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:
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