There’s no way to understand the human world without first understanding this. Everyone alive is playing a game whose hidden rules are built into us and that silently directs our thoughts, beliefs and actions. This game is inside us. It is us. We can’t help but play.
Life takes this strange form because of how we’ve evolved. Like all living organisms, humans are driven to survive and reproduce. As a tribal species, our personal survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. Powerful emotions compel us to connect: the joy of belongingness and agony of rejection. But once inside a group, we’re rarely content to flop about on its lower rungs. We seek to rise. When we do, and receive acclaim from our people, we feel as if our lives have meaning and purpose and that we’re thriving. In ways small and large, the conditions of life begin to improve. Back in the Stone Age, increased status meant greater influence, access to a wider choice of mates and more security and resources for ourselves and our children. It still does today. So we’re programmed to seek connection and rank: to be accepted into groups and win status within them. It’s part of our nature. It’s the game of human life.
No matter where you 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; computer games; charity games; social media games; racial, gender and nationalist games. The variety feels infinite. Within these groups, we strive for individual status – acclaim from our co-players. But our groups also compete with rival groups in status contests: political coalition battles political coalition; corporation battles corporation; football team battles football team. When our games win status, we do too. When they lose, so do we. These games form our identity. We become the games we play.
Our need for status gives us a thirst for rank and a fear of its loss that deforms our thinking and denies us the possibility of reliable happiness. It’s why, even as we raise ourselves so high above the other animals we appear to them as gods, we still behave like them – and worse. Always on alert for slights and praise, we can be petty, hateful, aggressive, grandiose and delusional. We play for status, if only subtly, with every social interaction, every contribution we make to work, love or family life and every internet post. We play with how we dress, how we speak and what we believe. We play with our lives – with the story we tell of our past and our dreams of the future. Our waking existence is accompanied by its racing commentary of emotions: we can feel horrors when we slip, even by a fraction, and taste ecstasy when we soar. Up and down and up and down and up and down we go, moment by moment, day by day, from childhood to the grave. Life is not a journey towards a perfect destination. It’s a game that never ends. And it’s the very worst of us.
But it’s also the best. We wouldn’t have raised ourselves above the other animals in the first place if it wasn’t for the peculiar and particular ways we play at life. There are various strategies by which we can earn status. Humans strive for success: to be the best hunter, the best builder, the best cook, the best technologist, the best leader, the best creator of wealth. The game compels us to scheme and to innovate; to push ourselves to new limits in order to win. When we succeed, dozens, hundreds or even millions of others might benefit from our play. Humans strive, too, to be virtuous: to win urgent moral battles, to rescue the imperilled, to lift strangers in distant continents out of poverty or violence, to create vaccines that’ll defend the lives of people who’ll be born long after we’re gone. All such endeavours are accompanied by the game’s racing commentary of emotions: the shame and the pride, the plummet and the high. This is why, I’ve come to believe, we make a fundamental error when we reflexively categorise our desire for status as shameful.
A greater understanding of what helps drive us on our good days and bad must surely be useful. Digging beneath the flattering stories we like to tell of ourselves can help us see more clearly how we can become better, but also how easily we become tempted into delusion and tyranny. By understanding what human life is actually doing when it goes wrong, we can be smarter about avoiding its traps. Likewise, by understanding what we’re doing when it goes right, we can make a better future, increasing fairness, wealth and quality of life for all.
This book has been written in a time of rage and fear in the Western world. It didn’t seem long ago that our central complaint about the political parties of left and right was that they were too similar. What was the point in voting, we asked, when all you got were slightly different versions of ‘neoliberal’ capitalism? We don’t ask this anymore. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen the Global Financial Crisis, the invention of the smartphone and the rise of social media. The right lurched rightwards, towards Brexit and Trump, fuelled by pro-nationhood agendas; the left lurched leftwards towards identity politics and its new lexicon of insult: gammon, cis, bro, Karen, TERF, mansplainer, manspreader, white, privileged, pale-male-stale. Families argued, friends broke up, wrong-thinking citizens, celebrities and academics were mobbed and toppled, global corporations sprouted political opinions, reading the news came to feel like swimming through nettles, and then war returned to Europe. What was happening?
