Can 'Diablo 3′ Point Us Toward A Grand Unified Theory of Nerdrage?

Diablo 3, a hack-and-slash role-playing game for the PC published by Blizzard (which also makes World of Warcraft), was released a month and a half ago. There was about a decade’s worth of anticipation from fans of the series who had profoundly nostalgic memories of late nights with Domino’s Pizza and cans of soda and Diablo 1 or 2 and a depressingly short AOL Instant Messenger buddy list.

Within 24 hours of Diablo 3’s May 15 release, about 3.5 million people had bought it, either that day or as a preorder. Many of them have been playing it obsessively since the release. But all is not well, because, alongside the enthusiasm, the game has unleashed a torrent of nerdrage. White-hot, screeching nerdrage. Nerdrage about how the game is balanced, about technical issues, about the nonresponsiveness of Blizzard’s customer service. And I propose that the nerdrage sparked by Diablo 3 can help us unravel a mystery that has long eluded scientist and sociologist alike (not really): What causes nerdrage? What are the factors that determine its intensity, its duration, and its contagiousness?

Here’s where I should probably mention that I am one of those aforementioned fans. Diablo is one of the most persistent relics of my nerdy, awkward past (now I am so cool and not awkward), and as the release date approached, even though I knew it was a very bad idea given the game’s potential to suck me in, I felt compelled to email Blizzard and say something like, Hey, I’d like to write about this for such-and-such website. Could you send me an e-copy? They did and I did and then it was hours of sitting hunched over at my computer, making my wizard, HugPatrol, kill hordes of zombies and skeletons and demons of every stripe and watching randomly generated items, or “loot,” pop out as they die. The game tracks your playtime, and I’ve logged about an hour and 20 minutes a day—some of that during the prime of spring!—since the game came out. This sounds like a lot until you ask around; in a brief, unscientific, poorly-responded-to Reddit poll I conducted, fans copped to playing six or seven hours a day, and if the habits of World of Warcraft fans are any indication, it wouldn’t shock me to find out that there are a lot of people playing 10 hours a day or more.

And this is part of the reason the nerdrage has gone supernova, as I’ll explain. But first, let’s define some terms:

nerd: someone who cares deeply and irrationally about something in a way that is very hard for someone who doesn’t care about that thing to understand.

nerdrage: the overwhelming feeling of anger engendered when a nerd is disappointed by that thing he or she cares so deeply and irrationally about—an anger that non-nerds, or different species of nerd, find very hard to take seriously or not scoff at, because of that whole opaque-to-outsiders thing.

I’m actually not a Diablo 3 nerd. A fan, but not a nerd. I am a nerd, however, about certain things, including the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics. I devote far too much of my time to reading about and watching these teams, and when they lose in a painful manner (which both have managed to do a lot of in the last few years) it sticks to my gut in a way that something so frivolous shouldn’t. I can’t help it. I am a nerd for these teams.

I bet you’re a nerd, too, about something. Most of us are. Some of us are nerds about a lot of things (I can’t decide if these are the lucky or unlucky ones). Maybe you cried when Jim and Pam first kissed on “The Office.” Maybe you’re really into Dr. Phil (ew). Or maybe you’ve had multiple religious experiences on shrooms while listening to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and you just can’t stop thinking about that album, and every time you listen to it you notice some new semi-submerged thread of sonic perfection, and it fucks up every first date you go on because you start evangelizing about it in this weirdly persistent way that adds an unwelcome manic tension to the proceedings.

Of course, all but the most extreme sports fans and music fans and whatever fans aren’t viewed as nerds, while, until recently at least, anyone who played a game with even a single sword in it was generally swept into the nerd category (doubly so if there was a mace in the game—no one knows why, but maces are way nerdier than swords; Diablo 3 has both!).

But nerdiness is nerdiness, whether it has to do with gaming or otherwise; and the symptoms that run across its different forms are always quite similar, even when they vary in intensity. So while the object of nerdrage might be something very specific, the emotions that fuel it are pretty universal.

The Diablo 3 nerdrage started pretty much immediately with the game’s release, as Blizzard’s servers, crushed by the onslaught of nerds hoping for their first taste of sweet sweet demon blood, instead served up an error message. Once fans got in and had some time to poke around, a lot of them quickly began to feel that Blizzard had not delivered on its decade-plus promise (for one thing, Diablo 3 has many streamlined, console-like elements to it—the ultimate insult as far as PC gamers are concerned—sanding down the nerdiest strategic edges of its predecessors). Now, it’s difficult to take a strict measure of how this instance of gaming nerdrage compares to prior manifestations, except to observe that Diablo is at least no Daikatana. It’s not as though the game was poorly reviewed or is being abandoned en masse. But still, this is certainly one of the most notable outbreaks of nerdrage in recent history.

If you want to get a sense of the tenor of this nerdrage, one of the epicenters is in the Battle.net forums (Battle.net is the online service through which players play Diablo 3). There, some of the franchise’s most ardent fans express white-hot outrage at Diablo 3’s shortcomings. “What killed this game for you?” asks one post. “We demand a new game designer!” trumpets another. Then this (blanket sic):

Please do not let the same game designer work on another game !Make a ‘Game company Black-list’ like in the casino’s and write his name on nr. 1

We want fun games again,
And if your in-house testers/game designer’s do not understand what fun is,LISTEN TO YOUR FANBASE.

