I finally got around to buying Diablo III (which really does have some serious connection issues) and the first hour made me feel all warm and geeky, mostly because of references that reinforce in-group identity.
Teaching in-group identity is fun, because everybody gets it at an instinctive level: competing against the desire to be a unique individual is the desire to be part of a group, a group that is defined in opposition to others outside the group. Everybody’s group has the shared knowledge that reinforce these, like what Avi means when he calls me an alien or burritos from “down space town”. And when instances of those shared knowledge come up, they make us feel special, because we’re in that group of people who know what they mean.
Geek culture (like movie culture, music culture, etc.) is rife with these sort of references, and in our minds, they sort out who is a “true geek” and who is just a pretender to the crown. It isn’t often conscious: only with really identity-threatened folks do you see aggressive sorting into in- and out-groups. But there is that thrill of discovery, that “oh, the Diablo guys know that? I know that too!”
Like the mad king’s name in Diablo 3 being Leoric (which I took to be a reference to the mad elven king Lorac in the Dragonlance books). Or the treasure goblin, which runs away with treasure and you are rewarded for killing it before it portals away. Golden Axe, anyone? Also, can “portals” be used as a verb?
Ultimately, these references may not even be true conscious references: the person who named the mad king may never have read Dragonlance. But that doesn’t actually matter – even falsely identified references still make us feel special, part of the group that truly knows the subject matter. And our brains love these puzzles; some psychologists have even suggested that this is evolutionary and that we get a little shot of pleasure hormones every time we resolve something ambiguous or make a difficult knowledge connection.
Which argues for why in-jokes are worth spending some time creating in products. Moments that bind us closer to the communities that form around a product create product loyalty and make us feel a little special. I always think of them as “pirate squirrels”, which were the bizarre, cute error screens that we used in place of 404’s at Thrive. And chances are, if you are a geek, you just got a little tiny rush of pleasure for knowing what a 404 was. Knowledge is power…but it is also pleasure.