nintendo competitor to attract an older demographic. This could encourage some tribalistic behaviour, particularly among the older kids, teasing the younger ones for being a baby because they had an NES instead of a Genesis. But the one thing that kicked this off was when Sega introduced the slogan "Genesis does what Nintendon't". This separates the people that own a Genesis from the people that own an NES, and this creates a divide between them.
In theory, tribalism would manifest itself in the form of the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is a particular group in which a person considers themselves to be a part of and the out-group is a group that a person does not identify with. Genesis owners could see themselves as superior to those with only an NES and this can lead to negative group behaviour such as name-calling, excluding someone from group activities etc. This can also have positive effects for those who are part of the in-group: stronger friendships and because they are part of the in-group, they are more likely to change their beliefs to ones similar to the in-group. At Sega, when the NES was still out-selling the Genesis, something called Out-group derogation could have happened. This is a fancy term for when an in-group feels threatened by who they consider being an out-group.
Over the years, companies have participated less and less in this console war instead preferring to adopt a less aggressive marketing approach. It seems the majority of the console war talk has shifted from companies to the communities themselves or at least that is what we see more of because of the internet. Of course, the debate flared up again in 2013 when Microsoft revealed the Xbox One and has continued in the background ever since.
One of the many factors that a person uses to see whether they are interested in a console, is the exclusives. This becomes a hotbed of discussion: Which console is best based on their exclusive games? With the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft did not have many exclusives and to be fair, neither did Playstation. As the two consoles’ lifespans went on, Sony kept consistently bringing out games that were critical and commercial successes with high praise from gamers and industry leaders alike. Microsoft, on the other hand, didn’t have many, and the exclusives that did release were either forgotten about or were thought to be mediocre by many.
Because people used exclusives to discuss which console is superior, coupled with the fact that Microsoft was not pumping out quality exclusives consistently turned the discussion into a zero-sum competition. In this case, people who only owned an Xbox couldn’t win because exclusives were not a major part of Microsoft’s strategy for the Xbox One, and the ones that did release didn’t live up to the expectations of critics and gamers.
This has changed dramatically with the release of the Xbox Series X/S as Microsoft, with Phil Spencer as the head of Xbox has changed their tune when it comes to exclusives. With games such as Fable, Perfect Dark and Redfall, hopefully, the conversation can be reasonable and less one-sided than it has been in the past. Competition is good, but when taken too far, it can get ugly and harm one of gaming’s core values: bringing people together.
Now that we are the dominant species on this planet, Tribalism is less concerned with survival and instead mostly channelled into our entertainment interests. This can be seen all over the internet on sites such as Reddit when discussing our favourite games. We create competition between ourselves because it’s a natural response that has evolved over millions of years that are designed for survival.
Although the context has changed, the process is still the same. While most people do not engage in this kind of negative behaviour, there are toxic minorities of gaming communities and indeed the companies themselves. Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox has spoken out against Tribalism saying “I’m never going to vote against any creative team or any product team to do poorly because I have a competitive product’”. He is right because, at the end of the day, we all love gaming.
By Adam Price
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