Earlier this month, on the relatively new blog Gaming as Women, Darla Magdalene Shockley posted about some pitfalls of player feedback mechanics - drawing from experiences with Paranoia XP and Primetime Adventures - in a post called "Game Design and Sexism: Player Feedback Mechanics" . This was a controversial post, and by way of explanation, Jessica Hammer followed up with a post,
"On Being Left-Handed" that detailed how a mechanic could cause issues for a group without being. Robin Laws also commented on the topic, in "Precisely Subjective".
Way back in 2007, I posted about social hierarchy in my post "Status and Gamism" - which was jumbled mess of an article. So I'm going to try to post a little more clearly about social hierarchy and relate it to player feedback mechanics - which basically means players or the GM giving rewards (like XP or hero points) to players for doing cool things. First, some basics...
What is status hierarchy?
Any social group will have some sort of status hierarchy - also known as a pecking order, or just who is coolest and/or hottest. There may be multiple hierarchies of importance, but people will establish some sort of pecking order. These rankings correspond to how people in the group give respect to others.
Some people associate a pecking order with bullying or other dysfunction, but there is always a hierarchy. In nicer hierarchies, the people at the top may behave better and give respect back to others. However, there is still an ordering going on.
How do games affect hierarchy?
Games make a social space separate from the usual interactions. So when everyone goes out to play basketball, the person who is at the top when hanging out by the lunchroom might not be the star. Instead, the star might be someone else - based on skills different than the usual social skills. On the other hand, the usual social hierarchy can also influence the game. For example, kids playing basketball might be more likely to pass to someone they think is nice than someone they think is a jerk.
Games can reward game-specific skills (like chess strategies), isolated real-world skills (like Trivial Pursuit), or broader real-world skills. Broader skills are likely to be a basis for social hierarchy. For example, someone who is creative and outspoken may do well in party games and also be high in the social hierarchy.
What about RPGs?
RPGs are social games that tend to correlate to the group's usual social hierarchy. For example, Gary Alan Fine published his sociological study, "Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds", about mostly D&D groups in the midwest circa 1980. He observed as a sociologist that social status in the game mirrored the social status outside -- i.e. the alpha male in real life was the GM or the party leader / caller.
That isn't purely the case, though.
RPGs - along with boardgames and card games - tend to force turn-taking that gives everyone a more equal chance to shine. In contrast, some sports like baseball put certain players like the pitcher a more prominent role than others. RPGs also use other ways to rotate the spotlight, such as distinct niches for each PC. For example, if the quiet person is playing the cleric, he may still get his turn to shine when it comes to facing undead. Other games have more explicit rotating spotlight. For example, Ars Magica players take turns who is playing the more powerful magi, while campaigns of Primetime Adventures have different spotlight sessions for individual characters. Equal turns moderates or flattens the hierarchy, but it doesn't change the ordering.
Randomness can also change ordering. A player who is lucky with cards or dice may get extra attention.
In addition, some RPGs reward game-specific skill - sometimes called "system mastery," though that may emphasize only the mechanical aspects. Complex games like Burning Wheel or Champions may give players a boost who have developed skill in manipulating the system. This can change the ordering, though the more skilled player may also be the ones already socially dominant.
What do player feedback mechanics do?
Player feedback mechanics here means mechanics where a player or GM gives rewards for broad reasons like "that was cool" or "good role-playing".
It seems to me that player feedback mechanics shift the focus away from game-specific skills and from randomness, and more towards general skills. In other words, they make the game hierarchy more like the general social hierarchy.
Assuming I like my group's social dynamics outside of the game, this can be a fine thing. However, if I'm dissatisfied with certain things about the group, then the feedback mechanic may highlight those more compared to playing without that feedback. Apropos of Darla's post, a female player might be dissatisfied with her position in the social order, feeling that it's influenced by biased cultural standards. The feedback may highlight this compared to not having that feedback.