Despite the amount of annoyance that console fanboys have caused me over the years as a person writing about video games on the Internet, despite the endless comments threads they have derailed with their arguments, I still have a small reserve of affection for these people.
There’s a passion inherent in fanboyism that’s actually quite inspirational, when it’s not allowed to get out of hand; it’s the kind of passion that brings us fan art and cosplay, when applied positively. There’s something endearing about someone who just really, really loves a thing.
What’s not remotely endearing, though, is when that excitement twists into something ugly and vicious, when jerks fashion their intense passion for Xbox or PlayStation into a gnarled club with which to lash out at everyone else around them. The modern fanboy is often an offensive, small-minded, loud-mouthed and impressively unreasonable asshat who throws insults and wild conspiracy theories around on Twitter and in comments threads, harassing and insulting people, poisoning the well of discussion with their hate. This phenomenon has warped the definition of “fanboy” over the years from “super passionate fan” to “total asshole on the Internet”. They’ve gone from endearingly human to hateful.
I am fascinated by what causes people to behave in this way: firstly, the psychology behind the deep, irrational attachments that people form to brands and products that have absolutely nothing to do with them, really, and secondly, what causes some people to be such jerks about it. I mean, I grew up a fangirl - I was a Nintendo kid through and through, and as a result I have a deep attachment to Nintendo games that will probably last for my whole life - but that stopped at pretty much the same time I stopped playing Cops and Robbers in playgrounds. Why is it that it seems to persist in some people well into their teen years, or even their adult lives?
Dr David Lewis-Hodgson was a clinical psychologist for many years. Now he’s the director of research at Mindlab International and author of The Brain Sell, a book about how marketing manipulates our minds. I thought he might be able to give some insight into the psychological motivations behind fanboyism, and also how the brands involved might court it. What I learned from our conversation really helped me to understand fanboy motivations, as well as the more general unpleasantness that so often colours Internet conversations.
This is something that I think most of us knew already, but Dr Lewis reckons that this is one of the biggest secrets of the success that companies like Apple have in turning people who bought a thing into people who are really, really into that thing and want everybody else to buy it, too.
“It’s to do with the way in which the brand is set up, marketed and managed, and very often the brand will become bigger than the product,” he says. “If we take Apple, for example, there are Apple and PC users, and Apple people see themselves as a completely different brand. The amount of excitement they generate and the way people identify with Macs is totally out of proportion to the product itself. You find quite a lot of that - it’s generated by very clever publicity and marketing. When you open an iPhone box, for instance, it takes about 7 seconds to open. It increases the anticipation. They build a lot of tricks into this space to make the thing seem different and special.”
Interestingly, even if there is objectively, definitely no difference between two rival products, people will invent one to fit in with their perception of a brand. There’s a famous study that blind-tested the taste of Coke and Pepsi; in the blind test, people preferred Pepsi, but once they were told which glass of cola was which, people almost universally preferred Coke. That preference wasn’t just evident in what they said, either - their brains actually registered two different preferences, when their levels of arousal were measured. Our view of a brand can actually override our brain’s responses.
For fanboys, that means inventing reasons why their thing is better than the other thing, and then spewing them forth in comments threads. It also explains the inability to deal with criticism of their preferred console; that override kicks in. It’s not just fanboys who do this, it’s all of us. One fascinating study in the US gave people who leaned left or right politically mocked-up data sets that either proved the efficacy or inefficacy of gun control, and people interpreted the data according to their pre-existing beliefs no matter how mathematically competent they were. This is very human behaviour, and it has very little to do with intelligence.
“I’ve never thought that intelligence had anything to do with being smart,” says Dr Lewis. “You get an idee fixe about things, almost an illusion, and it can seem real, and you seek out people who will support your view. And no matter how weird you view is, there are going to be people out there who share it, and thanks to the internet they are easier to find than ever before.”
One way that the human mind deals with all the calculations is has to do is with a series of rules, often called heuristics, that dictate how we usually behave. One of the most powerful of these is tribalism: in-group and out-group behaviour. We naturally find a lot of our identity in whom and what we are around. In the age of the Internet, especially for younger teenagers, that identity can actually come from brands, reinforced by online community: I am an Xbox person. It provides a feeling of belonging.
