Questioning the Human Genome Project
A Secular Age (6): Religion Today

On Fanboys

What makes a fanboy tick? I believe fanboy behaviour is driven by cognitive dissonance in a manner strikingly similar to political partisanship, sporting rivalry and the religious cold war between militant atheists and their theistic counterparts.

I’ve written about cognitive dissonance before, and in greater length than I will attempt here, but the potted version for anyone new to the idea is as follows: we all adopt certain beliefs about ourselves and the world around us, and once these beliefs are adopted they dictate how we interpret all our experiences to a fair degree. When we come across situations that radically contradict our beliefs, we are filled with an uncomfortable feeling: to lessen this unpleasant experience (which is termed cognitive dissonance) we modify our beliefs in a way that will lessen the cognitive dissonance.

When cognitive dissonance occurs between groups of people with different beliefs (which is perhaps the most common manner in which this behaviour manifests) there are a handful of common responses: either we distance ourselves from people who hold other beliefs by marking them out as different (using pejorative terms such as fanatic, heretic, pseudo-scientist), we apply social pressure to try to make them conform to our beliefs, or if we are subject to the social pressure ourselves we may conform to the alternative view (i.e. give in to peer pressure). 

Recently, scientists reported brain scans of political partisans which revealed the parts of the brain activated during partisan-response (for instance, the hostility felt towards an opposing candidate) were the same regions involved in assessing risk and reward in the context of prior experience. According to psychologist Jonas Kaplan of the University of California in Los Angeles, in the political process “people come to decisions early on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about their decision.” 

This connects with the first mechanism of ameliorating cognitive dissonance: demonising people with opposing beliefs. Partisans not only interpret the speech and actions of their candidates more positively, they turn up the negative feelings engendered by the opposing candidates – ensuring a strong antagonism. This is why politics and religion are such explosive topics: having committed to one metaphysical and ethical position (liberal versus conservative, atheist versus theist etc.) partisans are no longer able to see either side or the argument without massive distortion. Independents and agnostics – people with no prior commitment, or a lesser degree of commitment – can generally see flaws and benefits on both sides of the divide.

Now it may seem that committing your loyalty to Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo is a world apart from committing to a political or religious stance – after all, the stakes of politics are the leadership and government of society and the world, and the stakes of metaphysical belief can seem even more serious to both atheists and theists. Why should videogame fanboys be so invested in their loyalty to one platform over another? 

Remember that the parts of the brain activated in partisan response are those involved in assessing risk and reward, and cognitive dissonance is involved in protecting one’s prior decisions against disconfirming evidence. The reward in the context of videogame players is the enjoyment they will earn from playing the games on the various console systems, often in the form of fiero (triumph over adversity) – that hot and addictive emotional reward from overcoming immense challenge – but this is far from the only form of reward to be found in play. The decision each fanboy has made at some point in the past is which console will give them the greatest emotional reward from play – and for loyalists who stick with one console manufacturer from generation to generation, this decision was made a long time ago.

Thus the fanboy experiences cognitive dissonance in the wake of disconfirming evidence that they made the right choice (i.e. that they choose the console that would give them the most reward). This most commonly manifests in a partisan conflict between opposing camps – at the moment this is most commonly Microsoft and Sony as these are the companies fighting hardest over the loyalty of the “hardcore” gamers, but Nintendo fanboys are subject to the same psychological forces and conflicts (often lessoned these days, as such people often have to own another console as well since Nintendo cannot produce their highest quality games with sufficient regularity to keep their fans occupied). 

Last week, when I wrote about the battle between Sony and Microsoft for hardcore gamer loyalty, it triggered an avalanche of knee jerk reactions from Sony fanboys because I assessed that Microsoft has the edge in this struggle at the moment. This was judged as disconfirming evidence that these people had made the right choice – thus triggering cognitive dissonance, and producing all sorts of wild accusations against me, including that I must be a Microsoft fanboy (I guess not a very good one, though, since I don’t actually own an Xbox 360). This in turn triggered the same kind of response from the Microsoft fanboys as they embattled with their “enemies” in an effort to justify their prior commitments. 

But aside from the fun that can come from friendly rivalry (something we see more commonly between sports fans than between political or religious enemies), this kind of defence of one’s decision to purchase one console or another is rather ridiculous, especially right now when the development climate favours multi-platform releases. Whichever power console you chose to purchase, it is highly likely that it will fulfil your play needs as adequately as its rival. Or course, it doesn’t feel this way to the fanboy, just as the political and religious adversaries cannot accept that there could be merit to aspects of the opposing position. Cognitive dissonance prevents this realisation.

