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, transphobes, conspiracy theorists, cult members, religious fundamentalists and online mobbers becomes much more explicable 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 the sense of generous compassion for our rivals.
We play games for status incessantly and automatically. We do so because it’s a solution our species has come upon to secure our own survival and reproduction. As a tribal animal, our survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. But once inside any group, we’re rarely content to mess around on its lower rungs. We’re driven to rise within it. Back in the stone age, increased status meant access to better mates, more food and greater safety for ourselves and our offspring. The more status we earned, the greater our capacity to thrive and produce thriving children. So we’re driven to seek connection and rank, to be accepted into groups and win status within them. This is the game of human life.
No matter where you might travel, from the premodern societies of Papua New Guinea to the skyscraper forests of Tokyo and Manhattan, you’ll 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, racial, gender and nationalist games. The variety feels infinite. Within these groups we strive for individual status, for acclaim from our co-players. But our groups also compete with rival groups in status contests: corporation battles corporation, football team battles football team. When our teams win status, we do too. When they lose, so do we. These games form our identity. We become the games we play. They’re built into our brains, part of how we experience reality. It’s simply not possible to opt out of it. But we can decide which games we choose to play.
As a 34-year-old, I’ve often felt self-conscious about my age and its various signs. Since completing my study into status games, I’ve realize these signs are symbols used to measure status in a game I’m no longer required to play. Competing with the young in games of youth is not just hopeless, it’s dull. The trick is to find new games. There are different worlds to explore as you grow in age – most more meaningful than those when you were younger.
And there are so many to choose from. Humans are extraordinarily imaginary creatures who use almost anything to symbolize status: money, Twitter followers, literary tastes, power, the brand 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 largest yam at a feast would be declared “Number One” and praised by the chief for his generosity. The men of Pohnpei would furiously compete for this position, raising around 50 yams a year in secret, remote, overgrown plots that they’d creep out of bed at 2 AM to tend to. A single yam could take 10 years to grow, reach more than 4m in length, weigh over 90kg and require 12 men to carry into the feast using a stretcher.
Just as yam-growing gave the men of Pohnpei access to a status game and its precious rewards of connection and acclaim, so belief allows access to the games of religion, politics, cults and conspiracies – the more fervently you believe, the higher you rise. Covid-19 has shown the craziness that can erupt out of these dynamics. Against all apparent logic, the pandemic that’s killed more than four million worldwide hasn’t also wiped out belief in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. By one estimate, more than five million Americans cling to anti-vax beliefs.
Acceptance of a symbolic belief allows access into the anti-vax game, but gaining significant status within it requires active belief – allowing the belief to possess you, and fighting for it out in the world. Such a process overwhelmed a young Pennsylvanian mother, Maranda Dynda, after she joined a social media group. She was 18 and pregnant, and her midwife encouraged her not to vaccinate her child. Concerned and confused, Dynda went to Google and typed in: “Why not vaccinate?” She immediately tumbled into an oubliette of irrationality, finally landing in Facebook.
Her indoctrination was rapid. “You’re socially rewarded for going with the group,” she said. “It’s Facebook likes, it’s comments like, ‘yeah way to go Mom, you’re so strong, you’re so smart, you’re doing the best thing.” Soon, Dynda was out in the world, playing her new status game with enthusiasm, evangelizing. “You want to bring it up with people you can argue with, because you want to be like, I’m smarter than you, I know more than you do.” Was part of the point of this to report back to the group, for status rewards? “That’s absolutely accurate. You were rewarded for that. The louder you were, the more unmovable you were, the higher you moved up socially.”
Dynda has since become a vaccine advocate. A wealth of evidence from psychologists and anthropologists supports her observations of her 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 gameplay strategy: by blindly adopting the opinions and habits of the successful, we hope to become successful ourselves.
But it would be a mistake to conclude from all this that status pursuit is purely a curse. On the contrary, almost everything we think of as “good” in the world is underpinned by the mechanisms of the game. In the small, mobile bands in which our brains did much of their evolution, we won prestige by showing ourselves to be beneficial to the group. We could do this by demonstrating virtue (being generous, dutiful or courageous) or by being competent (a great hunter, honey finder or storyteller). Still today, we award prestige to those who are conspicuously virtuous or successful. The joy of status is nature’s bribe that tempts us into being useful.
Just as status pursuit drives anti-vax protests, it drives movements that truly change the world. The Industrial Revolution was launched out of thousands of status games. Over in Britain at the time was an “associational world”, according to historian Peter Clark. Ambitious innovators met at clubs, conversation societies and coffee houses and founded learned organizations. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce began in a London coffee house and gave out cash prizes or medals to its members. It still exists today, better known as the Royal Society of Arts. All these groups were games, motivating their members to reach for ever greater heights of genius with the infinitely precious rewards of connection and acclaim.
In today’s strange and rageful online-mediated neoliberal world, we’re continually offered new and shifting symbols of what it is to be a winner: thinner, larger, whiter, darker, smarter, happier, brave-and-sadder with this career triumph and that many likes. When it becomes overwhelming, it’s useful to remind ourselves that these symbols we chase are often no less ridiculous than giant yams and that none of us are competing with everyone in the world, no matter how much it can feel that way. The great consolation of the game is that it’s not final victory we should seek in order to be happy, but simple, humble progress: the never-ending pleasure of moving in the right direction. Nobody wins the status game. They’re not supposed to. The meaning of life is not to win, it’s to play.
Find out what the rules are to this inescapable game we play in the next week!