Status Reversal

For a while, I've been mentioning how MMOs are interesting social spaces in that a sufficiently mature teenager could lead a group of adults - something that social institutions in the "real world" don't usually allow. A broader theme here is the reversal of status as people enter into MMOs. One interesting hypothesis is that people, particularly teenagers who may feel disempowered in the physical world, may be more tempted to strive for positions of power and authority in a virtual world where there is a level playing field. One potential consequence of this is that players with high status or authority in MMOs may be disproportionately composed of younger players.

There's data from several areas to support this claim. First of all, it's no surprise that older players are more likely to have management or leadership roles in the physical world.

What is surprising is that the reverse is true in the game. In MMOs, it is younger players who are more willing to take charge and take on leadership roles, whereas older players are more content to sit back and follow along.


The same pattern is also true for desire for high status within the game. As we've seen elsewhere, younger players are likely to be achievement-oriented. In a recent survey, I focused on issues related to the "hard-core player" mindset. For example, these included questions like:

  • How important is it for you to belong to a top-tier guild?
  • How important is it for you be the first character (or guild) to access a high-end instance, defeat a boss, get an epic mount, or achieve other similar goals in the game?
  • How often do you try to become one of the most powerful players in your class / profession?
  • How important is it for you to have a high rank (PvP or other rankings)?
  • Would you describe your game-play as serious or casual?

Across all these questions, younger players were more likely to desire high status. For example, with the questions related to being a powerful player in a class or early access to high-end content, the following graphs show the percentage of players by age group for whom these goals were very important.

By aggregating the questions to create a composite score, the following graph shows the striking age difference in desire to be a hard-core player for both male and female players. The graph also shows that gender differences diminish with age.


As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, gaining status in a virtual world may be more appealing to younger players because of their relative lack of status in the physical world. Indeed, the following player articulates this point:

I grew tired of hardcore gaming. I used to be the type that would want the best of everything and would work really hard to get it. I guess, by getting some self-esteem in real life, it wiped out the need to be the best at something in a game. [WoW, M, 21]

There are several interesting things about this set of findings. First of all, they suggest that younger players are disproportionately more likely to be in positions of power and authority in an MMO. Whereas high school and college students may be used to working for people in their 30s or older in the physical world, the reverse may be true in an MMO. Secondly, what makes this status reversal particularly intriguing is that it is largely made invisible in MMOs due to the use of avatars. On the other hand, the emergence of integrated VoIP tools may upset this hidden social dynamic. Can a player just as easily maintain a position of authority if they "sound young" on the microphone? And finally, this suggests that younger players may have a disproportionate influence on different aspects of the game. For example, as leaders in groups and guilds, they have the ability to shape the game experience for other players. Also, given that the casual-vs.-raiding tension often causes guilds to fragment, the stability of a guild may be largely influenced by the number of younger players in a guild. And finally, hard-core players being more vocal may mean that the opinions of younger players are more often taken into account when they post on forums.

Added Note: See below for great comments from players articulating the point that adults with managerial positions don't need additional stress when they are trying to relax. I definitely agree that this plays a large role in the status reversals and should have made this point more explicitly in the article.