“Gaming tribes are like the Apple tribe vs the PC tribe or the Coke vs Pepsi tribe,” says Dr Lewis. “Very often companies will set up this kind of rivalry. It’s sparked by our evolutionary history: we like to belong to tribes, we like to belong to groups, and however much young people may feel that they are unique and individual, their individuality is often as part of a group - nobody really likes to be all by him or herself. We like the support and positive affirmation from others.”
It’s not much different from supporting a football club, in that sense - although, to be honest, I’m equally confused by people’s deep emotional attachment to a group of men they’ve never met who kick a ball around on Saturdays. There is, as expected, more to it on a brain chemistry level.
The brain chemistry of a person with a strong attachment to a product is like that of someone in love
Anybody who’s ever fallen in love can attest that the rational brain takes something of a back seat for a while whilst you’re busy riding an insane rollercoaster of happy chemicals. The person has no faults, and anybody who sees any faults in them must be blind or stupid. Even if it turns out they are completely wrong for you. It’s just how the brain works; it makes sense in evolutionary terms that the love rush usually lasts about a year, or long enough for you to have had enough sex to produce some offspring. After that, you can’t just rely on the chemicals.
It’s revealing to learn that the brain chemicals involved in fanboyism are, startlingly, very similar. “It’s like falling in love - what happens then is that you get a tsunami of a neurotransmitter called dopamine into the brain, which gives you a huge buzz,” says Dr Lewis. “This happens with products, they can do exactly the same thing - in fact when we look at addictive behaviour, we find that people become addicted to products. That’s how people become obsessive collectors of things like Barbies. The sight, feel, taste, touch of the product will evoke these huge responses in the brain, like getting a high.”
This explains why getting a new thing feels so exciting - it’s a very sensory type of pleasure. But just like with people, long-term fanboys can “fall in love” with a brand or product on a deeper level, creating a connection over the course of years.
This is why people get so disproportionately angry if there is any perceived change in that product. “We won’t like change in the things we are familiar with - we become very comfortable with products, and we develop what feels like a friendship with them, or at the extremes, a love affair,” Dr Lewis says.
In summary, then, if you diss a fanboy’s console it’s literally like you’ve called their girlfriend ugly to their face, or insulted their mum. Hence the high emotions.
This will be news to absolutely nobody, but the anonymisation and lack of consequence that the Internet affords is a big reason why fanboyism can turn into a nasty, poisonous thing rather than an earnest passion. Studies have suggested that trolls are often actual psychopaths and sadists, which is definitely food for thought, but even perfectly normal people frequently find themselves in horrendous arguments online.
Nonetheless, I suspect that most seriously nasty fanboys are just nasty people, and quite likely lonely people. “Whenever you set up a view, one way of getting yourself noticed is to put up a contrarian view: say the opposite as loudly and offensively as possible, and you will be noticed,” says Dr Lewis. “I think a lot of people want to be noticed. they want to rise above the huddled masses. They don’t care how offensive their views may be or how they are expressed; indeed that can be a source of pride. They put themselves in a mental state that excuses and explains their behaviour to themselves. Very often, people who feel inadequate in other aspects of their lives will try to make themselves ‘big men’ online.”
I wouldn’t be the first to observe that fanboys tend to be teenagers, or younger. This is because, reassuringly, people do tend to grow out of this behaviour.
“They very often do, just as you grow out of first love - you may fall desperately in love as a 16-year-old and by the time you’re in your first job you have no idea what you saw in the other person,” says Dr Hodgson. “You have to remember that the brain of the young person, the adolescent or even up to the early twenties is still developing, and what is happening is an awful lot of destruction is going on around the neurons - it’s like a gardener pruning plants, the brain tends to prune itself so that it is better adapted to the environment in which it finds itself. Up to that time people are much more likely to be risk-taking, impulsive and develop passions for things - people, products, some activities.”
There’s nothing wrong with passion. There’s also nothing wrong with a justified preference that someone may have very good reasons for holding, or with caring deeply about things. Agnosticism is boring, after all. If anything, the psychological explanations behind fanboy behaviour prove that theirs are archetypally human responses. It might be irrational, but humans are irrational.
I wonder if there’s a way to reclaim fanboyism from the jerks - to just be fans again, essentially. If fanboyism is essentially human - and if it’s especially prevalent in tech and gaming, which it definitely seems to be - then we’ll never eradicate it. Instead, perhaps the challenge is to redefine it.