Friday, September 27, 2013

Group Identities

Many people love games, sports, and competition.  We love them to an almost (or not so almost) unhealthy degree.  Otherwise, the sports industry wouldn’t be so darn massive, and people wouldn’t fly across the country to witness live (from seats in the stands where they can barely see anything) what they could watch on TV.

There are many reasons why people get so into sports and games, but one of the biggest reasons--I think--is simple; many humans have a strong sense of group identity.  Apart from the fact that our brain already categorizes everything all the time, we also categorize ourselves.  We want to belong to groups.  We want to belong to strong groups.  Not just because, in nature, if our group is strong we have high odds of survival, but because being part of a strong and valued group implies that we are strong and valuable people.

Strength, capability, success, value; these are good things.  Not possessing them is bad, which makes you bad.  So if your group doesn’t have them, that should upset you, because it implies those negative things about you.  Well, we think it does, and that’s what we respond to.

Don’t believe me?  Why do soccer riots happen?  Why do people start fights with lethal consequences when one person yells that another team sucks?  When you say that my team sucks, I think, “no, I like this team.  I wouldn’t like a team that sucks.  That might mean that I suck.  And that’s bad.  Let’s fight.”  It’s not just passion and love, but also fear that this part of your identity might be inferior.

People do it all the time; not just for sports or countries, but for favorite bands, favorite restaurants, books, movies, TV shows, on and on.  Tell the average person that you dislike their favorite thing, and they’ve got decent odds of trying to persuade you that 1) your preference is horribly misguided or 2) your parents did a terrible job raising you.  Because we associate our likes and preferences with a sense of self, and it’s absolutely not okay for those things to be questioned.  Not even when the preference is a completely subjective one.  When we dislike things, we also go on the attack, to distance ourselves from the things we don’t like.

We might stop liking something if it means we’re associated with its fanbase.  We may assume that one person has negative characteristics because they like something with a stereotypically negative following.  We group things, make snap judgments, and do it constantly.  We do it to save time, we do it to maintain our identities, and we do it because we don’t actually think about it that often.

Watching the chat during any gaming event where nationality or team-identity gets brought up is both funny and sad.  One team loses, and no matter how close or well-played the match was, you will find people spamming things like “North America sucks” or “Korea is overrated” or “**** Europe.”  People aren’t just eager to be strong, they want other groups to be weak.  And because we are also social, everybody has to know it.  People publicly revel in the fact that other groups--ones they definitely don’t like or identify with--have failed.  It’s not enough to say, “congratulations,” but for many they have to tack on “get wrecked.”

This has always been strange to me.  Most games that I played growing up were singular endeavors.  My performance was my own and I liked it that way.  So I didn’t really latch onto team sports in high-school and the trend continued through college.  I mostly just thought about my own performance and how it could be better.

But am I immune?  Hell no.  For starters, when I see somebody playing the character I like in some game, I root for them.  If they play poorly, I get irritated for making players of the character look bad.  I associate myself with the group, and don’t want to be judged by a poor performance elsewhere.  When my college’s football team does well, I get a little happy inside even though I know it has nothing to do with me, I’m not a huge football afficionado, and I never even went to a game while I attended.  I’m more likely to cheer for American players over somebody from Europe if I don’t know much more about them.  It’s deeply rooted.  Half the time it’s not even worth trying to stop; you might as well cheer for somebody.

But we need to see when we’re being neurotic about it, or when we let a bunch of strangers throwing a ball ruin our day because the guys with the wrong colored jerseys won.  When we evaluate another person’s actual character on the basis of who they cheer for.  When we take deep, personal offense just because somebody doesn’t share a preference for the things we like.  It sounds crazy, but it happens; it probably even happens to you, though it surely will seem reasonable at the time to do it.

I keep saying it, but winning, succeeding, and even being good at stuff aren’t actual measures of your worth.  We want to win, succeed, and be good at things because that’s how you survive and make it in life.  That’s pretty important.  Constantly striving to improve, to better yourself, and even compete and outdo others, those things lead us toward progress and growth.  But even if you aren’t super great at what you do just yet, that’s fine; you aren’t a horrible, terrible person worth hating.  The same is true even if you like something that isn’t that great, or if you make something that’s not so good.  It’s okay if your hometown has a crummy basketball team.  It’s even okay if some stranger thinks it, or makes fun of you for it, or says online that you are stupid and unattractive for liking them.

The important thing, in these moments when you’re feeling targeted or upset, and you want to retaliate, is to ask, “why do I even feel the need?”  If the other person is wrong about your favorite team or player, then time will prove them wrong.  If they’re right, then there’s no point in disputing and fighting it.  You gain nothing by being caught up in a cyclone of emotions, just because part of you feels a need to belong, to fight on behalf of the group you’ve been born into, or joined, or chosen to support.  Step back for a moment and ask what causes the attachment, and whether you need to endorse it.

That’s all for today.  Thanks for reading.

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