Game for Thought: Tribalism in Games

Photo courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin


Gaming communities can be toxic. Some can even be quite destructive, and yet they persist. Popular titles such as Dota 2 and Fortnite have been described as having terrible or cringe-worthy player bases, but these games still have players putting in their time and effort. Why? What drives players to identify so strongly with a game or console such that they feel the need to defend it despite all odds? What lessons can we draw from this and bring into our daily lives going forward?

Admittedly, as one of the members of the “PC master race,” I am well acquainted with the trends of brand loyalty in the gaming community. Whether it be the consoles or the companies or the individual games, people always seem to find a way to form group identities and stereotypes around it.

Photo courtesy of BagoGames

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been yelled at in a game or the number of strongly worded comment chains I’ve read, all concerning game community disputes. Each and every time, the arguments bore zero fruit. At least one side was aggressive in their opinion, often resorting to base tactics such as name calling or broad generalizations. For instance, in a discussion on how the now all too popular game Fortnite rose to fame, I’ve seen players of the game refute all criticisms and non-players repel all praise. Both were seemingly incapable of seeing eye-to-eye.

Some may see this and similar type of divisive behavior as tribalism. With the backdrop of today’s political landscape in mind, tribalism can be broadly defined as the tendency to think and act within the interests of one’s own tribe, social network or group, sometimes at the detriment to oneself or others. To a certain extent, tribalism is normal. Human beings are social animals, and it is often more productive to function as a group instead of as an individual. Communities of like-minded individuals often provide safer environments and fulfill our social needs.

However, as with many things, too much can prove to be harmful. Multiple studies have documented both the positive and negative effects of so-called “us vs them” mentality on social interaction, cognition and critical thinking. The concept of social identity can be applied to games and help us to understand what role we play in the toxicity of our communities.  Although tribalism has helped us evolve into who we are today, it is important to remember that we are not beholden to the trends that may guide us.

In the gaming community, such belief systems are often blown out of proportion for comedic effect, but the truth that lies there points towards a larger societal issue—a lack of self-awareness in how we treat others. In the digital age, it might be easier to depersonalize the other party that appears through the screen, but that doesn’t make it any better in terms of effective communication. Sometimes it can be hard to notice our own bias, but our treatment of other people is a good place to start.