Sunday, July 11, 2010

Crossed Hierarchies: WoW, SCA, Age, Expertise, ...

In my Future Imperfect, I briefly discussed the problem of the inconsistency between hierarchies of age and of expertise—what happens, in a rapidly changing field, when the younger and lower ranked people correctly believe that they know more about what they are doing than the older and more senior. The same issues arise in other contexts.

The one that has struck me lately is the reaction I sometimes get when I mention that I play World of Warcraft. It may reflect the fact that I am a sixty-five year old law professor and author—what one of C.S. Lewis's characters referred to (when drunk) as a respectabiggle. People who don't play WoW think of it as populated mostly by juvenile geeks. And someone better informed about my online activities might wonder how I can regard as a leader I admire and follow, in that particular context, an undergraduate who is taking a long time to get his degree because he spends so much of his time leading raids and defending Alliance cities.

Such data as are available suggest that the stereotype is wrong, that players cover a broad age range—the average from one survey a few years back was 28—although I am clearly at the high end. Casual observation shows many of them to be married with children. But what is surely true is that the de facto hierarchy—who is seen as higher status, abler, more deserving of respect than whom—is largely independent of the corresponding hierarchy in the outside world. And of course, in the outside world, there are multiple and inconsistent hierarchies—the championship bridge player or chess master may or may not have a high status job, advanced education, other status related features. One difference is that, in those cases, really high levels of skill can to some extent be translated into more conventional forms of status, as when top bridge players make their living as paid partners of players who are slightly less skilled and much richer.

The same point struck me long ago in the SCA—as one of its virtues. I was getting to know, as rough equals, a range of people many of whom I would not have known socially in other contexts. One of them was a male nurse. Another a state cop. Several were school teachers. The effect is stronger in the virtual world, because the links to real world resources are weaker. Someone in the SCA with a good income can buy classy gear—clothes, tents, jewelry—from skilled craftsmen instead of having to make less classy versions for himself. He has the resources to fly to SCA events far from where he lives. High income and status in the outside world are neither necessary nor sufficient for success in the SCA, but both can help. That is much less true in World of Warcraft.

In both cases, there is also an effect in the opposite direction. Some high status, high income people get to be that way by spending a lot of time on their work—and both the SCA and WoW are time intensive activities. In WoW in particular, someone who is willing to spend most of his waking hours online has real advantages in acquiring gear, experience, reputation, skill.

I am not sure I have anything particularly profound to say about the phenomenon of crossed hierarchies, but I find it interesting. Some time back I discovered that one of Obama's economic advisors had confessed to playing World of Warcraft too; corresponding with him by email I discovered that he was part of guild largely made up of fellow academics. It probably should not have been reassuring, but it was.


Glen Whitman said...

This is consistent with a point Will Wilkinson has made repeatedly when arguing against Robert Frank and others who share Frank's view that status competition justifies higher taxes on the rich (and other related policies). Will's point is that status is not uni-dimensional. There are many forms of status. As a result, individuals have some degree of choice as to whether to seek status and how; we are not just locked into a status contest that we have no part in creating.

David Friedman said...

I have made the same point in several posts on this blog, both in response to Robert Frank and earlier.

Marcel said...

I have no idea how much free time you have on your hands - especially with playing WoW and all :) - but you should look into Eve Online... it's the closest thing to an anarchy MMORPG I've seen. A study of how huge banks were created in an anarchy (and how they failed to internal betrayals), for example, might be interesting to an economist.

Anonymous said...

Is your toon healer or dps?