2013-06-12 : Status is Your Toy!

Part I: Disclaimers (i): Who knows! Not me.

I don't imagine that any of this is true. I offer it up as a look into how I think of things. I invite you to compare it with your own experiences and the conclusions you've drawn from them, take what you find useful, and discard what you don't.

I don't imagine that this will be status-neutral. I apologize in advance for any stress or upset this causes. I've decided to use the Forge for examples, because while the group it represents still exists, it's increasingly dissolute. Where I name someone other than myself, I don't believe I do them any discredit.

I cheerfully accept correction and disagreement, on this or any topic, and I'm always happy to answer questions.

Part II: Status is just a fact.

1. Status in a group
Status is a group phenomenon. Status systems exists (a) within a group, between its members; (b) between one group and another; and (c) between a group and an individual non-member.

Status between two individuals exists, but it changes constantly with the matter at hand. Even your child is your peer when it's time to name all of the Autobots. Even your boss doesn't own you. In indie rpg circles, individuals form working relationships, friendships, rivalries, animosities, shared enthusiasms, but mostly not hierarchical status relationships. This is true right until there's an audience, a group; as soon as there's an audience, its status system comes back into play.

As a member of a group, you don't get to choose your place in its status system. You can, at most, nudge it upward or downward, by what you choose to do. You also don't get to accurately judge your status! You can, at most, place it in a broad range, high, middle, or low.

Within a group, a member's status rises and falls relative to other members of the group, but generally within the bounds of the group's upper and middle ranges. If your member status falls too low, staying in the group is unpleasant, and why would you? When a group "alienates" someone, that's someone who's chosen to leave the group because they're not content with their low place in the group's status system.

Your feelings don't reliably match your status or the status of your fellow members. It's very possible to admire someone lower-status than yourself, or to hold in contempt someone higher-status. Being low-status in a group feels unjust. (Because it is unjust.) Choosing to leave a group because you can't manage to raise your status in it feels like walking away in disgust, like asserting that your status is higher, not like giving up and accepting that it's so low.

2. Status between groups
Like members in a group, groups' status with regard to one another rise and fall.

Like members in a group, groups don't get to choose their status relative to one another. Some other system creates and decides it. At most a group can nudge its own status up or down.

It may be that groups' relative status is established, presumably among other ways, where the groups exchange members. If the lowest-status members of one group, dissatisfied with their ill-treatment, abandon it for a second group, where they're welcomed as mid-status members, does this show the first group to be higher-status than the second? If, on the other hand, the high-status members of the first group become enamored with and pursue membership in a third group, does this show that the third group is higher-status than the first? Possibly so.

In any case, like for in-group status, feelings aren't reliable. A group can very easily look down on a higher-status group, or admire a lower-status group. One group's contempt for another doesn't prove anything about their real relative statuses.

3. Status mobility
So, to the point: A member of a group jostles for status within the status system of the group, usually keeping to the broad, indeterminate upper and middle status ranges. The group, in turn, jostles for status with its neighbor groups. Individuals can move from group to group - to a higher-status position within a lower-status group, to a lower-status position within a higher-status group, or to a broadly equivalent-status position within a broadly equivalent-status group. In all cases, sometimes the person abandons one group for the other, and sometimes holds membership in more than one. No problem.

This is what I think we have to work with.

Part III: status is interesting.

1. Exempting yourself from a group's status system
An in-group status system exists within a group (naturally). The group exists with or without you, personally, as a member. This means that you need not necessarily consider yourself to be a member of the group at any given time. This means in turn that you can exempt yourself, when it serves you, from its in-group status system.

When you exempt yourself from a group, even just in your own mind, you can watch its status system in action. From outside, from the point of view of an individual instead of a member, you can decipher its rules, where from within, caught up in them, they can be too urgent to be clear.

If you choose to return yourself to membership in the group, at the status it allots you, you can remember what you've noticed and decide how best to put it to use. For now, stay with me and look at the group from outside.

2. Status anxiety
Here's something I think you'll notice right away: everyone in the group feels status anxiety. They're all as worried about their status in the group as you used to be. They all feel, as acutely as you used to, every minute rise and fall in their status, and every minute rise and fall in the status of the people they identify as their fellow group members, their in-group allies, rivals, idols, whipping-dogs.

