Console wars have been around for as long as people could choose between more than one system, but why do they exist in the first place? It turns out that console wars are just an expression of broader human nature.
What Is a Console War Exactly?
In case you’re blissfully unaware of the battles fought in the name of console brand loyalty, console wars are essentially the animosity people who favor one console feel towards people who prefer another.
It’s not enough to sing the perceived praises of your console of choice, to be a true console warrior you have to break down and destroy the “enemy” consoles. This includes attacking fans of that console, spreading FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt), and using blatantly dishonest tactics to make other consoles look as bad as possible.
Seeing console warring play out on social media, forums, and sometimes even in real life is an ugly sight to behold, but based on what we’ve learned about humans and society it’s not that surprising.
There are several theories from the field of psychology that help explain why console wars happen, but as always it’s dangerous to simplify anything related to people too much. Think of these ideas from psychology as a way to shine a light on parts of why console wars happen, but it’s probably not the whole picture.
Console Wars Look Irrational From Outside
If you’re not a part of this phenomenon, it can seem incredibly strange as an outsider. This is especially true with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X generation. These consoles are so similar in technology and performance, that it’s unlikely someone would tell the difference between the same game running on both systems. Add to this that the age of the “console exclusive” game is fading thanks to PC releases on both sides of the fence, and it really does seem like two sides fighting over differences no one else can see.
In the days of the SNES and Sega Genesis, each console had a distinct character to its games and literally distinct characters in the form of mascots such as Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. Fans of those consoles still fight about them to this very day, but social media platforms like Twitter have amplified this from banter to something far more unpleasant. The symptoms are there for anyone to see, but what are the possible causes?
Post-purchase rationalization is a prime candidate for sparking console wars. This is a type of bias people show where they rationalize something they’ve already bought by focusing on the positive aspects of it and ignoring or minimizing the negatives.
The logic goes a little like this: “I’m a smart person who makes smart choices. I chose to buy this thing, so, therefore, it must be the best choice.” Another way to look at this type of rationalization is that as the validity of your choice is challenged by new things you learn or things that people say about the product, the more you defend that purchase. It’s easier to just ignore the possibility that you’ve made a (possibly) bad choice than to admit you may have made a mistake or have compromised for one reason or another.
This bias feeds off another type of buyer behavior, where we decide to buy something not because of rational reasons, but because of how it makes us feel. Marketers have long realized that products that connect emotionally with customers are easier to sell. This is why advertisements for cars don’t just list a set of specifications. Instead, it shows you the type of lifestyle or people associated with the product.
The different console brands have certain personas and lifestyle stereotypes attached to them, so this might be more about aligning with a certain set of values than choosing the best on-paper hardware and services.
In-Groups, Out-Groups: Your Console Sucks
Humans are social animals; just like our primate cousins we naturally form social groups and care about how we’re seen in society. Social Identity Theory offers the notion of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” People in the in-group are more similar to you and those in the out-group are less similar. You’re biased to feel more positive towards in-group members than the “other” of the out-group. The out-group is associated with negative stereotypes and the in-group with positive ones.
There are an endless number of things that people use to categorize in- and out- groups. It can be really big, important things like religion, nationality, politics, race, and ethnicity. It can also be according to more mundane categories such as what music you listen to or how you dress. It seems that there’s nothing that people won’t use to categorize others, so console brands fit perfectly into the paradigm of social identity.
Each person belongs to a multitude of groups, so what console you like only forms a small part of your social identity. For console warriors, the chunk of that identity dedicated to their brand loyalty might be disproportionally larger, and so the desire to protect themselves from perceived attacks on that identity is also more dramatic.
It Doesn’t Take Much: Minimal Groups
It might be hard to believe that people would categorize themselves according to such mundane things as a gaming device, but there’s plenty of evidence for it. Henri Tajfel, the same researcher known for Social Identity Theory, came up with something known as the Minimal Group Paradigm.
It’s an experimental method that helps show us what the minimum set of conditions is to get people to discriminate against each other. It turns out that even if you are randomly sorted into arbitrary groups and have never even seen other members of your group, you’ll still show measurable bias in favor of your own group versus the other group.
Console Wars and the Robbers Cave
One famous related experiment by Muzafer Sherif known as the Robbers Cave Experiment demonstrated this part of human nature with brutal efficiency. The researchers brought together twenty-two 11-year-old boys who were matched as far as possible for race, religion, economic status, and so on. In other words, they’re all part of the same general in-group.
The boys were then randomly divided into two groups, without the two groups meeting each other beforehand. They were allowed to bond separately through cooperative activities. This helped demonstrate how in-group hierarchies form under controlled conditions.
The two groups were then introduced to each other and set to compete against each other for prizes going to the winning group. Group animosity quickly hit such a peak that boys from both sides had to be physically separated.
The full details of the experiment are well worth reading, but this microcosm of intergroup conflict really looks like a reflection of console wars (and other similar conflicts), despite the fact that if these two groups weren’t separated before meeting each other, they would most likely all have been friends!