Understanding tribalism in gaming: why do we have console ‘fanboys’?


Dr Zareh Ghazarian looks at why gamers feel the need to state an allegiance to one particular console

IN JUST a few days we’ll be in the midst of a new round of console wars when the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are released.

While many gamers are looking forward to what the next generation of gaming will bring, there is always an underlying dispute between supporters of either console about which is actually the ‘winner’. But is this sense of tribalism just an extension of our cultural and social norms?

Microsoft and Sony have been the dominant platforms for core console gaming over the last decade with Nintendo trying to reinvent ways to be relevant, including its success with the Wii console.

Of course, this was not always the case. Those growing up in the 1980s would remember the fierce battles between Sega and Nintendo. In the 1990s, Sega struggled to capture the market as its Saturn system faced the Nintendo 64 juggernaut and the new Sony PlayStation.

The dynamics of competition in the console wars are similar to other battles occurring in Australia’s economic and political realms where there are two dominating forces at work.

For example, Woolworths and Coles control 70 to 80% of the grocery sector with shoppers often siding with one over the other through a combination of familiarity or attractive inducements engendering a sense of tribalism.

For decades, Australians also had a similar attitude to their cars as Holden and Ford dominated the sales charts. Commodore and Falcon became the staple car for families and entrenched tribalism: you were either a Ford or Holden ‘man’. In recent years, however, the dominance of these two brands has waned as government protection fell and competition increased.

The smartphone wars are also currently a two-horse race with Apple and Samsung enjoying dominance. Moreover, the themes of parochialism are also apparent here: people either are iOS or Android fans.

This tribalism goes deeper than consumer behaviour in Australia. One of the clearest examples of this is the duopoly of the Labor and Coalition parties that dominate elections.

Similar examples overseas include the Democrat and Republican parties in the US and the Conservative and Labour parties in the UK.

Political scientists have identified this phenomenon as ‘party identification’, believing that some 60 to 80% of voters have strong views about which party they will vote for even before an election is called and policies are discussed.

This psychological attachment to a party, similar to how football fans follow the team their family has supported, means that many people could never vote for the other side, no matter how tempting or how bad their own party has performed.

When there is a two-horse race in political contests, like other contests for peoples’ support, there is a general convergence to the centre. Neither competitor will take risks as they fear alienating supporters. While this tends to result in vigorous competition, it can lead to homogenisation of the end product.

Indeed, aside from some peripherals, the Xbox and PlayStation are fundamentally the same; they both play games and have varying degrees of connectivity.

Furthermore, aside from a handful of titles, they share the same game library. In a market place that can lead to convergence in order to capture the mass audience, niche games can be marginalised though the growth in online gaming, tablets and downloadable content has provided an avenue of such creations to find their way into gamers’ hands.

While we could be a bit too cynical about the next round of the console wars, it’s worth remembering that we, as gamers, benefit from the competition as it spurs on innovation and hopefully enhances enjoyment.

But even though they may be the dominant forces now, Sony and Microsoft are undoubtedly aware of how important their new consoles are for their future. Gamers will pass early judgement on whether there is a ‘winner’ during this summer.


Dr Zareh Ghazarian is a political scientist in Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry and co-author of Australian Politics for Dummies. He is also a keen video gamer who grew up on a healthy diet of Sega’s Megadrive and Nintendo’s SNES.

He is a regular contributor to LecTurn-based Gaming, exploring what games can tell us about ourselves in the context of political science.

Zareh has published widely in the field of Australian politics and is a leading commentator in the media. His teaching and research interests including political parties, comparative politics, elections and governance, politics and the media and political leadership.

He’s also a PS3 devotee wrestling with the idea of upgrading to the PS4.

Zareh is also on Twitter @ZarehGhazarian – so give him a shout, and let him know what you think!

To read more of Zareh’s work, visit his Monash University page: http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/zareh-ghazarian/

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