In fact, doesn't it seem like maybe group membership and status anxiety are synonymous?

It's easy to see where status anxiety comes from: our feelings about what our status should be don't line up with the actual status the group affords us. It IS unjust. It's ALWAYS unjust.

3. Status rules
So then who sets status? Who makes the rules? Is it the high-status members? From outside, you can see at once that it isn't, even though it seemed like maybe they did from within. But no, the group as a whole does it. How could it be otherwise? Your status is your place in the group! No person, no cabal, can tell the group how to organize itself.

If it seemed like the high-status members made the rules, it was probably because you were measuring yourself against them, not because they actually do.

Anyway, the rule the group uses to award status is simple, straightforward, and invariable, but it has a surprising feature. The rule is: the group rewards people who affirm its value as a group, of course. The surprising feature is: it doesn't always reward them by raising their status. It rewards them by moving their status toward the comfortable, least anxious center of the middle-high range.

4. Voicing status anxiety
What happens when someone in the group gives voice to their status anxiety? The group smacks them down, fast and hard. Expressing status anxiety is always a status-lowering move. This is for the straightforward reason that when you express your status anxiety, you're questioning the judgment of the group, proclaiming to the group that it's misjudged, you know better, and thereby denying its value. Of course the group punishes you for this.

Furthermore, any time a group's members express their status anxiety, the group loses status relative to other groups nearby.

5. Highest-status members
So wait a minute. If the group rewards its members by pushing them toward the upper-middle, not elevating them to the top, then where do the highest-status members come from?

It's interesting! Watch as an outsider and you'll see a fascinating thing. You'll see that a group's highest and lowest status members are the ones who care least about their membership in the group. The lowest-status members think the group's stupid and unfair, and the highest-status members think it's silly and inconsequential.

The answer is that the highest-status members of a group are people who already independently hold whatever status their group membership would afford them. In other words, their individual status trumps the group's status system.

From the group's point of view, their membership by itself increases the group's status relative to other groups nearby. The group's eager to have their membership and will afford them high status in order to win it.

It may be that they're members of a much higher-status group, like when Jonathan Tweet stopped by the Forge booth at GenCon and we fawned over him. It may be that they've made an end-run of another sort: for instance, Ron Edwards' status at the Forge didn't depend on the group's approval of him, it depended on the fact that he owned the place, set policy, kept it open and decided when to close it down. He wasn't vulnerable to group judgment (and Clinton wasn't, then later I wasn't) the way the Forge's other members were.

Part IV: status is your toy!

And a toy + a goal = a game.

1. Games you can play as a member of a group
Do you want a comfortable middle-high status in your group? Then get to work affirming the group's value. (Are you disinclined to affirm a group' value? Then why do you want it to afford you status?)

Do you want your status in your group to take a nosedive? Then get to work denying the group's value. Expressing your status anxiety or criticizing the group's status judgments is one way to do it, if that's the way your inclinations run.

Do you want out of a low status position in your group? Friend, turn your back. Status systems are unjust. You don't have to put up with that crap.

Do you want high-high status in your group instead? Then you have to trump its in-group status system. You have to find a way to make your own status invulnerable to the group's judgment. You'll have to find your own way to do this, but I can point you to the classic ways, which shouldn't startle you: money, sex, and policymaking.

Do you want to change the way your group's status system works? Well, two things you can't change: it'll always reward people who affirm the group's value, and it'll always reward them by pushing them toward comfortable middle-high status. Those are inescapable. All you can do is work to change the values of the group, and that's very difficult to do from within its status structure.

Which brings us to...

2. Games you can play from outside a group
You can create a group that has the values you want. This is what Ron did when he founded the Forge, and what I did when I started my blog anyway. It's what we all do when we make our G+ circles. (Remember though that setting policy for a group doesn't directly set the group's values or status system. Instead, the group's status system emerges from the interplay of its policies, its members, its setting, and the realities and limits of how group status works. This is game design.)

You can find ways that a group's value system overlaps with your interests, and figure out how to position your interests in the group, so that the group rewards its members for acting in your interests. This is powerful, powerful stuff!

You can find ways that your high status in one group gives you resources you can use to boost your status in another group.

You can find ways that the differences between two groups' value systems overlap with your interests, and figure out how to play the groups against each other, to your own benefit.

And others, depending upon your own interests and goals.

