Consumer culture

Last night I went to see King of Kong, a documentary about a middle-school science teacher who tries to unseat the world record holder in Donkey Kong:

It's really a terrific movie. It's also a great sociological treatise for anyone who's interested in status concerns. In response to those who are worried that economic status competition is making us all worse off, people like Will Wilkinson have argued that modern society is so excellent precisely because it offers us proliferating status hierarchies in which to excel. Or as Tyler Cowen once told me, the secret to happiness is alternative status hierarchies, combined with self-deception.

The common rejoinder is that there is a meta-status hierarchy that comports with money:

Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass! Now this example is loaded – but it’s loaded to demonstrate a serious sociological point that Wilkinson doesn’t even begin to address. These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved. Being a world-class scrabble-player isn’t likely to win you much respect among people who aren’t themselves competitive scrabble-players; the best you can expect is that someone will write a book that pokes fun at your gastro-intestinal problems . It’s a very different matter if you’re a world class soccer player; you’re liable to be invited to all sorts of fun parties, hit upon by beautiful people, stalked by the paparazzi and the whole shebang. Being a world class blogger is somewhere between the two, albeit certainly much closer to the scrabble-player than the soccer star. Even if you’re king of your own mountain, you’re likely to be quite well aware of the other mountains around you that make yours look in comparison like a low-grade class of a gently sloping foothill, or perhaps even a slightly upraised knob in the middle of a steep declination. You’re similarly aware of those less well-advantaged foothills or knoblets whose owners you can look down upon…. In short, people are highly aware of the relative rankings of their obsessions.

This movie seems like the perfect illustration of these competing claims. It involves a guy named Steve Wiebe, who's been laid off and never really hit the big time career-wise. He decides, naturally enough, to become the world's best player of Donkey Kong.

Unless I very much miss my guess, Seth Gordon, the director, would agree with Henry Farrell. There's a strong undertone of "OMG, what amazing losers" from start to finish, and the very fact that these guys care about who is the world's best Missile Command player gets repeatedly played for laughs.

But a lot of the time, that's just an assumption of a certain sort of elite who has already climbed fairly high on the status hierarchy they identify as the central one.

If you've ever spent time around competitive rock climbers, for example, you'll know that they really do believe that being the world's best alpinist is superior to being, say, Secretary of State, even though most people would rather meet Condi Rice than Reinhold Messner. Indeed, in many cases, their status hierarchy is inverted; being a total loser is better than being a certain sort of corporate cretin. And these aren't people who have chosen to opt out because they can't make it elsewhere; they're not noticeably less popular, intelligent, or competent than people who seek success in more traditional ways than a sub-four-hour solo of the Eiger.

Okay, one might argue, but there will always be weird little-cultlike pockets existing outside of normal society. Nonetheless, most people recognize the rough status pyramid that Henry Farrell is talking about. But even on that point, I'm not so sure. As I wrote last year:

Much status comparison is localised. Rich people don't compare themselves to the folks in the housing project ten miles away; they compare themselves to their neighbours. The poor, likewise. All the upper middle class people I know, including ones who make no money, like journalists and academics, believe that the working and middle classes secretly envy us our high social status. All I can say is, having recently spent several years at a working class job, if this is true, then the working classes must be extraordinarily good at keeping secrets.

Among print journalists, television is widely regarded as second-class (albeit, high paying) work. But try telling that to my relatives in western New York, who had never heard of The Economist, but woke up at 5 am to see me go on a now-defunct farm-team talking heads show on CNNfN.

Many of the people in the movie probably are conscious of having failed in the world outside video games. But the tendency among the coastal elites is to assume that the failure they experience is not having gotten a good book contract from Knopf, and I'm not so sure. I'd bet that for most of them, the failure is rather more brutal than not making it to a high prestige job: approximately 100% of them seem to be afflicted with pretty severe Asperger's--which is hardly surprising, given the superhuman concentration and obsessive attention to detail that is required to master those kinds of video games. These are people so socially disconnected that virtually all of them still dress as if it's 1982; would they really feel less alienated and unsuccessful in Sweden? Are they seeking refuge in video games because they'll never get tapped for the Supreme Court, or because they never get a promotion--or a second date?

Which is why ultimately the movie is inspiring. If there really was a unified status hierarchy, or even the kind of orderly meta-ranking that Mr Farrell posits, most of us would be completely screwed. Only a few people can be the smartest, richest, or most athletic guy in the world.

But having failed, like the rest of us, to become Bill Gates (or anything close), Steve Wiebe had an alternative: he could use his obsessive, socially awkward personality to become the best Donkey Kong player in the world.

Imagine Steve Wiebe's life in a world where Americans didn't work long hours producing soulless frivolities like video games.