South African gaming, and the importance of being “known”

US President Barack Obama, speaking of r

In last week’s column about the Dunning-Kruger effect, there was a lot I wanted to say. Unfortunately, I rambled on for over a thousand words before I got around to some of it, and I could almost feel Overlord Dane’s disappointed eyes watching the WordPress post expand.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it’s an issue worthy of its own discussion. It’s also an excuse to shoehorn more psychological theory into a gaming column.

Everybody knows everybody

South Africa has a very unique gaming climate. We generate just enough revenue and interest in online games to warrant our own servers and competitive environments, and yet we’re small enough that it’s harder to see anonymity in the masses.

It’s not just a small community, it’s also a closed one. We keep our particular slice of First World lifestyle at arm’s length from every other developed nation in the world. Anyone attempting to invade a South African server can enjoy a ping higher than a Rhodes student who just finished his last exam – about 420 or so.

You may remember a year or two ago the South African DotA 2 server suffered a Russian takeover of Ukrainian proportions. The Russians wanted to stall games to the 3+ hour mark so they could get better item drops – and the South African server is so small, if enough of them did it they had a good chance of finding each other on opposing teams, and thus capable of making everybody miserable for a particularly shiny shoulder-pad.

Everybody knows everybody.

Anonymity is relative, and undesired

Usually, the nature of internet interactions allow us a certain cloak of anonymity. However, there’s two layers to this. In terms of actual anonymity – most people have that. We’re known only by an online alias, which in many ways allows us to reinvent ourselves or form a separate, keyboard-bound persona.

What people tend to overlook, however, is that that particular alias becomes a part of their identity too. And in that way, we’re not anonymous at all.

"I know it's you, Jeff."
“I know it’s you, Jeff.”

Let’s say you play a DotA game with ToaDmOnkeY337 a couple of times over the course of a day, and you spot him again the next day. Each time he’s friendly, polite and plays well. A few days later, you’re playing with friends and he pops up on your team. You tell them, “Oh I’ve played with this dude before, he’s a cool guy and quite good”.

People may not know your real name, but they know you. Now, on Steam you have the option of changing your name as often as you like, but people don’t want to do that. For the most part, people WANT to be “known”.

It’s the same reason you see so many people in SA with custom avatars with their screennames, or personalised signature banners in their forum posts. However, this also brings with it a certain amount of ugliness too.

Paging Dr Kruger

The idea to write last week’s article came out of a discussion with a friend of mine (thanks Rory). We were discussing the Dunning-Kruger bias and, more specifically, why it is so pervasive in South Africa.

His theory was that it was due to the intense importance of being “known”, which makes perfect sense. For many people, their gaming identity becomes so wrapped up in their self-esteem that, when threatened, they become enormously defensive.

Defense mechanisms are so integrated into modern psychological theory that anyone reading this has likely heard the term before. The idea is that, when threatened, our egos minimise anxiety through particular cognitive defences – some of these are considered healthy, while others aren’t.

One of the most commonly deployed defense mechanisms is rationalisation, our ability to talk ourselves out of a particularly troubling thought process. Let’s use a simple example everyone can likely relate to. Your boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with you, and you’re devastated. Then you start to think actually you’re better off without him/her, you weren’t right for each other anyway and now you can do all those things you wanted to do before but didn’t have the time to.

"I'm so much happier now."
“I’m so much happier now.”

This is considered a relatively “healthy” defense mechanism. When it comes to gaming, however, it’s slightly different. You’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting your reputation too – nobody wants to be “known” as a n00b after all.

This means your rationalisation isn’t just for you, it’s for others – which frequently comes out as aggressive behaviour. It’s the reason you start telling the enemy team how bad your teammates are. You deflect blame wherever you can, and you do it publicly.

It’s the same reason you’ll kill someone in Counter-Strike and they’ll immediately call you out for hacking. The same thing happens in DotA – except the blame usually falls on lag or an “overpowered” hero.

I’ve fallen victim to this myself. I try not to be too salty when it comes to gaming; but I’ve taken a more passive approach which achieves the same goal – I change my name. In the past when I’ve had a particularly bad run of games, I’ll change my name in an effort to “re-invent” myself.

If you think none of this applies to you, consider how much you would care about your ranking in a game if nobody ever saw it – it was invisible to everyone but you, and you couldn’t share it or discuss it with friends. Likewise, you couldn’t know anyone else’s. Would you still be as motivated to gain a higher rank?

The value of being known

There is a famous theory in social psychology called “social identity theory”. It discussed how we divide other people into two groups – the “in-group” and the “out-group”. This divide can be made using broad strokes like race or religion, or far more subtle, focused differences.

Remember when mobile gaming was becoming a big thing and people quickly began to identify themselves as “core gamers”? They would shit on anyone perceived to be a “casual gamer”, part of the out-group. We see the same thing today with console vs. PC players.

Similarly, the South African gaming climate develops in-groups and out-groups based on being “known”, which often tends to be game-specific.

People who played DotA 1 on the South African servers will remember that being an “unk” was a kickable offense. “Unk” of course is short for “unknown”, and it was about the worst thing you could be. You needed to create a reputation attached to your name, an identity, and only then were you allowed to play with the big boys. You needed to migrate from the out-group to the in-group.

It feels good to be in the in-group too. Part of this theory is “in-group favouritism”, which is exactly what it sounds like. We give more respect, appreciation and positive attention to those we perceive to be in the same in-group as us.

It also explains the whole brony thing.
It also explains the whole brony thing.

The other side of the coin, of course, is what’s known as “out-group discrimination”. Those of you who follow Counter-Strike may remember last year when a 15-year old unknown player called Sonic rose to sudden prominence. His skill both in matchmaking games and at LAN events garnered him a lot of attention very quickly – a lot of it unfavourable.

Due to his being an “unknown” (and thus, part of the out-group), he was promptly accused of hacking by basically everybody. Nobody wanted a member of the out-group to get all the attention and praise, and they needed to find a way to undermine that.

This differential treatment is a strong motivator to become a part of the in-group, which brings us full circle – in South African gaming, being known goes hand-in-hand with a positive self-concept.

So what can we do about it?

Nothing, really. People are people, and this unique social environment is unlikely to change. Just try be aware of your own prejudices, and try not be a dick.