3. Gambling your status

These are all gambling games! There are no sure things. Get the best odds you can, but ultimately, to play, you have to take a deep breath and put your status, your time, your creativity, your resources, on the table.

Part V: Disclaimers (ii): I'm playing a status game with you RIGHT NOW.

Naturally I am. How could I not be?

If it's any consolation, the status game I'm playing with you right now, gentle reader, is a cooperative game. Our opponent is creative entropy and conservativism. The stakes of the game are our stagnation and the heat death of the indie rpg universe.

It's not a hard game. We're winning! I hope we win.

1. On 2013-06-12, Vincent said:

Thanks for reading!

Naturally this is in answer to Matthijs Holter's two recent posts on status, Status in Small Communities and Followup to "Status in Small Communities".

I don't think I'm contradicting him in any particular. My view on the topic isn't the same as his, of course, but I think they're largely compatible.


2. On 2013-06-12, Larry L said:

I think this is a really healthy way to look at it!


3. On 2013-06-12, Moreno R. said:

VERY interesting post...

The first questions that did come up reading this:
1) When did you "exempt yourself from a group"? I mean, going into the personal (if you want, obviously), how do you see your status changing in the indie rpgs environment (at the forge but non only at the Forge) and when did you take that look from outside?

2) What about "enemy" status? I mean, like how in some forums you are regarded as something like the enemy of all that is good and clean in rpgs: it's simply a kinfd of "status in another group", or there is something different?

3) It was my impression that the indie rpg scene is particularly subject of widespread status anxiety crisis, with a lot of drama added: do you think it's caused by the subject matter, or by errors made in these comunities, or it's simply an impression, every group has crisis like theses?

4) Of all the things you did that varied your status, just as examples, what do you think caused you to lose more status and what increased more your status?


4. On 2013-06-12, Vincent said:


1. Well you can't really exempt yourself from a group's status system. (At least not easily.) You can only exempt yourself in your own mind, to set aside any status anxiety you feel as a member of the group and to take an outside look.

2. I haven't given it much thought, so I don't know. It's certainly a kind of status, even a positive kind of status. I don't imagine that it does me any practical harm.

3. It's because we have good hearts and status systems are always unjust.

4. I wouldn't dare guess.


5. On 2013-06-12, Rickrad said:

I recently read Keith Johnstone's Impro and during half of the book, he talks about status - both in play as in real life - and how status is enforced by blocking other people.

I really like what you said about feeling safety by moving in towards the middle of the group. Never thought about it in that way.

One thing that Johnstone wrote about status had to do with the fact that "smooth" leaders knew how to raise and lower their status to get the other's acceptance, where a "hard" leader enforced the position by the use of authority.


6. On 2013-06-12, Vincent said:

I read Impro a long time ago. I should probably read it again fresh.

Another good source for status examination (harsher than mine!) is Ribbonfarm.


7. On 2013-06-12, Vincent said:

For an example of the game of turning groups' differing values to your own advantage, check out Sage's Praise for Dungeon World page.


8. On 2013-06-12, Rickard said:

"I read Impro a long time ago."
If you do give it another read, remember this comment of yours. ^^


9. On 2013-06-12, sage said:

When I made it, I thought of the Praise for Dungeon World page as a way of keeping myself sane: it made all these things laughable. Now, looking at it, that was a status game of sorts. I think I'm alright with playing this particular one, but I'm not sure.


10. On 2013-06-12, Vincent said:

Oh yes. If you ask me, you should be alright with it.

A way of keeping yourself sane = a way of relieving status anxiety = if it works, a winning gamble.

My kill puppies for satan hate mail page is the same kind of thing, but my haters then were all non-roleplayers. I only wish I'd thought to collect "praise" for my other games!


11. On 2013-06-13, Daniel Klein said:

When Sebastian released Hell for Leather, he was faced with the problem of the game being banned from Actual Plays over on He decided to make a little graphic and paste it on the back of the book: "Banned from RPG.NET".

That was a game too, wasn't it.


direct link

This makes...
VB go "Sure was!"*

*click in for more

12. On 2013-06-13, Simon C said:

This is very smart.

It addresses the thing I see all the time (and which I've probably done myself at some stage), when someone decides they're going to raise their status in a group by denigrating the group's values. Like, "All that stuff you care about is dumb, you should care about the stuff I care about!"

