Loving Our Neighbors: Tribalism in Gaming

By Michael Mendis

Brand loyalty is a widespread phenomenon across Western consumer culture.  Folks debate over which soda tastes best (Coke vs. Pepsi), which model of car is the best (Ford vs. Chevy vs. Toyota vs. Honda, etc.), and which phone to purchase (iPhone vs. Android).  Gaming is no exception, as console manufacturers and game makers compete for customers.  It’s practically a time-honored tradition in gaming at this point, one that has had a profound, and too often negative, effect on gaming culture.

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Let’s start with some history.  The first major rivalry in gaming took place between SEGA and Nintendo in the early 1990s.  Nintendo was riding high on the astronomical sales of their first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and competitor SEGA needed to find a way to break Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market as technology advanced into the 16-bit era.  SEGA decided that the best way to take on an opponent that big and well-known was to do so directly, with brash confidence and smack talk.  Their new console, the SEGA Genesis, and it’s mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, were fast and edgy, while rival Mario was slow and boring.  Thus began the what would come to be known as the Console Wars.

Decades have passed since then; many companies in the gaming industry have come and gone, or changed their business strategies.  Today, the big dogs in the console business are Microsoft (Xbox), Sony (PlayStation), and Nintendo, and while PC gaming doesn’t technically have an official company to provide marketing, PC gamers are just as quick as their console gaming counterparts to declare the superiority of their preferred gaming machine.

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Game companies aren’t as direct as they used to be in criticizing the competition (most of the time), but they don’t need to be; every day gamers engage in discussions on internet forums and message boards, often serving as unofficial spokespeople (or perhaps evangelists) for their favorite games or console makers.  The spirit of rivalry and competition amongst gamers is just as alive today is it was twenty years ago.

To some extent, this attitude amongst gamers is understandable, even inevitable.  Game consoles and gaming PCs are expensive (consoles cost a few hundred dollars each, and PCs with equivalent specs are usually more), and many people can only afford to buy one.  Additionally, gamers want to be able to play with their friends, and in most cases you need to be using the same platform as your friends in order to be able to play together (gamers on Xbox can’t play with gamers on PlayStation, for example).  On top of all that, each platform has its own exclusive games and features that distinguish it from its competitors and attract gamers.  It’s only natural, then, that people would encourage others to purchase the system that they themselves prefer.

Unfortunately, discussion sometimes changes from healthy debate or good-natured ribbing into toxicity and name-calling.  People wrap their identities around gaming and their gaming preferences, berating those who play on other platforms, and even spilling countless amounts of digital ink attacking the executives who run companies that makes rival systems.  And of course, online trolls who find their amusement in the anger of others are all too quick to push people’s buttons with inflammatory statements.

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So, the question for Christians in gaming becomes: how do we shine the light of Christ in the midst of the petty tribalism that often brings out the worst in people, especially in anonymous online communities?  Here are a few takeaways:

  1. Give thanks to God for the things he gives us.  If you have enough money for you to be able to enjoy video games, you are blessed indeed!  All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); none of us deserve to be showered with good gifts.  Yet every day, by God’s grace, many millions of gamers have the opportunity to benefit from the creativity and hard work of game developers, and share these experiences with people all over the planet.  Do not take these things for granted; give thanks to God for them, for every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17).
  2. Celebrate with others and build them up.  Don’t only be thankful for the gaming experiences that God gives to you, specifically; give thanks for all the wide variety of games that are created and that people get to enjoy.  If a game is coming out on a console that you don’t have, and gamers who do have that console are excited for it, be excited with them!  Don’t tear down others or try to gain pleasure by making them feel worse; the world doesn’t revolve around whether you get to play every game that catches your eye.
  3. Be careful and deliberate about your use of social media.  Social media (and Twitter in particular) is designed to encourage people to give quick, off-the-cuff reactions to the things going on around them.  While that strategy yields plenty of clicks, it often isn’t good for creating healthy, constructive dialogue.  Rather than spewing the first thought that pops into your head to your Twitter account or Facebook wall, take the time to think through what you want to say and how it will impact others.  And remember the limitations of the method you are using to communicate; text-based communications, for example, don’t allow the writer to communicate something like sarcasm very easily, and I’ve seen plenty of confusion and unnecessary toxicity stem from careless use of words online.
  4. Don’t let online toxicity get under your skin.  In our current day and age, we find it very easy to become defensive when someone expresses an opinion we don’t agree with.  Be patient with people, and assume the best about them, even when it is hard.  When you see a toxic post online, either follow it up with something positive and constructive, or simply ignore it and move on.  Don’t feed the trolls.

In the end, you have to ask yourself: in what do you place your sense of self-worth?  If your identity is bound up in your family, you’ll feel threatened when they let you down.  If it’s in your job, you’ll crash when you fail to earn the promotion you want or get let go.  If it’s in your hobby, you’ll lash out when someone tells you that you chose poorly or lack good taste.  But if your identity is bound up in Christ, it will never be threatened, and as a result, you are free to love others, to break through the toxicity that surrounds you, and to make a positive impact on culture.