(Warning: Sleep deprivation. Ramble
A while back I
wrote an update concerning “Cosmik’s Law
of Internet Fanboyism”. Although it was written mostly in jest, the subject
matter is indeed the stuff of video game
legend reality. Yeah, you know what
I’m talking ‘bout; rabid fans fervorishly (welcome to today’s totally made-up
but chock-full of pun word) defending their product of choice against any type
of criticism - God forbid it be constructive criticism; to these fans, that’s
the worst kind – and scrambling over each other on message boards to be
the first one to post a humorous picture of a soldier telling you to have a
“nice cup of shut the fuck up”.
NVIDIA versus ATI. Doom versus Quake. PlayStation versus X-Box. Nintendo versus everyone. Our own little corner of the Internet is far from spared. November 2004 saw EverQuest II and World of Warcraft released within a week or two of each other. The chorus of “My game will beat up your game” hyped the competition between the two titles to a level that was perhaps much more than what was warranted.
More recently, we saw Sigil Games fanboys collectively faint, in a hardcore way of course, when they discovered their days of rampant SOE-bashing had come back to gank them. These two occurrences are, of course, just a small sample of the inter-MMO slanging matches that have perpetuated themselves ever since Ultima Online emerged from the sea and grew legs. I’m excluding MUD history here. Sorry, beards.
This, for lack of a better word, phenomenon was something I had always given some thought to. It ranks right up there with “Who put the ram in the ramalama ding dong?”. But it was an exchange over on the Vanguard Beta boards, highlighted over at Heartless’ blog in all its dramatic glory, which tipped my scales into postulating a rationale. Here we saw an account of a fanboy “firing squad” that is waging war upon anyone who threatens their vision of Vanguard – beta testers and game developers alike.
How is it that a collection of individuals, quite possibly with no previous interpersonal connection or relationship between one another, end up banding together in order to ostracize other individuals over an online computer game? You don’t see, at least in the bars I frequent, a bunch of guys getting into fisticuffs over the choice of beer brand, so why do we see it with MMOs? Is it the relative anonymity of the Internet that allows an individual to unleash their uninhibited love, rage and jealousy (besides the chance to be a complete bastard)? What cognitive processes are used in the formation of a fanboy firing squad? How about enough with the questions and I get on with the job?
At The Heart Of It All, Everybody Really Just Wants Their Mommy
There’s a psychological theory that people love to tout and throw about for a couple of reasons; 1) For all its detractors about “Self-Actualization”, it offers a solid basis, and 2) It comes with a nifty little diagram.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes 5 levels to human motivation; Physical (the need for water, food, sleep, air), Safety (the need for shelter, avoidance from physical harm), Belonging (the need for family, friends, sexual activity), Self-Esteem (the need for a value of self, respect from others), and Self-Actualization (the need to make the most of the given abilities of oneself). It is only once the needs of one level are met that the individual is able to move onto the next level of needs. In short, you don’t worry about what the guy standing in front of you thinks about your new jeans when he is holding a knife to your throat. It is a theory perpetually illustrated - particularly by the epitome of our modern culture: Survivor.
Meanwhile, over in cyberspace, unless you’re accessing the Internet and
playing your ArrPeeGees from the shark-infested streets of
(And really, c’mon, let’s face it. Even if you are blessed with a Partridge family complete with Brady overtones, logging onto the Internet, complete with its Stile Projects, SuperBeccas and goatse.cxs, will leave any man, woman or child in a darkened corner, sobbing uncontrollably)
These Are The People In Your Neighborhood. In Your Neighborhood. In Your Neighboorhooood.
There is a social force that is so effective at feeding the Belonging and Self-Esteem needs of the individual that it has spanned civilizations and millennia. It doesn’t involve paying for sex. It is community.
Hardly a revelation on the same scale as finding out that Snape is Dumbledore’s father, but there it is. And yet, I really needn’t have told you this; you already know it. He knows it. She knows it. That man looking in through your window knows it. Community is the nexus of every MMO, and in the case of every single MMO communities transcend the virtual world and extend outwards to permeate other mediums.
We humans are drawn to creating and joining communities. (Here’s an interesting little experiment, and something for you to try at home with parental consent. Draft a paragraph about the uber cool new MMO you are making. Perhaps throw in a picture or two. Put it all up on a website and watch the community form up around it. Here’s one that was prepared earlier.) This dependency upon community is explained in David McMillan and David Chavis’ work on “Sense of Community”.
