Massively Overthinking: The one about MMO superfans, zealots, and insidious tribalism

Massively Overthinking: The one about MMO superfans, zealots, and insidious tribalism

We recently received two pieces of mail from longtime MOP readers and commenters that worked together perfectly to form a unified topic. Alex emailed us about a YouTube video that discusses the “the back-and-forth between ‘zealots’ who have become deeply invested in Star Citizen” – i.e., backers defending the game to the point of dispatching threats to detractors and skeptics. Alex wanted us to consider “superfans” taken to the extreme, especially since the game in question itself isn’t even launched yet, so “the zealots are fighting for an idea, more than anything else” – something he submits has “religious overtones.”

And then Mordyjuice pinged us with a similar but broader query. “Why is it that MMO players are so tribal regarding games in our genre? Why do we vehemently stomp on other games and companies when we should really be pulling together more in what is becoming a niche market? Maybe the genre attracts people with strong passionate opinions?”

Let’s tackle superfans and tribalism in MMOs this week’s Overthinking. Are superfans, zealots, and tribalism really a pervasive problem in MMOs, or it a small problem that gets more attention than it deserves? Why does it happen? Is it particularly bad in online games compared to elsewhere? And what can (or should) we do about it?

Andy McAdams: This one really grinds my gears. I’ve written and scrapped several so far. Tribalism is a problem, spawning from absolutism which I could pontificate ad nauseam about why we have the rise of absolutism, but this isn’t the medium (and I’m pretty sure Bree wouldn’t appreciate having a 2,000 word OT from me). We view things in games as a binary choice: Either you are for and wholesale agree with everything the developer has done or you disagree wholesale with everything the developer has done (or alternatively, state that the bad thing is so egregious it wipes out all the good). If you don’t subscribe to one of those absolutist opinions, you don’t really have a place in the discussion.

Games are slowly losing the space for what Eliot discussed a few weeks ago – that liking something and it being good are not the same thing. I love the movie, “Core” but recognize it’s pretty terrible movie from a variety of perspectives, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it. You don’t agree with female ghostbusters, therefore the movie has to be terrible. Star Citizen is not a finished game and continues to rake in money from dubious avenues, but say anything negative and you get people who will try to refute and invalidate everything. single. thing.

As we lose the ability (or really, just the will) to evaluate critically, the absolutism in games (and beyond) will get worse. It’s easier to be absolutist; it’s safer to stick with your tribe. Being a critical thinker means you have to acknowledge the good and the bad and determine for yourself what value that game has. Ultimately, it’s just easier to go with the outrage — let someone else decide what’s important for you and adopt an opinion that makes it easy to see your enemy is (anyone not you, basically).

The whole thing is bloody exhausting. Also, get off my lawn you kids.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I agree with Tyler: Tribalism seems to be on the rise in Western society at large. The “if you don’t agree with me, you must be against me” mentality is permeating all aspects of our daily lives, including our leisure activities. I wonder if the lack of face to face interaction exacerbates this attitude? As far as games go, I understand that people depend on them for a release or escape, which can be healthy in small doses. I once heard someone say that “you worship what you spend most of your time doing.” With this in mind, it’s interesting that the word zealot (a word with religious connotations) has been used in the context of gaming. Do we worship our hobby? Does that lead to additional passion, tribalism, and zeal? I think it might, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t think it’s necessarily a bigger problem in MMOs than in other gaming communities, though obviously it can become so when it transcends gaming and becomes about actual politics or actual religion and so forth, never mind other types of media (Star Wars is better than Star Trek, fight me!). But even within gaming, single-player games can drive these same sorts of divisions, the same way they can drive communities in the first place. MMOs and other online games might prolong the agony, however, since many of them boast outsized lifespans in gaming’s consciousness.

As far as superfans and choosing up kickball teams go, they’re human problems, and that’s not an excuse; we should be actively fighting our crappier instincts. In games, as in similar hobbies and fandoms, it’s a case of conflating our personal identities with specific games (and yes studios want us to do this; they want us to fight for them and drive their marketing bus for free) as well as basic choice-supportive bias/post-purchase rationalization when we’ve actually put money into something we shouldn’t have but just can’t bear to admit it to ourselves.

What do we do about it? Stop treating games like zero-sum entities. You can like more than one thing. You can find fault in things and still like them. The media you like and don’t like don’t define you. Try not to get emotionally invested in games and the hoopla around those games you do buy, and stop putting money into games that are more promise than product.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Tribalism certainly seems to be a thing that happens when we congregate and discuss things in an open forum, something that anyone who visits the comments section of MOP can attest to. Likely doing so with a thousand yard stare as they watch cubes of ice slowly dissolve into a glass of whiskey.

