Life is a game. To understand this is to understand why the human world can be so maddening, angry, and irrational. The behavior of racists, transphobics, conspiracy theorists, cult members, religious fundamentalists, and online gangsters becomes much more explainable when you realize that humans are programmed by evolution to be obsessively interested in status, and that this obsession is powerful enough to overcome the will to achieve equality, truth, or a sense of generous compassion for our rivals.
We play games for the state incessantly and automatically. We do it because it is a solution that our species has found to ensure our own survival and reproduction. As a tribal animal, our survival has always depended on our being accepted into a caring community. But once inside any group, we are rarely content with letting ourselves fall to its lowest rungs. We are driven to rise within it. In the stone age, higher status meant access to better partners, more food, and greater security for ourselves and our offspring. The more status we earn, the greater our ability to prosper and produce prosperous children. So we are driven to seek connection and rank, to be accepted into groups, and to gain status within them. This is the game of human life.
No matter where you travel, from the pre-modern societies of Papua New Guinea to the skyscraper forests of Tokyo and Manhattan, you will find it: humans forming groups and playing for status. In the developed world, we play political games, religious games, corporate games, sports games, cult games, legal games, fashion games, hobby games, video games, charity games, social media games, race games, gender games and nationalists. The variety feels endless. Within these groups, we strive for individual status, for the recognition of our co-players. But our groups also compete with rival groups in state contests: corporation battles corporation, soccer team battles soccer team. When our teams gain status, so do we. When they lose, so do we. These games form our identity. We become the games we play. They are embedded in our brain, they are part of how we experience reality. It is simply not possible to opt out. But we can decide which games we choose to play.
At 46, I often feel self-conscious about my age and its various signs. Since completing my research, I have come to realize that these signs are symbols used to measure state in a game that I am no longer required to play. Competing with the youth in youth games is not only pointless, it is boring. The trick is to find new games. There are different worlds to explore in the second half of life, most of them more significant than those in the first.
And there are many to choose from. Humans are extraordinarily imaginary creatures who use almost anything to symbolize status: money, Twitter followers, literary tastes, power, the mark of a watch, or the shape of a stomach. In 1948, the anthropologist William Bascom published an account of a status game on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei that was played with yams. The man with the biggest yam at a party would be declared “Number One” and the boss would praise his generosity. Pohnpei’s men would compete furiously for this position, growing around 50 yams a year in secret, remote, overgrown plots that got out of bed at two in the morning to tend. A single yam can take 10 years to grow, reach more than 4 m in length, weigh more than 90 kg and require 12 men to carry it to the banquet on a stretcher.
Just as yam farming gave the men of Pohnpei access to a status game and its precious rewards of connection and acclaim, faith allows access to games of religion, politics, cults, and conspiracies – the more fervently you believe, the higher you go up. . Covid-19 has demonstrated the insanity that can arise from these dynamics. Against all apparent logic, the pandemic that has killed more than four million worldwide has also not eliminated belief in conspiracy theories against vaccines. By one estimate, more than five million Britons hold to anti-vax beliefs.
Acceptance of a symbolic belief allows access to the anti-vax game, but gaining significant status within it requires active belief – Allow belief to possess you and fight for it in the world. Such a process overwhelmed a young Pennsylvania mother, Maranda Dynda, after joining a social media group. She was 18 years old and pregnant, and her midwife encouraged her not to vaccinate her son. Worried and confused, Dynda went to Google and wrote, “Why not vaccinate?” He immediately fell into a dungeon of irrationality, eventually landing on Facebook.
“Facebook was the biggest,” he said. “You find a Facebook group, join it and it grabs you.” She was in awe of the strong warriors she encountered on an anti-vax forum. “I grew up in a family of women. And I thought, look at all these mothers, these experienced women that surround me! I don’t know what I’m doing and everyone knows what they are doing. Imagine that you are a kid who wants to be a firefighter and you visit a fire station and see all the big and strong firefighters. You think, I want to be like them. I wanted to be a cool, strong mom who takes this knowledge that I have suddenly acquired and uses it for my benefit, my son’s benefit, the world’s benefit. “
His indoctrination was quick. “You get rewarded socially for going with the group,” he said. “They’re Facebook likes, they’re comments like, ‘Yes, that’s how it’s done mom, you’re so strong, you’re so smart, you’re doing your best.’ Soon, Dynda went out into the world, playing her new status game with eager, evangelistic. “You want to talk to people you can argue with, because you want to be like, I’m smarter than you, I know more than you.” Was part of the purpose of this to inform the party for status rewards? “That is absolutely accurate. You were rewarded for that. The louder you were, the more immovable you were, the more you ascended socially. “
Since then, Dynda has become an advocate for vaccines. A wealth of evidence from psychologists and anthropologists supports their observations of their time playing the anti-vax game. When we join any group, we have an automatic tendency to identify high-status members and copy their beliefs, tastes, and behaviors. We do this partly as a game strategy: by blindly adopting the opinions and habits of the successful, we hope to be successful ourselves.
But it would be a mistake to conclude from all this that the quest for status is purely a curse. On the contrary, almost everything that we consider “good” in the world is supported by the mechanics of the game. In the small mobile bands in which our brain made much of its evolution, we gained prestige by showing ourselves to be beneficial to the group. We could do this by demonstrating virtue (by being generous, obedient, or courageous) or by being competent (a great hunter, honey seeker, or storyteller). Even today, we give prestige to those who are remarkably virtuous or successful. The joy of status is the bribe of nature that tempts us to be useful.
Just as the quest for status fuels anti-vax protests, it fuels movements that truly change the world. The Industrial Revolution was launched from thousands of status games. Britain at the time was an “associative world”, according to historian Peter Clark. Ambitious innovators met in clubs, chat societies, and coffee shops and founded scientific organizations. The Society for the Advancement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce began in a London cafeteria and presented cash prizes or medals to its members. It still exists today, better known as the Royal Society of Arts. All of these groups were games that motivated their members to reach ever greater heights of genius with the infinitely precious rewards of connection and recognition.
Status’s ability to drive innovation is evident in the history of the iPhone. Former Apple executive Scott Forstall recalled how Steve Jobs kept meeting with a Microsoft executive at social functions. This man boasted that Microsoft had “solved computing” with a tablet that was operated with a special stylus. “Every time Steve had any social interaction with that guy, Steve would come back pissed off,” Forstall said. “That guy put it in Steve’s face, the way they were going to rule the world with their ballpoint tablets. Steve came in on Monday and there was a series of expletives and then he was like, ‘We’re going to show you how it’s really done. The resulting device became the iPhone. “It started because Steve hated this guy. That’s the real origin of it, ”Forstall said. “It wasn’t good for Microsoft that Steve met this guy.”
In today’s bizarre and rabid neoliberal world, mediated online, we are continually offered new and changing symbols of what it’s like to be a winner: slimmer, bigger, whiter, darker, smarter, happier, braver and more. sadder with is professional triumph and that many I like. When it becomes overwhelming, it helps to remind ourselves that these symbols we often chase are no less ridiculous than giant yams and that none of us are competing with everyone in the world, no matter how much we feel that way. The great consolation of the game is that it is not the final victory that we must seek to be happy, but a simple and humble progress: the endless pleasure of moving in the right direction. Nobody wins the status game. They are not supposed to. The meaning of life is not to win, it is to play.
Will Storr’s The Status Game is published by William Collins on 2 September at £ 20
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism