By – Steven Smith


There he is, seemingly alone; but you know they never are.  While their individual attacks are not very dangerous, they are extremely aggressive and very territorial. You are better off just avoiding the whole ordeal, so you try to sneak past. One wrong move and you will find yourself stuck in a battle you can never truly win, just one you survive. I am, of course, talking about the Fanboy.

Every company wants loyal customers whose continued patronage can be expected, but sometimes the loyalty of these customers crosses the line into zealotry. This is not limited to just video games. Have you ever been in a restaurant and someone orders a Coke but are told, “We only carry Pepsi, is that okay?” Now, depending on the person, they will either accept the Pepsi, change their order or say something like, “How dare you try to serve me that garbage. If there were any justice in the world, lightning would strike this building and burn it to the ground with you in it!”  Well maybe they don’t go that far. Still, some people can get very attached to a certain brand of product. However, you almost never observe this behavior over different brands of socks, but why? There have been many studies over the past several decades that examine consumer psychology. Fortunately, you won’t have to read through any of them to get the basic explanation because I have read them for you.


Professor of Marketing Russell W Belk has written, “It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions.” In a nutshell: we are what we buy. We rely on more than just thoughts and feelings to define us, we need to have physical ownership over something to hold up and show as an extension of ourselves. In fact, even the thoughts and feelings themselves are of little importance until they become “my thoughts” and “my feelings”. Owning your thoughts is what defines you rather than simply experiencing them. This is part of what is called Self-Identity, which is how you see yourself. The modern idea of Self-Identity was first proposed by a Harvard Psychology Professor, William James. He called it the Empirical Self and stated that it was made of three parts; Spiritual Self, Social Self and Material Self.  Rather than simply regurgitating the writings of great minds like Belk or James, I’ll put it in terms of an RPG.

Baldur's Gate

The Spiritual Self is all the intangible items that define your character such as Class, Skills and Attributes. While each of these becomes important during gameplay, none of them can be directly used, or even seen outside of a character sheet. The Social Self is how others see you and would include Race, Infamy/Fame and Faction Affiliation. It is very important to project the image of yourself that you want those around you to see. This leaves the Material Self to cover Background, Health, Mana and Inventory. Ask an RPG player to describe their character, they would give you information that was a mix of each of these three categories. This is because they are all part of who the character is, including the very weapons and armor they use. This is more than mere aesthetics as even older text adventures and rogue-likes would give you a character detail sheet upon death which included where you died, what killed you and what was in your inventory at the time. The weapons and armor you choose are often more than just about raw damage and protection numbers they are what is best for your playstyle, which is your virtual Self-Identity. This is just as true in the real world because you have a specific style when you make certain purchases, but not for everything you purchase and there is a good reason why. When we identify ourselves with a product, it is based on three factors; Involvement, Feeling and Brand.

Lets start with Involvement. It is fairly well understood the more involved you get into something the harder it is to leave, which is the basic idea behind online gaming. There is a bit of rivalry between games like Battlefield and Call of Duty. To an outside observer, each of these games are pretty much the same, but to the fans there is a huge difference. Both titles are heavily invested in their multiplayer component, which means that your experience with them is dependent on your interactions with the online community. You have a screen name and a friends list and you are expected to be playing at your usual times. To the multiplayer community you are seen as part of the game which can easily become how you see yourself. When a new title comes out, in either franchise, your level of integration into the online community becomes one of your deciding factors. It may be hard to have an objective comparison of the two games as you must also weigh the values of each community.


The level of involvement is even greater for your game system than for the individual games. If you use either XBox Live or Playstation Network then you have an identity defined for you by the console and are made part of a select community. Each of these systems also has a significant cost associated which makes it even more important to pick the right one. If you change your mind about your purchase then in addition to buying a different system you also need to re buy a collection of games. This requires a much deeper level of financial involvement on your part. This is called a Money Sink and the default emotional response is to keep spending more money on a bad decision rather than admit a mistake or defeat. Las Vegas was built on the same concept.

Even for the PC there is rivalry between different manufacturers. Both a Dell and an HP will run the same software. Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox all take you to the same internet. While these choices might not matter as much to the casual PC user, to an enthusiast they are major factors. Picking the right operating system is important as software designed to work with Windows may not work on an Apple or Linux machine. This choice will directly affect every piece of hardware or software you use for the life of the machine. There is an even deeper level of involvement for someone who builds their own computers. Each component comes with its own heavy decisions. Should they pick AMD or Intel for the CPU? What about the video card, AMD or Nvidia? A system with hand picked parts involves the user not just physically but emotionally as well. There is a strong sense of pride one feels from assembling all the pieces into a working machine. This leads us to the next component.


