Saturday, November 22, 2014

Virtual Status

It is natural to think of status as a zero sum game, to assume that anything that raises your status relative to me must lower my status relative to you. What first suggested to me that it wasn't true was my experience as an undergraduate at Harvard. Different people care about status relative to different things, with the result that one can have, in the limit, a society where everyone is at the top of his own ladder. If Eugene is a chess master and Charles a billionaire, the victory that raises Eugene's status does not lower Charles', because Eugene does and Charles does not care about status in the chess world. Similarly, mutatis mutandis, across a wide variety of different reference groups. 

I made this point in another post about eight years ago. What brought my attention back to it was playing the beginning of the new part of World of Warcraft. It consists of walking the player character through a sequence of events, all easy, in which he is interacting almost entirely with computer generated characters—who tell him, over and over, what a wonderful hero he is. The same pattern shows up in earlier parts of the game, but this was a particularly striking version. Everybody can be above average. Everybody, indeed, can be in the top one percent. Provided that the other ninety-nine percent are NPC's, non-player characters. 

Which raises, for those interested in predicting the future or writing science fiction, the possibility of a world where most people spend most of their time in virtual reality, interacting mainly with virtual characters—precisely because those characters, unlike real people, are designed to make them feel superior. To some degree the phenomenon exists already with fraternal organizations where practically everyone is a grand high something or other. But the future may produce an enormously more powerful, hence more corrupting, version.

My son Bill informs me that a particular game, one I have never played, is  very good  in part because it successfully subverts the "you are the world's greatest hero" trope. He also told me that naming the game without a spoiler warning would be a Very Bad Thing to do, and I have edited this post accordingly.

Spoiler Warning













































Jade Empire

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20 Comments:

At 3:44 PM, November 22, 2014, Anonymous George X said...

I agree that masses of people acquiring private virtual status is a disconcerting thing, and not just because status can be a useful motivator (e.g. to learn a subject in school).

We should divide the notion of status into two things: 1) the recognized-by-others place you occupy in any particular pecking order (e.g. chess, wealth, appearance); 2) the state it induces in you to possess that place on that pecking order.

Is private virtual status likely to induce the same status state in someone as real-world status? If it has a weaker effect, can we just dial up the private virtual status to compensate (e.g. virtually saving the world might induce the same internal state as making a million dollars in the real world)?

Finally, something like this private virtual status might already be happening when you read a book or watch a movie and identify with the hero. (And, since you brought up fraternal organizations, an obligatory Simpsons quote: "Detach the Stone of Shame! Attach the Stone of Triumph!")

 
At 8:26 AM, November 23, 2014, Blogger dWj said...

I think a certain amount of comedy is deliberately oblique enough that the audience feels a bit proud of itself for getting it, but not actually oblique enough that many people in the audience won't get.

 
At 10:51 AM, November 23, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

All measures of status are not equal. Put a chess grandmaster in a room with a Navy SEAL and see who acts subservient to whom.

So I guess that's the real point of all this "reality 2.0" triumphalism: to push for the onset of a time when no two people actually ever have to be in the same room together.

The Machine Stops.

 
At 8:23 PM, November 23, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In general, every innovation that turns a zero-sum game into a positive-sum game is a world improvement.

I don't think status differs from sex, adventures or quasi-material possessions in this regard: Virtualizing these goods creates abundance where there was previously scarcity.

For those doomsayers who fear civilization will crumble because no one does anything anymore, I'd point out people will still need to pay their bills.

 
At 6:43 AM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@Anonymous:

Your first two paragraphs strike me as obviously untrue.

Imagine, for example, an innovation in the rules of a sport allowed all teams, as well as all individual players, to only improve their records. There'd never be a losing team or a player who could be considered as performing worse than anyone else in the league.

Sound dreadful? It would be.

Maybe you'll respond along the lines of "Well, sports are an inefficient use of human talent anyway." Billions of people would disagree with you, plus I'd point out that sports channel our natural local tribalist urges into something less deadly than sectarian violence, and also provide a lot of other unique benefits (of course, these are less obvious to those who never played sports).