I think that skepticism cuts to the core (often unfairly at best and in an extremely shitheaded way at worst) of why liking something so completely and utterly can seem absolutely stupid, so people immediately get defensive when they’re told as much. By extension, then, tribalism validates and encourages those feelings; it feels good to be surrounded by people who are motivated and excited and eager for something. There’s an instinct to want to protect that community and guard those feelings, which often ends up devolving in to lashing out.

Is this sort of behavior pervasive? I’m not so sure. It’s certainly the loudest, and the comments sections of the digital world are a gorgeous flat plain for these wars to be waged, but I like to think that most people are able to strike something of a balance between truly loving a game and its community and tilting their head when said game’s devs do some extremely stupid things.

This whole thing, by the way, definitely isn’t unique to online games. I just feel like online games make those arguments land closer to home since these are people you’ll likely have to interact with in-game at some point or another.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): Why are you calling me out like this?! Seriously, I am cringing so hard that it might be actually cowering away from how obnoxious I was about 15 years or so ago. When WoW was released, I played it for a few months, declared it nothing more than EverQuest For Dummies, just a stupidly easy, dumbed-down game, and returned to my beloved EQ. I’m sorry I was such a big jerkface.

I have since grown up and changed a lot. Now I want to let people be happy and like what they like. There’s room for different styles and tastes, even within the genre. MMORPGs probably are becoming niche, and if we want new games made by major developers, we need to tackle the toxicity in and around the games we love. Players who play the same game differently aren’t wrong or stupid, and people who love other games aren’t wrong or stupid. Criticism of the game or the developer is not an attack on you as a fan, and you can disagree with someone without going on the offense.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I think I’m going to go out and say that I’m not so sure that the tribalism and zealots are a huge problem in the industry. It does continue to come up over and over again, but I think it has more to do with the squeakiest wheel getting the most attention.

First I’m thinking about why do we (collectively… sometimes royally) as MMO gamers disparage other games. I think it makes sense when you compare it to something more mainstream like sports fans. Think about it this way: You love the Toronto Raptors. That is your team. And when your team is up against, well anyone, the only thing you can think of is how you want to win. Granted, our games are not literally facing off, one-on-one, but we kind of feel that way at times. Why can’t everyone see that my game is the best? I want to share with everyone how great my team is, but to do that, it also helps to let them know how terrible the others are.

All of that is actually pretty normal; that’s probably the definition of tribalism. It happens with every sport. But at times, things get nasty. I am sure most of those Raptors fans would never want to actually see someone get hurt. And yet, just this week, we saw fans go totally nutty and say extremely hateful things when Kevin Durant (a player on the team the Raptors are playing against to win the championship) got injured. They were mean, they were vicious, and it was bad.

What I’m getting at is that we gamers aren’t unique in our problems with tribalism and zealotry. What might be a bit more unique about it is that we have the added complexity of internet anonymity. I honestly don’t think people even mean most of the nasty things they say, but when you are able to kind of hide behind a keyboard, it’s a lot easy to try to push someone’s buttons, be a troll, and outright overstep common decency.

So I don’t know. I think we give it more attention than it deserves. I think people want their opinions and voice to be heard and think that they should be. I think we take it too far. I don’t think we should completely ignore it. But we should discourage it when it gets to the point of being vile and cruel and even threatening.

Tyler Edwards: Considering the massive amount of abuse that’s been heaped on me over the years for thinking Enterprise is the best incarnation of Star Trek, I definitely don’t think it’s a problem that’s especially bad in online games. It’s more a general “humans are terrible” issue.

But it’s definitely not a small problem, and it gets far less attention than it deserves. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Beyond lockboxes, beyond crowdfunding, beyond cash shops or pay-to-win or any other topic of the day, community toxicity is by far and away the biggest problem facing online gaming, and that includes tribalism. If we’re going to keep saying this is a social medium, then we need to make actually behaving socially a priority. We need to stop talking trash about mobile games and looking down on people who don’t raid and all of the other petty things we do to create division rather than connection in our online communities.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Anton Mochalin

Well in online games tribalism has at least some rationality to it: if everyone leaves a game one loves for some other game then the first game becomes more or less unplayable.

Robert Mann

Tribalism is the default of most of the population of the world, despite thousands of years to go beyond that sad state.

Simply put, most people value being ‘correct’ over being correct. Anything which threatens that must therefore be wrong or bad. Citation: Humans nearby at any given area.

We do, however, live in an era of increasing tribalism and divides in smaller circles. Which means we live in an era where civil discord is on the rise. Certainly the very limited rules with regard to online behavior do not help, MMO or not.