Feeling, specifically the emotional value you attach to possessions. Someone with a brand new car wants to drive around enjoying their purchase. They feel good when people notice and tell them they have made a good buy. At this point, they cannot conceive of someone with the same kind of car wanting to sell it or trade it in. Why would anyone get rid of something that makes you feel this good? The same is true in video games. Sometimes one game gets everything right and is a sheer joy for you to play. If someone doesn’t like the game then that means there must be something wrong with them, right? Certainly it can’t be wrong for you to have this much fun, can it?

Think about that great sense of accomplishment when you finally beat the big boss and finish the game. This is the type of good feeling the game studios want you to have, after all they put a lot of work into making the game so that you could play it and get to that ending. When players complain about not finishing a game the developers may respond by lowering the difficulty in their next release so that more people can feel good about playing and not rage quit in frustration. Some people also get good feelings from Achievements, Perks and Level Ups which is why they make cool sounds and flash things on your screen. The more that a game can do to elicit good feelings in the player the better. Even exclusive titles and early releases for a specific platform add to making you feel good about the choice you have made. Like you are getting special treatment for being smart enough to have picked the right system.


Meanwhile, the person with a different system may feel cheated by the choice the publisher made in not bringing them the one game they really want to play. In this way, if a user has a bad experience then they may tend to avoid that product at all costs. They may turn on the choice of system they made and go with another. In this case, they may say that you should switch too, because they don’t want to see more people hurt by such a horrible product. Some may simply tell themselves that they don’t even want a title exclusive to some other group, it’s an overrated game anyway.

Finally we have Brand. When you associate yourself with a brand name you begin to develop a relationship. Your mind solidifies this relationship just like every other in your life, by treating the brand as if it were a person. Companies know this and it is why they seek out celebrity endorsements and spokespersons, so that you have a positive image of who the brand would be if it were a person. One of the best examples were those “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials. The Mac was portrayed as the cool, laid back, fun loving young dude while the PC was the boring, middle-aged goober; the message could not have been more clear, if you see yourself as young and hip then get a Mac.


When people mention companies like EA, Activision, Blizzard or Valve you instantly get images in your head of these companies being either “good guys” or “bad guys”. Even if the actual people responsible for the good or bad decisions of the company have left, the image stays. When we enter long term relationships with other people we have a tendency to adopt some of their personality traits as well as passing some of our own onto them. In the case of a brand name, it has no personality but we begin to imagine that if it did, it would be similar to our own. This is why many will disparage one company for a choice it made while at the same time praise another company for making the same decision. Having someone insult a company can feel like an insult to a good friend and anyone would be remiss if they didn’t stand up and fight for their friend.  Given the nature of psychological studies, there are many alternate and even opposing theories in the field of consumer identity. However, what I have given are some of the more common factors in how a Fanboy gets created. Video games are a perfect vehicle for these factors given their interactive nature the continuing push by developers to market through social media.

Their arguments don’t make much sense; “It works for me and it’s the one I like so it must be better, that’s a cold hard fact.” Their attacks are absurd: “If you don’t like it then you should just stop playing games because the whole world agrees with me, so be gone troll!” And even when you can get them to see that there are other views besides the rosy one they have it is still seen as an invalid opinion; “Well if that’s the way you feel then go ahead and keep on enjoying your substandard gaming, I’ll be having a million and eight times more fun with my superior experience.”  There is no silver bullet, no one line answer, that can put a fanboy in his place.  At least with an understanding of how they think, you can avoid some of the more volatile discussions.


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  • Armaan Khan

    Interesting read. Sometimes the best course of action is none at all. Some arguments are just not worth having, which is why I rarely post comments or engage in debate online.

    • Adam Ames

      “The only winning move is not to play.”

      • Steven S

        And just when you think you’re out…they pull you back in.

  • David Queener

    Regarding fanboys, rather than arguing with them, I simply state the facts that I don’t like about a given company or product. I do not linger to see their responses.

    Regarding owning your thoughts and identity through purchase, it is also a method of filtering. I read this article while listening to some death metal, a genre I often feel alone in enjoying. When I was younger I wore a lot of metal shirts however and thus not only invested into my preferences, but was able to find others with a similar preference and thus exchange knowledge, which broadened my musical horizons. Beyond that, it isn’t always that we are what we buy, but that we often buy what we are, whether this being through patterns and convenience, or the much more concept action of agorism, investing through the market into your beliefs such as when we select a vendor based upon their political contributions.

