Squad Mode, Solo Mode, and Human Evolution

What Fortnite and other video games can tell us about our ancestral past.

Posted Mar 01, 2019

I’m a 49-year-old man with a job and a huge list of tasks every single day. I don’t have time to play the video game Fortnite (which seems to be pretty popular among the teenage crowd). My 15-year-old son, on the other hand, seems to prioritize Fortnite in his daily activities. I observe Fortnite behavior from time to time, like an old-school anthropologist, quietly taking notes in the corner of the hut-that-is-his-room.

Source: Hucky

In recently reading David Sloan Wilson’s new book, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, my students and I have become very excited. This book is written powerfully and with an extraordinary amount of clarity. Further, more so than nearly any other book I’m aware of, this book has the capacity to convince the reader that Darwin’s big idea has the capacity to shed light on the positive aspects of the human experience. It is awesome, powerful, scientifically spot-on, and full of potential to advance our understanding of who we are.

This past week, under my student Zach’s leadership, my class started discussing the importance of within-group and between-group selection pressures as they relate to the nature of human morality. In short, this idea (rooted in Wilson’s multi-level selection theory) suggests that when an organism evolves surrounded by within-group pressures, selfish attributes and behaviors should emerge. On the other hand, when an organism evolves surrounded by between-group pressures, altruistic traits should emerge.

To unpack this idea, imagine an early group of Hominids for whom resources are scarce and drought conditions are present. Further, imagine that this is a relatively conflict-free time and threats from other bands for resources in the region are few and far between.

In such a condition, all pressures would be within the group. You’re kind of against everyone else in the race to secure food and other resources in hopes that you can live another day. In the parlance of modern video game speak, you’re in “solo mode.”

Now imagine similar resource-depleted conditions, expect that there are now three other bands that are living in the same valley at the time, each with about 100 members. Your band has, on and off again, had extensive battles with each of these other bands in the past. In your daily efforts to secure resources to survive, you make sure that you never go out alone. You always bring a small group from your band to ensure some base level of protection. In video game speak, you’re in “squad mode.”

The Psychology of Solo Mode vs. Squad Mode

In terms of within and between-group selection pressures, the group that is in “solo mode” is essentially in a context that is primarily characterized by within-group selection pressures. Competition is essentially between you and everyone else in your group. And only a small subset of you will survive. You are in competition with every single person that you have ever known for survival itself. These are nasty, dark times.

Based on Wilson’s ideas on the effects of strong within-group selection pressures on behavior, we would expect a suite of selfishly oriented traits to emerge as dominant. In such a solo-mode context, we might expect individuals to express such selfish traits as:

Each of these traits, as despicable is it may be to others from a moralistic standpoint, stands as a behavioral tendency to facilitate one’s own success at a cost to others. The prototype of immorality.

In a squad-mode context, things are different. Suppose that you are in a squad of four members from your band going out looking for food and other resources for your band. One member of your squad wanders ahead to see if the coast is clear and you see that he is about to be ambushed. You and your two other squadmates make eye contact and quickly, stealthily, approach the ambushers from behind and scare them away, saving your squadmate. Your squadmate thanks you and offers you some of the water from his canteen. It’s going to be a long day and you’re all glad to have one another. In such a squad-mode context, we might expect individuals to express, toward other members of their band, such attributes as:

The traits, which sit at the core of many models of universal morality, represent an other-oriented approach to living. From Wilson’s perspective of between-group selection pressures, they are the natural result of strong between-group pressures, which cultivate altruism within groups.

What is Morality?

To extend this idea further, Wilson writes about a simple activity that he has his students take part in regularly. He asks them to provide a list of items that represent “moral” and a counter list of items that represent “immoral.” Regularly, the items that represent “moral” map onto the kind of other-oriented traits that are consistently found as connected to between-group selection processes. Kindness, empathy, loyalty, care for the welfare of others, etc., all show up on the board. Similarly, when it comes to items that students list that are representative of immorality, items that are predictably resultant from within-group pressures emerge. Egotistical, selfish, manipulative, deceitful, etc.

A powerful evolution-based way to understand morality, then, is to see attributes that we see under the umbrella of “morality” as following from strong between-group pressures. Here, such attributes as loyalty and concern for others, are attributes that help individuals work together well as a team. On the other hand, attributes that we see under the general umbrella of “immorality” as attributes that emerge from within-group selection pressures. Such attributes might include selfish, non-trustworthy, and snake-ish. They all help the individual often at a cost to others. When within-group selection forces are at their strongest, selfish qualities emerge.

Fortnite and the Evolution of Morality

Got kids who play Fortnite? Next time you’re watching them play, or are discussing things over the dinner table as a family, ask them about “solo mode” versus “squad mode.” Ask them about some of the differences in how they approach the game in general and how they approach other players in the game in particular. I did exactly this in my evolutionary psychology class yesterday and the conversation was pretty interesting. Further, the conversation seemed to support this model of solo mode leading to a selfish approach to playing while squad mode seems to lead to all kinds of altruistic, team-oriented paths to Fortnite success.

Implications for Society

In shaping the elements of society, we actually have the capacity to manipulate things so that people are in a perceived solo-mode or squad-mode mindset. If you are running a graduate program, for instance, and only 50 percent of the students in one cohort are going to be asked back for a second year, and you constantly are telling students how difficult graduate school is, you might be cultivating a context of solo mode without intentionally doing so. Cutthroat behavior among the students would be sure to follow!

If you are a manager at work and your company collects data for various survey projects, you might create teams and build in a little fun competition. Let’s see which team can collect the most data by next week! Along the way, you could underscore the team nature of their work, maybe coming up with team names and possibly even springing for t-shirts, etc. Here, people would likely naturally move into squad mode, looking out for the other members of their team and working as a single unit dead-set on winning this team competition! Go Squad!!!

When you start to think about it, in fact, you can easily see all kinds of scenarios when leaders can create contexts that facilitate either solo mode or squad mode. Based on the connection between these kinds of contexts and moral behavior, I think we might have a strong case to make for trying to cultivate squad mode in all kinds of social contexts. In humans, there is a long history of strength in numbers. The evolutionary psychology of squad mode tells us why.

Bottom Line

We often divide people into the good and the bad. The moral and the morally repugnant. Friends and foes.

David Sloan Wilson’s take on within and between-group pressures as they related to “solo mode” versus “squad mode” can help us understand why. In Fortnight, players in solo mode will snipe strangers at the drop of a hat. They will turn on anyone at any moment. They would throw their own grandmother under the bus. And they can trust only themselves. On the other hand, players in squad mode have all kinds of motivations to trust the other members of their squad, a fact that often leads to sharing, compassion, and a true empathy for one’s squad mates. All of these altruistic attributes are, in fact, essential if you plan to have your squad advance at all in the large-scale competition that surrounds your little Fortnite world.

From a societal standpoint, then, there are clear implications. When possible, let’s create contexts that cultivate a squad-mode mentality. There is strength in numbers. And team building is, in a sense, morality building. Want to help make this world a better place? Turn life into squad mode as best as you can!