Making rare goods abundant only lowers their value. This is very basic economics. Abundance is nice for staples needed for survival, but as you creep up Maslow's pyramid it starts to water down the experience of living. Basically all the meaning we get out of life comes from the fact that certain things are difficult to attain and therefore uncommon.

Civilization will not crumble simply because people no longer need to do anything productive. Civilization is put at risk when doing things that are productive no longer earns any deeper reward.

 
At 7:06 AM, November 24, 2014, Blogger Clayton Neff said...

I think the availability of virtual status will help those who cannot achieve more standard status feel better about themselves. While that may not help them pay the bills, it might keep them from beating their dog.

 
At 7:31 AM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

Is it really a good thing to have lots of people like Comic Book Guy walking around believing they are highly accomplished men of stature simply because some video game tells them they are Advanced Wizards in some online playland?

I don't see how this is good for either the world at large, the Comic Book Guys, or their poor dogs.

 
At 3:09 PM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Power Child, I will respond to some of your points even though there is no direct reply function. As a disclaimer, my views on these topics are not airtight and I don't have much scientific expertise in the psychology of meaning. So it will be layman responses.

Imagine, for example, an innovation in the rules of a sport allowed all teams, as well as all individual players, to only improve their records. There'd never be a losing team or a player who could be considered as performing worse than anyone else in the league.

This is the wrong analogy. A better analogy would be an experience machine that allows each person to play sports against teams that contain NPCs of various skill levels, and players can earn achievements by beating these teams. The status abundance would then come from the availability of virtual losers on every skill level. In real ladders, for every real winner there has to be a real loser. With virtual losers, this is no longer necessary. And you would still have meaningful challenges, as you earn higher awards the more skillfull you are against better virtual players. (I'm not saying the NPCs should let you win, just that their skill levels can be calibrated to the players').

Civilization is put at risk when doing things that are productive no longer earns any deeper reward.
I don't see why you need a "deeper" rewards. It seems to me that the need to pay the bills + some moral preference for civilization to crumble + some good policies to set incentives for reproduction and investment would suffice.

And if civilization "crumbled" in this way, that would not mean catastrophe but merely a reset to the economic levels of our ancestors who didn't have virtual reality.

I think VR can be a good way to keep the poor happy and the aggressives nonviolent. You need some way to stack all those billions of people into small apartments with cheap staple foods and not trying to kill you.

 
At 3:13 PM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

some moral preference for civilization to crumble

Of course, I meant for it not to crumble. :D

Probably a freudian slip. We could have a better civilization with better policies, perhaps then I would be more motivated.

 
At 5:12 PM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@Anonymous:

I'm going out on a limb here and guessing you never played sports, outside of perhaps being forced to play them in gym class. The reward in winning is not in having a trophy symbolizing some achievement, but in knowing that you beat the what would have otherwise been the best person/team to get it. What you're describing with your "experience machine" is, at best, a way to structure athletic training. It's not a replacement for real competition.

"Deeper reward" has been the basis for essentially all human accomplishment. Armstrong didn't walk on the moon just because some rocket scientists wanted to make sure they could pay their bills.

All civilizational crumbles are not equal. Ones that follow generations of reproduction determined by some centralized set of incentives given to VR gamers who "pay their bills" will not necessarily ever again build back up to something great. By that time, qualities of greatness may have been bred out.

I agree with you about VR being a good way to keep the poor happy and the aggressives nonviolent, though. But that's a fairly small slice of the population. It isn't a valid prescription for humanity's future.

 
At 6:44 PM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Power Child, I'm not in the business of giving prescriptions for humanity's future. I think individuals have the right to make their own choices, and whatever future humanity has or should have will and should be a function of that.

There is an eerie trend among some people to think humanity needs some kind of central plan which is to be implemented by authority.

I think this is immoral and I also think these trends do not actually lead to a better future.

You are, of course, free to reject virtual technologies altogether, as long as you do not violate the rights and liberties of other individuals.

As for armstrong and the rocket scientists, they all had a financial as well as social incentive, and the millions who were forced to finance the mission saw their rights violated by it. I'm pretty sure a lot of them just wanted to pay their own bills.