Uninstalled.

Um, yeah! So there’s a lot of anger, most of it orbiting around a few standard gripes:

• The Inferno difficulty mode (which Blizzard promised would be really, really hard) is really, really hard.

• Cool, powerful items don’t pop out of the bad guys with nearly enough frequency—conspiracy theorists see this as a ploy on Blizzard’s part to push people into using the Real Money Auction House, which lets people buy or sell in-game items for real-world cash. If players can’t find great items, some detractors insist insist, they’ll be forced to buy them in the auction house, from which Blizzard takes a cut of each purchase. (There is also an auction house using gold, the in-game money.) (Also, yes: Real-life human beings spend real-life money on not-real-life swords and armor and stuff.)

• The story and voice acting are unspeakable horrors, much like the game’s final boss, the Lord of Terror himself.

• There is far less customizability than in previous games—every new skill you acquire is acquired at a preset point, and unlike the previous two games in the series, you’re not forced to make any big, permanent choices about your character and where his or her strengths and weaknesses will lie.

• Et cetera, et cetera.

Don’t be judge-y; like I said, it’s universal. We, most of us nerds of one stripe or another, get irrationally mad about stupid things. But I contend that gamer nerdrage is a bit more focused and intense. It’s a speculative argument, of course, until scientists come up with a way to reduce subjective emotional states down to cold objective numbers (and seriously, scientists—get on that!). But if it’s true, it’s true for three main reasons:

1. The long development cycle. Now that gaming is on equal footing with Hollywood in terms of funding and fandom and news coverage, there’s arguably no form of entertainment that gets as heavily draped in hype and anticipation and controversy as the development of a new video game. A space of almost twelve years separated the release of Diablo 2 and that of the frequently delayed Diablo 3. That’s a lot of screenshots, developer interviews, and hyperbolic presentations at gaming conventions in the meanwhile, and a lot of time for fans to develop sky-high expectations, to internalize every rumor and scrap of journalism that gets squeezed out of the protracted development cycle, to come up with things to be disappointed about once reality arrives and can’t live up to a million nerdy fever-dreams.

Diablo 3 (and every major release) elicited significant nerdrage because a perfect version of it already existed in the heads of gamers years before it was released. Then the actual game had to come along and ruin everything.

2. The unparalleled intimacy between gamer and game. There are only so many hours of sports on a week, and most people don’t follow more than two or three teams closely anyway. Loveless is a discrete, bounded thing. You can play it over and over but it’s still just 48 minutes and 36 seconds long.

Games like Diablo 3, where so many of the levels and items and encounters are randomized, are different. You can play Diablo 3 forever, basically. This leads people to become very, very attached to it. They play it constantly, and when they’re not playing it they’re reading about it or complaining about it or, in the direst cases, writing torrid fan-fiction about it. The stakes seem higher, the slights more visceral, when you’re so tightly entwined with the object of your nerdlove—and it’s a thin line between nerdlove and nerdrage.

3. The endlessly seductive hope that Maybe Things Will Get Better. Most forms of nerdrage are starved of the oxygen they would need to burn for very long because what’s done is done. Wes Welker dropped that ball so he dropped that ball so he dropped that ball. That’s it and there’s no way to reverse it. George Lucas isn’t going to unmake the crappy new “Star Wars” trilogy he made; that trilogy is a thing that, barring a heroic time-traveler, exists now and will exist forever.

Gaming—or PC gaming at least—is different. Because a game like Diablo 3 gets patched regularly (meaning the designers release a set of tweaks, often geared at making the game more balanced), there’s always a chance—a chance!—that the game’s publishers will suddenly do a 180, prostrate themselves before the nerd-hordes, and cede to all their demands. Now, it’s a bit delusional to think this could actually happen, both because Blizzard obviously has their reasons for making this or that design decision, and because, given the nastiness of the nerdrage that has been unleashed so far, to fix the game to the nerds’ liking at this point would entail its developers saying, “You know, I think the 15-year old who just sent me a photoshopped picture of my head on Hitler’s body makes some really good points. And boy, do I admire him for not being shy with those punctuation marks! I’m going to give him what he asks for.”

But still. Because games can be improved, gaming nerdrage has a motivating fuel that is absent in nerdrage’s other manifestations.

***

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, the vast majority of people spouting the hottest nerdrage over Diablo 3 seem to still be playing it. It’s a hellaciously addictive game, and they, like so many others, have been yoked at a very primal level to Diablo 3’s stimulus-reward schedules, which seem precisely attuned to elicit addiction.

It’s a weird disconnect, this idea of being hopelessly addicted to a game that pisses you off in so many ways. There’s something ominous there, a hint that the brutal logic of the slot machine has become fully entrenched in “higher” forms of entertainment. Because sure, at its core Diablo 3 is about killing monsters, but it’s also supposed to be about characters and plot and graphics. At least that’s the story fans tell themselves.

Here is where the rage over Diablo 3 becomes universal nerdiness writ large. Something essentially unimportant pleases us in a primal way we couldn’t ever fully put into words, and we conjure up a complicated tale to explain why we’ve become obsessed. So don’t make fun of the ranting obsessives of the Battle.net forums—they’re just being flamboyantly human.


Related: When Exactly Did It Get Cool To Be A Geek?


Jesse Singal is a reporter at Newsweek/The Daily Beast. You can vent your nerdrage at him via email or on Twitter.