I'm pretty sure that was my first few months on the Forge.

It works about as well as you can imagine.

Incidentally, it's a behaviour I see a lot in young, kinda smart guys, who think that making other people feel stupid will make people like them.


13. On 2013-06-13, Tom said:

"Even your child is your peer when it?s time to name all of the Autobots."

  Oh, Vincent, it's like you've never seen the internet.  It's a race to find the smallest pop-culture pond to be too big a fish for.  :)

(although I'm everyone's whipping boy when it comes to naming Pokemon...but Pokemon is stupid)


14. On 2013-06-13, Vincent said:

I'm talking about this over on G+ too, and the conversation there is pretty lively. It's public. Feel free to come by, if you're interested.


15. On 2013-06-17, David Berg said:

Reading all the "games you can play" parts, I'm thinking, "yeah, that makes sense," but then utterly failing to come up with actual examples of how such things could be or have been done.  I'd definitely be interested in more concrete/detailed discussion of any of those.

Vincent, do you have any good "positioning your interests in a group so it rewards its members for playing Apocalypse World" stories?

Without the ability to hand down "here's how you play this game" rules to a social group the way one can to a play group, that seems like quite the design challenge!


16. On 2013-06-17, Vincent said:

I'm pretty sure that you could look around and find at least one online social group that rewards its members for playing and discussing Apocalypse World (and its offspring). The barf forum is one, obviously.

You could find at least one online social group that rewards its members for making hostile posts about how much they hate Apocalypse World (and its offspring) too!

Thinking about accomplishing this as a design challenge is exactly right.


17. On 2013-06-17, Mads Egedal Kirchhoff said:

Is it the right understanding that "creative entropy and conservativism" are, in your terminology, values, and what we need to do as a community to keep the indie spirit alive is avoid making those our values? Which can be done by playing aforementioned status games or just rewarding individuals who affirm other, more productive, values?


18. On 2013-06-17, Vincent said:

Mads: Not exactly, no.

Whatever our community's values, our community's status system is a force for creative entropy. Even if our community values innovation and novelty, its status system wants creators to limit themselves to creating things that flatter and soothe the community. It's a familiar thing to me, the group that loves its own fashionable innovations but cries down any and all innovations from outside itself, no matter how brilliant.

I distinguish status relationships from working relationships. A community's working relationships are creatively productive. Its status relationships are creatively conservative. The best creative communities are built on a majority of working relationships and a minimum of status ones.

Funnily enough, to status-anxious people, good working relationships look like high status cliques from which they are unfairly excluded.


19. On 2013-06-17, Gordon said:

Here's a thought this inspired, that may sum up a post I thought I might make someday (on - storygames? not sure where): when the status game is mostly implicit in the ongoing activity of the group, it isn't (for me) problematic or distasteful.  When it (the status game) begins to overwhelm the ongoing activity, that changes (note: individual opinions on where that overwhelm happens will vary).

Personally, I suspect that change is enough to flat-out drive me away from the group - even when the change isn't the main group members (or even anyone's) fault!


20. On 2013-06-17, Sean M. said:

This is really interesting! I've always found status an interesting subject.

I'm led to believe I don't percieve it as readily as other people, possibly from missing out in high school, people learn status things from that don't they? I think I heard that in a Johnathon Hughes movie.

I'm wondering if you agree with me on a couple of points:

1. Status isn't a measure of how much you like a person, status is a measure of how much you think other people value them + how much you think other people think other people value them + ad infinitum.

Example: I think john is a really cool guy. I want to have a sexy slumber party with a small subset of the group. Whether I invite John is dependent on how I think the rest of the group feels about John. That's a status-present interaction.

2. Status is based on perception. Perceptions can be shared among a group with a varying amount of certainty, in the case of status, usually based on how catty the group is. In gossipy groups, you generally instantly know who's cool and not cool because that's all they ever talk about. In less gossipy groups, like professionial engineer groups, there is a lot less gossip and therefore its much harder to tell who's cool and who's not cool. This in part leads to local status existing less strongly because everyone has individual ideas about who other people think are keen.


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This makes...
Kit go "I think I've heard that about high school too"

21. On 2013-06-18, David Berg said:

"The best creative communities are built on a majority of working relationships and a minimum of status ones." 