    As someone who enjoys Call of Duty from time to time (though it is deeply flawed, but being only deeply flawed still puts it above average in my book) I found myself opposed to Battlefield 3 in reaction to EA’s marketing as it hit upon two things I despise: hostility, and dubious claims. The slogan of “Go above and beyond the call” was silly to me as it was plainly a different side of the contemporary arcade military first person shooter, not “above and beyond” but rather another angle. I was still aiming down the sights of a select fire carbine and seeing numbers pop up, only now it was in a wide field dotted with buildings, rather than an interconnected series of roads and alleys among a few close together buildings. It was akin to a pick-up truck claiming superiority in all around vehicle qualities over a sedan, when they play to different strengths within the same general purpose.

    An important note in the console rivalry is that the fully featured Xbox LIVE is a premium service versus PSN, and one of the main multiplayer games on console (Halo) is a platform exclusive. They are different angles of investment, and listening to players banter regarding the two platforms, I often see it break down to PSN being the more laid back experience. I’ve no idea if this is true, but they do have different investment dynamics.

    “If someone doesn’t like the game then that means there must be something wrong with them, right?” I often encounter the defense of “But I’m having fun!” Fine then, then stop demanding games be protected as art and start treating them as toys. As far as my cognitive faculties are concerned, games being positively engaging (not necessarily “fun”) and meaningfully responsive pieces of software centered around systemic patterns are their true ontological value. I can have fun fighting marines in Half-Life with the shotgun, but that doesn’t mean I think it is a good game. It can be fun (“distracting without frustration” is often confused for fun) but pretty much all forms of consumable media can be fun.

    I think I got way off course there… But yes, there are degrees of investment, and unfortunately investments (in the most literal and the most allegorical forms) are an area our culture is sorely lacking in knowledge, perspective, or sentience regarding. I try to base any brand loyalties off of historical performance and any statistically significant variations the brand would be responsible for – and all of this is framed in the context of convenience and accessibility. My personal identity for how I appear may be Lord & Taylor, Burberry, and Brooks Brothers on a body nourished with grass finished steak and bacon-kale salad that hits the weights four times a week – but my timeline and economic capacity sees me looking at Clearance in Target (because they are near by) and relying a lot more on rice and beans.

    Okay I definitely got way off course there.

    • Steven S

      I usually adopt the “Hey I’m happy that you’re happy, I’ll just be over here doing something completely different from you” approach. If someone can at least acknowledge that maybe one size doesn’t really fit all, then I can at least walk away knowing we agreed on something. Even if they are still looking down their nose at me.

      There is definitely much more to consumer psychology than what I could have possibly covered here. Much of what I covered has fallen in and out of popular opinion over the years, and has only recently reemerged as one of the dominate theories. There were numerous studies that tried to prove that the emotional response a consumer feels is more related to labor/compensation ratios and pricing. People want to wear the expensive clothes and drive the expensive car, but the more work they do to earn enough money the less likely they are to buy something expensive. Someone earning $5 an hour buys less expensive goods than someone earning $50 an hour, but how much of that is psychological and how much is practicality? Then there are the “millionaire next door” types who have way more income than their modest lifestyle suggests. Also some goods have very little brand loyalty, for example cigarettes. There is very little price difference between “premium” cigarettes and the generics, most smokers will buy what is cheapest regardless of brand. In trying to explain these anomalies the ideas of Feeling and Involvement become useful again.

      It’s sometimes amusing to go back and look at old commercials and other advertisements from years past. You can almost see what theories were in fashion at the time. There was psychologist named Kurt Lewin who posited a method for changing behavior. It consisted of “unfreezing”, “changing” and then “freezing.” First you tell someone that what they are doing is wrong, which is the hard part because because we all have our own defense mechanisms and if they aren’t properly dismantled then cognitive dissonance sets in. Once you have convinced someone they are wrong you show them a “better” way and then “freeze” that behavior by telling them how much better off they are now with the new method. Advertisements and propaganda alike used this method heavily during WW2. This is why people were happy to buy war bonds, on top of a 90% tax rate and then went home to eat their liver and onions. Today you can spot this same technique more in infomercials whereas a 90 commercial spot will most likely just try to elicit an emotional response, usually humor.