In the last few months, Microsoft and Sony have both announced the imminent release of the next generation of their respective gaming consoles, and in doing so have reignited an ancient, stupid war. It's called a system war, a conflict between advocates of specific video game systems, and right now the battle lines between the forces of Xbox-Losers and Playstation-Turds are quickly being re-formed.
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Also, I guess, Wii-Grandparents.
Video game forums are already filling with bold claims of which system will be more powerful, which system will have more games, and which system will break down and catch fire faster.
But why does any of this matter? Why would anyone go to so much trouble to yell at other people about how popular their toys are? Isn't this just stupidly childish? Or would even stupid children be embarrassed by this?
"Come on, guys."
Well, hang on to your butts, stupid children, because you're in for a surprise: There are actual, rational reasons people engage in this kind of system advocacy. Here's four of them.
I know a bit about what I speak of here. When the Earth was still young, I myself took part in a system war, filling Usenet with all sorts of hateful slander about the mental defects that people who owned a Sega Genesis must have.
"Brain Ebola" I think was one of my more common refrains.
Looking back on it now, it really isn't surprising that I got drawn into the great unwashed Super Nintendo Army, because at the time there simply weren't that many other armies willing to admit me. Certainly not the Good at Sports Army, nor the Smoking Army, nor even the Weed Smoking Army. And definitely not the Talking to Girls Army, who'd turned up their noses at my resume several times.
"I'm sorry, we really don't have any openings right now for sunken-chested wierdos. We'll keep your resume on file in case anything comes up. What? No, that never happens."
Which is why I gravitated toward message boards, where I could chat with people with similar interests. It's fun being on a "team," even if none of them know how to talk to girls either. And once you're on that team, you'll take part in its customs and rituals, which invariably involve attacking other teams. If all your new buddies are talking shit about Sega, well, so be it. Eat shit, Genesis fans.
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No. Not the band. I ... You know something? Fuck it. Fuck those Genesis fans, too.
Let me ask you something. How many times have you looked for movie reviews after seeing a movie, just to see what other people thought of it? And when you're doing this, do you find yourself gravitating toward the reviews that agree with you? I'll bet you do; I certainly do.
"Yes! It did need more male nudity, didn't it?"
It's nice knowing that other people agree with you. While wealthy people who make Ashton Kutcher money might be able to afford multiple video game systems, many people will stick to buying a single one each generation. And for people who can't lay $300 down on a toy that casually, they will naturally want to feel that they've made the right decision, even if some of the facts on the surface -- like the fact that they're spending $300 on a toy -- are screaming that this is exactly the wrong decision.
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"Why can't you afford it? Because your job is 'collecting birthday checks from Grandma.' And, you know ... that's not a long term industry. No, that wasn't a threat."
This makes someone who looked at the same video game systems you did but chose the other one your greatest enemy. Their actions imply that you made the wrong decision, and all of your mental energies must be diverted to proving that that person is wrong and an idiot and that their chosen video game system is likely to explode and wipe out their entire family.
A network effect is used to describe the phenomenon where a system becomes more valuable as more people use it. The classic example is the telephone, where it might not make sense to buy your own telephone if none of your friends or local businesses have them. It's only when all these people get telephones, and you can talk to your friends or purchase some nice phone sex, that buying your own phone makes sense. And video game systems experience a similar phenomenon.
Although, not, sadly, due to the amount of phone sex we all have.
The more people who own a particular video game system, the more likely it is that developers will make games for it. So all that shrieking about system features and crowing about sales numbers serve a purpose, if it can convince other people to buy the same system. More users = more games.
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It's the same reason why some people get really agitated if you talk shit about Linux around them.
There's another benefit to being part of a community. It makes your opinions harder to ignore.
"THESE XBOXS WILL BE OUR DOOM. STORM MICROSOFT CASTLE."
Star Trek was famously saved from cancellation by a letter-writing campaign. Family Guy was canceled, but then restarted years later, almost entirely due to the success of its DVD sales. A community of fans working together is a powerful thing.
There are some limits, of course. Dudes in video game forums are notorious for overestimating their influence over video game publishers. "Enough all-caps forum rants are sure to make the industry change its multimillion-dollar decisions!" is an oft-heard, completely ridiculous refrain. It's implausible because one of the qualifications for becoming a person in charge of making multimillion-dollar decisions is that they never, ever spend any time on video game forums.
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"I'm sorry, did you say you spent time talking to our customers? Jenkins, our customers are ridiculous people. Never do that again."
But even considering that, the video game industry has shifted a few times due to fans shrieking on forums. People raged about Mass Effect 3 and its original, terrible ending so much that the developers released a second, differently terrible ending for it a few weeks later. And in many online games, where different characters and abilities are regularly tweaked and adjusted by developers to ensure game balance, it's (in part) the discussion forums where the developers get their ideas for what changes to make.
If you're looking for a rule of thumb to figure out if your hilarious picture of a cat with bold text underneath is going to effect any real change in the industry, ask yourself how much that change is likely to cost. A million dollars? No cat's that funny. A few thousand dollars? That's happened. Saddle up your funniest cat and go for it.
No ... that's ... fine. It's fine. I'm sure he's hilarious.
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