Amen!  You have no idea how bewildering it was when I first came to the internet mining for practical advice, and hoping I might contribute some in exchange, and wound up in all these weird conversations where so much else is going on.  "I know the answer to your problem.  Now let me lecture you instead of saying what it is."  Huh?  What?

Over the years, I've continued to run into this sort of awkwardness on forums, but less so when I'm not working on anything.  Chatting about fun gaming, for instance, always seems smoother and more natural. Maybe there's less status at stake when the conversation's less goal-oriented?  If so, a side effect of groups that aren't just about work might be to decrease work discussion over time, as the members (those who aren't there to fight for status, that is) will find it less pleasant than non-work discussion.


22. On 2013-06-18, Vincent said:

Sean: Agreed on both, with a quibble on #2, which is just that productive working relationships aren't status-driven. If I'm looking for someone to collaborate with on a project, and I don't want it to fail, I care about my colleague's qualifications and our mutual compatibility, not about her status.

Like I say, status-anxious people often find this incredible.


23. On 2013-06-20, Josh W said:

Two things to be cautious about.

Firstly, social status is constructed, it is, to a large extent a group fiction, and so treating it as having general laws is a pre-requisite to behaviours that depend on that.

For example, I've seen situations where two in-groups mutually considered themselves to be higher status than the other because the overall context allowed that status question to remain unanswered in a global sense.

I've also seen situations in which someone, primed with assumptions of interlocking status hierarchies, was trying to do social climbing, but failed because his attempts to create status relationships between groups were so obviously self serving as to be rejected by everyone.

I've also seen situations where people are very conscious of status questions, where the exact same behaviour does great. Because everyone already accepts the terrain they are trying to play off.

My conclusion? Theorising social status as something with intrinsic and ubiquitous properties usually works to create the very distinctions and relationships that encourage particular kinds of egoistic "status seeking" behaviour.

It's the same "gift" as creating witty teasing insults about a friend that you then end up accidentally sharing with spiteful people.

Secondly, social status is partially about getting things done, and hinges off of that.

Although social status can exist as a thing in itself, (something people perpetuate for it's own internal values, think about a group who take maintaining status heirachies as their main goal and value) it can also bounce off other natural things that relate to it.

But it's not just some bad thing layered on top of making pleasant working relationships, it is a part of the same social process.

Now I've got to be careful of breaking my own rules here, even while stating them, but a big bit of social status is this: We are doing something, some people are more central than others to this, and for different amounts of the time.

And sometimes things that people do depend on things that other people do.

This very quickly can turn into positive feedback, when ?things you need people to do? includes passing attention to your thing.

So as a first order reaction, you have "I hear I caused some kind of big bust up but I don't really care".

In a fuzzy causal graph, you are upstream of them, not just because you say you don't care, but because you've publicly (and presumably personally) committed yourself to not caring about what they say. If that commitment sticks, and it actually really doesn't matter, then not only do you have personal freedom, people watching you won't get a sneak preview of what you're going to do by watching other people.

That can be a form of status, except that when you look at it, that type of status can seem wrong. If everyone did that, gambling on ignoring people, we wouldn't get much conversation done. So doing it too much is something we shouldn't encourage.

So in other words status is importance, in terms of making a difference, plus all the corrective factors that we apply so as to intentionally make people less important if they are pushing for it.

That is where status games come in, they can be about trying to improve your own ends, or to create corrective factors in how we assign importance and desire to keep track of people, so as to keep our groups operating effectively. Usually both, as we have some investment in the group.

So a group both has some common investment in either competitions or cooperations (?) between all of them, and want to keep that running smoothly. If you're necessary to the group but don't throw your weight around, then great, you?re just common or garden important.

If you know you could throw your weight around and don't, you have high status, unless you brag about it all the time..., but you do it in a funny way so people know you don't really mean it..., except you do it a lot..., but you mainly do it when interrupting that other guy who doesn't know when to stop...

That'll probably stabilise after a bit!

Hopefully that hits both of my own self imposed rules, that some times you don't need to care about status, because the natural world just falls out that way, and everyone is important and valued and we can all hear and see each other, and we can come to nice consensual agreements about what we want we value, but status kicks in when that's not true.

It also kicks in by inheritance, when default strategies for having a working group or pushing/developing certain values transfer to a new one, even if they're not really needed. Or again, if people want status as a thing in itself.


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