Tribalism in Gaming

Back in the Good Old Days™, when our ancestors rode dinosaurs and people just died of Polio instead of being forced to vaccinate, tribalism was just our way of life. Discriminating between those in and those out of the group was fundamental to survival. There were finite resources and the world was unpredictable and chaotic. Other humans were dangerous, and embracing a ‘live and let live’ philosophy could have been catastrophic for the whole group.

Nowadays, when the Western world has a relative bounty of resources, tribalism is a rather old-fashioned notion. For the privileged majority, starvation, exposure and predation are no longer daily threats. Yet the core roots of tribalism persist everywhere we look.


We see this in nearly every area of our lives – at home, at work, or socialising with like-minded friends. Gaming is no exception to the rule – there are divisions everywhere we look – whether by platform (PC/PS/Xbox), by genre, by how often you play (e.g. casual vs hardcore), or by the games themselves. This subdivision is a natural human behaviour, and born of a need to reduce the complexity of the world around us. These groups become a key part of our social identity and hep us form a picture of who we are.

There’s nothing inherently bad about group formation – but unfortunately, self-esteem comes into play here. We instinctively need to belong to the “best group”, and therefore we assign the group(s) we belong to, and the people who belong to them an elevated status. This is the core of in-group bias, which allows us to boost our own self-esteem. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this is that we begin to view other groups as inferior. We then have reason to treat these people negatively and discriminate against them in favour of our own group. This is out-group bias.

Tribalism is heavily underpinned by in-group and out-group bias. We see this particularly with the console wars. Gamers tend to know which platform they will be buying even before the specs are announced. To be fair, some of that may be due to familiarity, or a long-term investment, wherein jumping ship would prevent access to an expensive library. Additionally, some may choose to buy the other just to be able to play with friends. However, because they belong to one group or the other, it’s unlikely that any amount of price racketeering, shoddy specs or shitty exclusives is going to change their mind. Then there are the interactions between the two groups. PlayStation and Xbox fans gleefully celebrate problems with the other side’s console development. They’ll immediately dismiss the other console as ‘shit’ and aggressively attack anyone who says otherwise.

It’s not just the groups we choose to belong to. We also see extensive divisions between gamers of different race, sex, gender and ability. Female gamers have been aggressively sexualised or excluded since the dawn of the industry. There’s vitriolic uproar when we dare to consider easy modes for disabled gamers (looking at you, Sekiro fans). Many Gamers™ still foam at the mouth when developers include racially diverse or LGBT characters. We’re still dealing with the fallout of Naughty Dog daring to feature LGBT characters in The Last of Us Part II. It wasn’t enough to stop the game winning the Game of the Year this weekend.


It’s not just the gamers, discrimination is rampant throughout the industry. Look at Ubisoft shoe-horning in a male protagonist because they were convinced that a female wouldn’t sell copies of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Never mind that some of the best (and indeed best-selling) games in recent years have had a female protagonist. Horizon Zero Dawn, Lara Croft, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Nier Automata are great examples, among many others.

There seems to be a wide held belief among humans that diversity = division. The thing is, even when there aren’t visible or biological differences, we find reasons to create divisions.


Despite all the progress we’ve made, it’s somewhat ironic technology sends us sprawling back to our caveman roots. Perhaps it’s the anonymity that the internet allows us – or the disconnect – but for all the promise and possibility of the digital era, we often find ourselves submerged in a mire of human ignorance and cruelty.

The blueprints for tribalism were built by evolution. They were designed for a style of living that ceased to exist thousands of years ago. They manifest in the instincts that linger at the edge of our brains, and they can be overridden by conscious thought.

We just have to adapt. Like most negative behaviours, bias, prejudice and discrimination can all be overcome by thinking. We are not the only people in the world – there are billions of us. We are all different, but we are all people. People can have differing opinions without being wrong. Similarly, aggression doesn’t need to be the immediate consequence of disagreement.

We’re all people. It’s time we started acting like it.

Enjoyed what you’ve read? Check out our recent article Aphantasia and Gaming, or Part 1 of our Neuroscience in Gaming Series.

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