So the fanboys defend their beloved consoles fiercely, because all their prior experience tells them they made the right choice (they have indeed enjoyed their console immensely) and anything that suggests otherwise triggers cognitive dissonance, and thus a need to lesson this uncomfortable feeling – usually by demonising the opposing camp, or indeed anyone not coming from their position. Accepting the idea that people who made the “opposite” decision (who bought a PS3 instead of a 360 or vice versa) also made a good decision is not an allowable response as it seems to invalidate the choice the fanboy made – we can’t both be right, is the assumption made, but this postulate is quite in error. 

We will always have fanboys, and they will always fight vigorously to defend their choice of loyalty. By studying their behaviour we learn something about ourselves, about that unseen aspect of cognitive dissonance that we are all subject to but can rarely catch a glimpse of without exceptional circumstances. Don’t judge the fanboys too harshly, as you and I are all subject to similar forces, in politics, sports, religion, science and other domains. I would much rather see such zeal expressed in the pointless debate over which was the “correct” console to purchase than attempting to disrupt our freedom of belief or the chance of political action on vital issues – if we can’t eliminate cognitive dissonance, perhaps we can at least contain it to the realm of the trivial.


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dj i/o here...

Screw Sony, Microsoft & Nintendo fanboys anyway...

PC is obviously the superior platform :)

'Scuse me, I'm just going to go and dig a foxhole somewhere and hide. Where's my tin hat?

(I have a Wii, a PC and a PS/2. I like some of the games on the high-end consoles, but not enough to buy one - making sure the windows don't fall out of their frames is probably a better use of my "spare" cash at the moment.)

dj i/o: ha, I guess I forgot the fourth corner of this conflict. ;)

My personal issue with PC as a gaming platform is unreliability. It may offer superior power, upgrade potential and all sorts of other advantages that might attract people, but I find the hassles involved in kicking it until it works to be really quite wearisome.

Peter: I know what you mean. If I wasn't developing for PS3, I wouldn't have bought one (the company picked it up as "research"). The game I spend most time playing on the PS3 is ironically an emulation of the 1982 Williams arcade game Joust, for which the power of the PS3 is utterly irrelevant. :)

Best wishes!

Cant this be summed up as just another tragedy caused by tribalism?

Can we say that console fanboyism differs from other forms of group loyalty? "We define ourselves by who we hate."

zeech: I don't think of fanboys as a tragedy. I find it quite amusing, actually. :) Now partisan religious and political conflicts - these I do find deeply tragic.

Best wishes!

The 360, PS3 and Wii might all suck, but they're great compared to the PC. God I hate the PC so much. I'd rather pay for a game on a console than play a free version on PC.

But yeah. Obviously the best console is, and probably always will be, the PS2 :D

Thanks for this Chris, a lovely read. It has made me feel a lot better about the fanboy thing, and some of the comments in that other thread.

I'm well aware of my own ridiculousness when it comes to some of my "fanboy-ish" views on things to do with console manufacturers.. which is why I am even hestitant to post them.

However, as I have often pointed out to people, at least I =purposefully= try to keep my polemic views to the realms of the most trivial, so it was really nice to hear someone else re-iterate the value of that.

Also.. *laughs* I still play Joust too, but on the 360. A shame you play it on PS3, as I've never found a good co-op partner for it!

Rik: thanks for the kind words! I too have never found a good co-op partner for "Joust", neither for that matter anyone able to sustain interest in playing it for any length of time. :) But it's just as well we're on different consoles, as I've no idea how we would even begin to schedule an internet "Joust" play session! :)

But I have to ask (and please forgive my impertinence and assumptions of age): aren't you a little young to be enjoying "Joust"? I love the game because I played it voraciously in the arcades as a child - but surely you did not? Or have I utterly misjudged your age?

(And speaking of my childhood, "Joust" was the first game I adapted to another form - I converted it to the playground to play with my friends).

Of course, it's perfectly possible you have come to it now and still connected with the game, but for the most part its vicious "old school" arcade sensibilities and challenging analogue momentum controls seem to be quite off-putting to modern players.

I'd be quite interested in your story here.

Best wishes!

Well, you may have misjudged my age.. I am 32! Although even after spending a whole night with me, people always guess my age closer to the inverse of the digits of my actual age, so you're not the only one to think I'm much younger than I actually am... In fact 'revealing' my real age is a constant game of amusement for me when I meet new people. Last time I got an entire paragraph of shocked disbelief... ah well, good for ego anyway. ;)

So yes.. I did indeed play Joust as a young child, very soon after its release - but on the Atari 400 however, as I wasn't ever lucky enough to get to play in arcades much at all growing up (Incidently I've theorised this is part of the source of my much-later-life fiero addiction than most people carry with them). One problem I have with Joust though is that I am a far far cry from my childhood skills on the game. But at least I can always blame the 360 pad which really isn't too great for it.