Part of the reason we keep making the same mistakes, and tipping into groupish conflict, is that we play life as a status game. Our brains continually, and in countless ways, measure where we sit versus other people. They automatically layer them and the groups they belong to into hierarchies. Most of these processes are subconscious, and hidden from us. Crucially, whilst we subconsciously play life as a game, our conscious experience of it takes the form of a story. The brain feeds us distorted, simplistic and self-serving tales about why they are above us and they are beneath. In this way, complex truths become reduced to cartoonish moral struggles between good and evil. We’re all vulnerable to believing such narratives. They form our experience of reality. They make us feel better about ourselves; they motivate us to strive to improve our rank. But they’re delusional. They’re responsible for much of the hubris, hatred and hypocrisy that stalk our species. They can even drive us to kill.
What follows is an investigation, based on research spanning psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and history, into the hidden structure of human life. In order to reveal its secret patterns, we’re going to travel back to our evolutionary roots and to the Soviet Union, the Republic of Niger and an island community in Micronesia where they grow enormous yams. We’re going to discover what Nazi Germany, the British Industrial Revolution and the USA’s Satanic Panic of the 1980s have in common. We’re going to climb into the minds of anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists, misogynist spree killers, cult members, online mobbers and racists. We’ll discover a new way of defining tyranny – of what happens when status games go bad. We’re going to recount the story of the world in an unusual manner: one in which self and culture change as the rules of status games are rewritten, mostly accidentally. We’re going to define three different forms of the status game – the dominance game, the virtue game and the success game – and ask how certain kinds of play can lead us into a fairer, wealthier tomorrow. Finally we’ll attend to some practical advice that seeks to assist us in playing our personal games of life.
The arguments in this book are predicated on the simple idea, now well-supported by researchers, that status is a fundamental human need. If it is fundamental, it naturally follows that we’ll find evidence of it all over the place: in our actions, in our history and hiding behind many of our thoughts and convictions. In the chapters that follow, as I attempt to reveal it wherever I can, it might feel as if I’m proposing a grossly reductive view of our shared nature. But my focus on one human need shouldn’t be taken to imply that others, which aren’t the subject of this investigation, don’t count. We’re obviously driven by a great many impulses – and usually several at once. An inventor may be motivated by insatiable curiosity and the joy of problem-solving and desire to pay their mortgage, for example, as well as by the urge to impress their peers. Status is what researchers call an ‘ultimate’ rather than a ‘proximate’ drive: it’s a kind of mother-motivation, a deep evolutionary cause of many other downstream beliefs and behaviours that’s been favoured by selection and is written into the design of our brains.
So nothing in this book should be taken as my arguing that life is solely driven by status. We are, it should go without saying, driven by a multitude of desires. We want power. We want sex. We want wealth. We want to change society for the better. But it’s also true that the status game is deeply implicated in these great human hungtheir standing’.
Storr, Will. The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It (p.5). HarperCollins Publishers. Edizione del Kindle. ers. If you want to rule the world, save the world, buy the world or fuck the world, the first thing to pursue is status. It’s the golden key that unlocks our dreams. And your subconscious mind knows this. This is why, as psychologist Professor Brian Boyd writes, we ‘naturally pursue status with ferocity: we all relentlessly, if unconsciously, try to raise our own standing by impressing peers, and naturally, if unconsciously, evaluate others in terms of their standing’. The Status Game builds on two of my previous books. The Heretics (published in the U.S. as The Unpersuadables) asked how intelligent people end up believing crazy things. I concluded we’re especially vulnerable to irrationality when the ‘facts’ in question serve to boost or threaten the heroic story we tell of ourselves. Selfie was a journey into the self and the ways in which evolution, culture and economy shape who we are. It proposed (in an argument briefly reprised here in chapter 25) that our highly individualistic neoliberal economy has thrown the West into an unhealthy ‘age of perfectionism’. In the pages that follow, I’ll bring these threads together and tie them into something new.
If you’ve arrived from my preceding book, The Science of Storytelling, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’re about to tumble into a gigantic contradiction. I went to some lengths to persuade you that your brain is a storyteller and now, here I am, insisting it’s a game player. But as I hope will become clear, this is actually a parallel argument investigated at a deeper level. If the conscious experience is organised as a story, this book concerns the subconscious truth that lies underneath.
In the years it’s taken me to research this subject, I’ve come to understand so much more about other people and why they can be so enraging, dastardly, confusing and wonderful. They, and I, are no longer quite so mysterious. My hope is that by defining human life more precisely, we might be better able to meet its challenges, defend ourselves from its terrors and, in the end, be just a little more certain about how to live lives of meaning, safety and happiness. What follows is a tentative journey through the status game. You’ll recognise it, of course, having already been a lifelong player.