 
At 7:22 PM, November 24, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

Basically every account I've heard of the 1960s space race is that nationalism and the desire to beat the Russians is what really spurred America forward. Maybe some older readers can confirm this, but I've also heard that most Americans were very supportive of and enthusiastic about this effort. The idea that financing it should be considered a violation of their rights didn't occur to most people.

 
At 12:32 AM, November 25, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, Jade Empire is such a fun game, though I felt it does have a sort of 'chosen-one' 'last-of-their-kind' feel to it. Still though, it's very team-based.

But I think the reason you're being so hyped up in the new WoW expansion is because you've actually (going by the lore) been through some pretty harrowing stuff.
You've killed some of the biggest baddest baddies out there, chronologically:
Ragnaros
C'Thun
Illidan
Kil'jaeden (not killed, but pushed him back at the sunwell.)
The Lich King
Deathwing
Garrosh Hellscream

The last three are basically WoW Hitlers. So you've taken direct part in killing Hitler 3 times. (Also Kil'jaeden is like super-hitler.)

 
At 12:41 AM, November 25, 2014, Anonymous excel said...

"Is it really a good thing to have lots of people like Comic Book Guy walking around believing they are highly accomplished men of stature simply because some video game tells them they are Advanced Wizards in some online playland?"

Is it really a good thing to have people like Matt Leinart walking around believing they are highly accomplished men of stature simply because some coach tells them they are really good at tossing a piece of pigskin around in a grown-up playground?

 
At 7:27 AM, November 25, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@excel:

Yes.

The bulk of human history involved warring tribes. That was the major part of our evolutionary environment. Thus, we evolved in a way that was selected for that environment.

Even online video games revolve around the concept of war, typically modeled on medieval style warfare in which mighty heroes can be proven and honored. (Unlike today when the "mightiest hero" might be some geek sitting in a dark room controlling a drone airplane.)

Amateur sports are a training ground in which little boys can safely hone the warrior spirit. Professional sports are a civilized outlet for that natural tribalism, and star athletes are produced by the evolved impulse to honor mighty warrior heroes.

Since we now live in relatively placid, peaceful times, if we didn't have star athletes to honor as warrior heroes we would instead have Michael Brown-type thugs walking around doing much worse than robbing convenience stores, surrounded by local posses of their supporters.

 
At 7:31 AM, November 26, 2014, Anonymous excel said...

"Yes."

Then there you have the answer to your own question.

"The bulk of human history involved warring tribes."

I see little case to be made for this. The bulk of human history is devoted to sleeping and eating. Those are the two main activities that we can say for sure all humans who grew up throughout history experienced most often throughout their lives, whereas the amount of warfare the average human experienced is far less.

"Since we now live in relatively placid, peaceful times, if we didn't have star athletes to honor as warrior heroes we would instead have Michael Brown-type thugs walking around doing much worse than robbing convenience stores, surrounded by local posses of their supporters."

I see little evidence or reason to support this, either.

 
At 10:49 AM, November 26, 2014, Anonymous cct said...

One problem with status, which extends to virtual status, is that most humans get angry about anything that diminishes their status as they perceive it.

I suspect that this leads to events like gamergate. I have certainly seen people who respond very defensively when some change threatens the "importance" of their awards and offices in their chosen activities.

 
At 12:54 AM, November 27, 2014, Anonymous Tal said...

The problem with this reasoning is that people are aware that the ladder that they have chosen to focus on is but one of many, and they are aware of the relative status of their ladder as a whole.

How many high achievers in WoW would really not rather have the accomplishments and skills of Matt Damon, if magically given the option? Would the WoW player really refuse to trade places with Matt because Matt is unskilled in WoW, and in their mind WoW skill is more high status than being an A-list actor?

 
At 3:53 AM, November 27, 2014, Anonymous excel said...

"One problem with status, which extends to virtual status, is that most humans get angry about anything that diminishes their status as they perceive it.
I suspect that this leads to events like gamergate."

The gamergate reaction was far more a reaction to real-world status. It caused a great deal of grief among people who wanted the prestige of being a journalist but wasn't actually keeping up with the standards expected of journalists.

 
At 7:37 AM, December 04, 2014, Blogger Nikor Taron said...

Have you ever checked out Eve Online?

 

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