Joust is also a very fond memory for me as I used to play it with my brother, and it was the first genuinely "co-op" game we had ever played. I think it did wonders for our brotherly relations! I believe it could be at least one of the first truely co-op games ever made? I've not found anything to back that up though. My brother and I would go on to form great teams on the odd occasion later, on games like Double Dragon (which I DID get to play in the 'arcade' - the local swimming baths) and later SNES games like NBA Jam, where we were practically unbeatable when working as a brotherly pair. If only he had a 360 too! - He did recently 'come back' somewhat to gaming though with his Wii.

As for arranging an internet game with me, it's pretty simple over XBox Live since I am on most weeknights. So I just tell anyone to invite me whenever they see me online to suit them - seems to work fine for co-op partners for other games. But unfortunately I don't seem to have any friends who'd rather Joust than Halo. And I do have a bit of Social gamer in me. :)

While I'm rambling on - another Joust story. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is actually one of the games I found benefitted from getting an HD TV. It is much easier now to identify the enemy type from a glance at their colours rather than having to watch their movement pattern.

ah, forgot to mention - Playground Joust sounds really amusing! What were the rules and how on earth did you ever get other kids to play along.. ? Unless they were all familiar with Joust as you were?

Rik: thanks as ever for your background details - I always enjoy reading them. I confess, I thought you were about 25-27, so forgive me for my misjudgement here!

Was Joust the first co-op game? Well there were co-op shooting galleries before videogames, but Joust may have been the first co-op videogame. I've not thought about this before, so let me mull through my arcade memories and see if I can find any other candidate. It excites me to think that one of my favourite games of all time might also have been a first! ;)

"XBox Live"

Hmm... so I'd have to give subscription money to Microsoft? I'm radically unprepared to do this, unfortunately, even for a co-op game of Joust. :) However, one of my friends is pressuring me towards this outcome, and if his methods become more sophisticated (he needs to draw me in with things that appeal *to me* rather than just trying to convince me to share in his enthusiasm for it) it may yet happen. The future, after all, is hard to see. :)

Finally, the Rules for "Playground Joust".

Firstly, you need to have a line about three quarters the length of the playground somewhere which defines the "High Sky". (Since most playgrounds have tram lines for sporting games this is usually easy to define). The wall of the playground on the longer side of the High Sky is the ground. Every player starts on the ground looking up towards the High Sky. The wall on the other side of the High Sky line is the roof of the sky.

Once you "take off" (start running) you must continue running - you can't hover or stop anywhere but the ground.

The rules for combat are the same as in Joust: highest lance in a collision wins. Or, whoever tags another player while they are higher in the playfield eliminates the other player. (So you want to be closest to the roof of the sky when you tag someone).

Because you want to be highest in a collision, everyone rushes to be as high as possible at the start - although a good player can also dodge enemies and stay in the low sky.

There's one more rule which makes the game work. You can go into the High Sky, but you can only stay there for ten seconds. You must chant out loud (Kabbadi-style) from ten down to one while you are in the High Sky, and if you run out of numbers while in this zone, you are eliminated (by the imaginary pterodactyl! :D )

So here's how the game plays: everyone runs around the playground wildly, and every now and then people run into the High Sky to avoid being tagged. But whomever goes into the High Sky first has to leave first, so a player can follow you in and attempt to tag you as you leave.

The resulting game is highly anarchic. A good strategy is to try and stay around the line that defines the High Sky - but here you are vulnerable to attack if someone successfully runs past you into the High Sky, and because this is a dominant position it is the most hotly contested position in the playground.

It wouldn't entertain adults, but it entertained 10 year olds most adequately! :)

"how on earth did you ever get other kids to play along.. ?"

Last year, I wouldn't have had an answer to this, but Simon Cox (now Creative Director of Ziff Davis media, the publisher of the major US games magazines) tells me that it was always me coming up with things for our group of friends to play.

Apparently, I was forever devising crazy ideas for play activities, and everyone else went along with it because they were fun to play. So I guess they were just swept up with my juvenile enthusiasm for game design. :)

Best wishes!

UPDATE: Richard informs me "Wizard of Wor" (1980) was the first game to feature a choice of co-op or competitive play.

hi, got a question here.

is there a word for the people who say "its about the games, i don`t care which machine its on"?

i have seen people who love soccer, but don`t really have a team they support.

isn`t this another, less common reaction to an environment that produces partisonship/fanboyism?

Please stop saying 'best wishes'. Also you keep saying "lesson" instead of "lessen". Is that a British thing? Great article anyway.

Great to see this up. I wrote eons ago about fanboyism and cognitive dissonance, its good to see the idea further developed.

clayton: I don't know of a word for this in the context we are talking about, but in politics you might use bipartisan I suppose.

Paul: No, it's not a British thing to type "lesson" instead of "lessen" - I find a side effect of my high typing speed is that I type an awful lot of homonyms. And no, I won't stop saying "Best Wishes". But I'll happily exclude you from my best wishes if you like! :)

Thom: Thanks for the link!

Best wishes to everyone but Paul Acevedo! :)

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