Summed up succinctly, "Sense of Community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together”. It is the Sense of Community that feeds those ravenous needs for Belonging and Self-Esteem.
To satisfy those same needs, a bunch of individuals on the Vanguard Beta boards formed their own Sense of Community. We now know why the fanboy firing squad exists. Let’s go ahead and dissect their Sense of Community to see how they formed (we’ll save chopping off their epeens for later).
McMillan and Chavis’ Sense of Community is composed of four elements:
3. Integration and fulfillment of needs
4. Shared emotional connection
The first element, Membership, is straight forward; an individual wants to be a part of something bigger, take advantage of the benefits it provides, and so will seek it out. Membership is defined by attributes such as boundaries, emotional safety and a common symbol system.
* Boundaries. Boundaries are traditionally marked by things such as language and dress. If you speak French, you will seek to become a member of a French-speaking community. If you wear black clothes and pale make-up you will prefer the company of Goths. If you wear faded pink polo shirts with the collar sitting up you will hang out with the other dickheads.
Now, with the Internet, these markers become less effective. We can still distinguish who speaks what language (although I swear half the people that count English as their first language cannot type it), but on the other hand we have no idea what DeathWolf69 looks like. To aid us in determining whether DeathWolf69 is cool enough to share our toys with we use additional markers like “which web sites and forums are visited” (the Vanguard Beta boards in the case of the fanboy firing squad), and “which games are played” (EverQuest in the case of the fanboy firing squad).
* Emotional Safety. Perhaps a better word for this, and one which McMillan and Chavis acknowledge, is security. Membership to a community is desired for the fact that it can provide numerous types of security; physical, emotional, even monetary. In the case of the fanboy firing squad, the ability to say something on the Vanguard Beta boards and have someone else support what was said, either as affirmation or in defense, is a highly valuable piece of security.
* Common symbol system. As with boundaries, a common symbol for a community aids its members in avoiding threat (that is, an individual not from the community). It also allows them to go to war and be slaughtered under a banner holding that same symbol. In the absence of any flag waving on the Internet, MMO players have instead taken up an alternative way to show off their symbol; message board signatures. It is in fact quite an effective way to show one’s loyalties, and I have no doubt that the Vanguard Beta boards are plastered with messages that trail off with a bunch of names, classes and levels. In the case of the fanboy firing squad, the humble signature has allowed them to embrace or ostracize based entirely on one message board post. This is a wonderful thing from their point of view as it saves them all that silly, time-consuming talking-to-someone-to-get-to-know-them-stuff. Don’t look down on them for it though. Every community does it.
The second element, Influence, dictates that influence within a community is bidirectional. That is, for an individual to want to join a group, that individual must be able to exert some influence over the group (or believe they can). Likewise, the group will want to retain influence over individuals, thereby producing a level of cohesiveness. What’s that old Aesop saying? United we stand, divided we fall? While it may paint a picture in your mind of a ragtag bunch of nubile slaves working together to defeat their robot overlords, at the crux of it all it’s about getting someone to do what you want them to do. For the fanboy firing squad, influence is used as a way for the individual to get support for their desires (request or change a feature in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes) and as a way for the group to increase its power and participation.
Integration and fulfillment of needs, the third element in our little saga, states that in order for any community to maintain a positive sense of togetherness (thereby keeping the community alive), reinforcement of the individual’s needs must occur. This, of course, leads us back towards our old friends Belonging and Self-Esteem. Without sitting down with each of the fanboy firing squad members to ask them question or two (and dishing out a quick punch to the head), I cannot say what exact needs are being met by the formation of their community. However, in many cases just obtaining the status of being a member is enough to feed Belonging and Self-Esteem. It is also highly likely that the fanboy firing squad has extended outwards from their initial home of the Beta board and are now frolicking amongst the not-so-brown-anymore hills of Vanguard. For a player looking to meet people to spend their time in-game with, joining such a community is a huge motivator.
Lastly, the fourth element describes a shared emotional connection. In short, a shared history. This is the driving force behind communities such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and is key in the creation of the fanboy firing squad. Experience the EverQuest that was half-finished expansion content, the Sleeper, suicides, Abashi, the bans and nerfs, and tell me it wasn’t emotional.
Perhaps it was a case of First Love Syndrome, perhaps it was a case of a bad day in Azeroth, or perhaps it was a mixture of the two and some others thrown in there for good measure. Either way, when Heartless’ Deep Throat made the comment of…
There is also a curious hatred for World of Warcraft, specifically. Curious, because much of what World of Warcraft has done was based on the original EverQuest design and expounded from there. It's certainly ironic how these fanbois will rip apart anything WoW, yet praise, anything Everquest.