Jon Wax

Everything gwon be Urie


Hmm. Well, I don’t think the issue is specific to games or online MMOs. You can readily see super-fandom and or zealotry in other venues where people socialize and congregate.

Nor do I equate “tribalism” with the other big “ism” floating around these days, populism. “Isms” tend to be negative connotations when they are not necessarily.

As others have pointed out people will defend what they like in varying degrees. But what I think is missing in this discussion is the idea that there is groupthink.

Players and or fans sometimes entrench themselves in a particular point of view as part of a following which can lead to a mob mentality. And that leads to irrational behavior from people who would otherwise not be so. Add the huge bonus that is anonymous on the internet and you get some pretty awful behavior from time to time.

And so, you have this weird hate that manifests itself in groups of people. And it truly is hate and not criticism. And it can be popular too.

IronSalamander8 .

People will rabidly defend things they feel strongly about, especially if they have a lot of time and/or money invested. I think most of us do it to a point. I try to avoid that myself but it creeps in.

For example, CoX-I love the game but I’d never say it’s perfect. I actually get a lot of crap from people for complaining about things even when I like them!

I feel like Dilbert often, as I try to take a balanced approach to everything, even things I like (not that I always succeed):


It creeps in for everyone, people defend what they love.


There is an example of the opposite kind of tribalism – negativity-based: Anthem. It’s actually a good game now (outside of connection troubles) which has improved substantially since its start four months ago (it went from “no way I’ll buy it” to “oh, sh.., the best 3rd person shooter gameplay ever”) – but then there is this strange brigade of players who don’t actually play it for 2-3+ months (some didn’t even bought / tried the game in the first place) and now they spend their time bashing every positive post and comment in the game’s sub-reddit, to the point where people had to open alternative /r/LowSodiumAnthem/ and Bioware decided to stop communicating completely.

Vincent Clark

Just to play devil’s advocate, aren’t we setting the bar too low if we are content with a game taking four months after it’s released to suddenly turn into a game that is “ready” to go live? In that respect, I think some of the negativity is warranted.

There are other games that set the standard (God of War, Witcher 3, etc.) for blunders like Anthem to not go unnoticed or criticized. Otherwise, companies will continue to release incomplete products while still demanding the same amount of money (or more).

Vincent Clark

It’s like Andy grabbed a mirror, shoved it in my face and said, “this is you!” What seems like ages ago, I used to love LOTRO, flaws and all. Then, something happened…I tried other games, saw how other game developers treated their customers and I slowly started to resent Turbine/SSG for not rewarding my loyalty in similar ways (I realize how silly that sounds, trust me).

The list of reasons is long, but with Mordor and loot-boxes, a switch was flipped. Regardless of what they did, I only saw the bad. To this day, I still feel that way. I’m sure not everyone at SSG is evil and corrupt but the loot box issue and the continuous justification for them has ruined the game for me–and I can’t get past it. And yes, it frustrates me when I see people outright ignore or don’t take that issue seriously and continue to praise the game. But that is my problem and clearly something I need to get over.

I mean, I have a new baby (FFXIV), but every once in awhile I look over at LOTRO and sneer…”why can’t you just be more like her?”



betas and alphas held so much promise back then

internet was a good game but has become a famegrab what with the constant nerfs to reading comprehension and self awareness along with overall maturity, it has become unplayable. not to mention the tweet2win mechanics and no dev response

i quit years ago along with all my guild and friends and now just check the forums to see if they added anything new

i feel sorry for the current playerbase that gets so easily distracted by the anonymity tag (rerolled content) they roll out every once in a while.

i have way more to say about the topic in more serious tones but this idiotic hatefest from players is the one thing that truly gets me aggravated so i mostly try to avoid it and gripe about it here and there once in a while.
and yeah it is a less gamer-only and more every-individual-having-a-soapbox-and-unable-to-restrain-themselves-with-a-modicum-of-maturity-or-awareness issue


They’re not tribalist or superfans, they’re just…err, #influencers. o.O


Andy: We view things in games as a binary choice: Either you are for and wholesale agree with everything the developer has done or you disagree wholesale with everything the developer has done (or alternatively, state that the bad thing is so egregious it wipes out all the good). If you don’t subscribe to one of those absolutist opinions, you don’t really have a place in the discussion.

I think this is very much the reality now, in many genres. Fandoms have become toxic due to this absolutism. As for myself, I find if I take my fiction too seriously it gets in the way of enjoying it.

To paraphrase MST3k: I repeat to myself it’s just a show (or game), I should really just relax.