…it all comes down to the roots of their shared emotional connection.
10 Things I Love About Me
So, we have a bunch of individuals that have logged onto the Vanguard Beta boards and, having the urge to satisfy their Belonging and Self-Esteem needs, formed a community. Our story could wrap up nicely there and we could retire for the evening with a nice glass of warm milk buuuuut, it won’t. We have yet to examine the relationship – the discrimination - between the fanboy firing squad and everyone, well, not the fanboy firing squad. Honestly, that’s the reason for this post, so YARGH here we go.
The big kid amongst theories these days that endeavor to explain inter-community conflict comes from Henri Tajfel and the exceptionally brainy John Turner (he works in my home city). Their theory, Social identity, answers the dual-barreled questions of “when and why individuals identify with, and behave as part of, social groups, adopting shared attitudes to outsiders”.
Social identity theory, like any good theory, is composed of elements;
Categorization deals with how we humans sort individuals in order to understand them. Every day we use social categories, labels if you will, such as white, black, boy, girl, American, European, Jew, Catholic, policeman, game designer, noob, and uber. Why? For the simple reason that it makes it easy for us to know with whom we should hang out with. Allocating a label to an individual helps us know things about that individual and, very importantly, provides us with the knowledge to allocate a label to ourselves. By defining who belongs in what category, and therefore which category we ourselves belong to, our community marker lines – behavior, appearance - are easily drawn in the sand
Identification arises once we have categorized our environment, and it is here that we identify with a group that we believe we fit in with. We define ingroups as those we relate to (which increases our self-esteem), and we define outgroups as those we are different from. In some cases, the comparison between these groups is taken to the max and we observe the outgroup as being totally, unequivocally different, with each member of that group sharing exactly the same defining attributes. It is here that the actions of a few individuals are attributed to the entire group and we get incidents like Abu Ghraib. Likewise, it is here that the actions of a few individuals are attributed to the entire group and we see all WoW players being flamed on the Vanguard Beta boards.
Comparison, the last element, is based upon the notion that humans will always seek out a positive view of themselves. This is backed up by Life Experience. To achieve this positive view, the individual will compare their ingroup (the prestige group) against the outgroup in a way that will reflect positively upon the ingroup and, by default, themselves. (Sure, the ingroup may be make-the-baby-cry butt ugly, but that difference is as useful as glass duck balls if the individual is comparing the positive distinction between intellects)
To borrow a phrase;
Two ideas follow from this. One is positive distinctiveness. The idea is that people are motivated to see their own group as relatively better than similar (but inferior) groups. The other idea is negative distinctiveness, groups tend to minimize the differences between the groups, so that our own group is seen favorably.
In terms for our fanboy firing squad, the act of preferring EverQuest (complete with its meaningful corpse runs and rewarding steeper leveling curve) over other MMOs – especially the part of the outgroup that plays World of Warcraft – is the defining category and positive comparison.
So, here’s the deal. I’ll finish up now because, honestly, I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on the way the fanboy firing squad uses minority leadership (achieved through cementing their place within the larger Beta tester community early on, choosing to not sway significantly in regards to the opinions offered by the group, and their self confidence gained by creating a group when most likely everyone else was yelling “WOO. BETA. WOOO.”).
What we have here is a case of a bunch of individuals that, in order to satisfy their needs, have formed a community so that their opinions on game design are heard, which in turn is achieved by exerting influence over other Vanguard Beta testers. In many cases, the actual pros and cons of the game design feature may very likely have no effect on the stance taken by the fanboy firing squad – the strength of the community, and the self-esteem of its members, is of primary concern. In such an successful community like this, anything else comes a distant second.
I have no doubt that this same thing has occurred in Beta tests before, and will continue to do so. It is a very effective social construct, so why should it stop now. I’m certain this incident in Vanguard was merely exacerbated due to the uncertainty and further rumors floating around the game and its advance towards release.
On the off chance that anyone from Sigil is reading this, and the situation has not significantly changed, I’d just like to say this in closing; this group of individuals, and the larger Beta tester community for that matter, will not represent your playerbase come release. Of that, be sure. Trying to pry and bend the game to the whims of some vocal players looking for a boost to their self-esteem? That way be dragons. Pissed off dragons. Listen to and act on the good feedback, for sure. But make your game. You’re the ones that know the target you are aiming for, after all.
And, If all else fails, call the fanboy firing squad leader a poopypants. Chances are that he is.