Back when I was working on my masters, I had to take some PhD classes in econometrics. To do that I had to go to the economics department, fill out paperwork and ask them to let me into the classes (Since I wasn’t a PhD student, the department was rightly worried I might find the classes highly challenging. I did eek out a passing grade though.) While waiting to be seen, one of the professors walking by struck up a conversation with me. After about 5 minutes, he said to me (I paraphrase): “I like you. You should read Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. You’re just the right type of weird to enjoy it.” Turns out he was the professor I was going to have daily 6 hour long classes with that summer. He was pretty weird himself, but in a good way.
Wanting to be more into economics than I really was, and wanting to impress the professor, I picked up a copy of the book. (by the way, it’s public domain and you can find it for free online if you care to read it. PDF  EPUB and other formats ). Published in 1899, it’s a bit of a slog full of unfamiliar words and archaic structure, but that professor was right, I was just the type of weird to enjoy it. Oddly enough, for an economic treatise written seventy years before the creation of role playing games, it provides an interesting lens to view them through and insights into the nature of them.
(Veblen can also be used to explain a lot of human behavior both on the personal and macro scale. As this is not a political site, I leave you to draw your own conclusions on that front. I’m 100% certain that you can find multiple sites on the topic elsewhere on the internet if you want to read up on it.)
Veblen’s main thesis is that despite the complaints of the economists of his day, and non-economists still today, human behavior is more or less rational despite appearances to the contrary. Of course, keep in mind that humans are notoriously bad at evaluating small short term vs larger long term gains, and are often self benefit driven, both a legacy from when life was nasty, brutish, and short. To explain seeming lapses in rationality, Veblen explains the concept of agency and status and posits that all so called irrational behavior are attempts to gather one or the other:
- Agency: Veblen’s concept of agency is related to but distinct from the commonly discussed gaming concept of player agency. It consists of two parts- the ability to take powerful actions which hold the appearance of consciousness (appearance of consciousness means things like powerful storms have agency even though we now know they’re not conscious) and the ability to impose your will on others with agency. Thus the farmer does not have agency, or has very little, because he imposes his will on plants, which do not have agency; but the hunter, shaman, and warrior do because they impose their will on beasts, storms, and other warriors. Note that how one imposes this will is irrelevant. The warrior who imposes his will through brute violence and the rogue who imposes his will through clever action both have equal agency.
In your typical game, there is a ladder of agency. PCs, foes and important NPCs have agency, players and GM influence them with their agency, and above all of that, playing the part of the capricious whimsical gods are the dice which, much like the storms of our ancestors, seem to have a will all their own.
- Status: Status is the acknowledgement, deference, and special treatment we give to those with greater agency. In early or brutal civilizations it’s not mouthing off to the warriors because if you do they might just run you through. In more abstract examples, it’s not mouthing off to the king because even though you’re pretty sure you could take him in a fight, his soldiers will run you through and his bureaucrats will see to it that your taxes are doubled.
Veblen explains that the primary way of gathering agency is the heroic exploit, and that the primary currency used is courage and cunning. Enter the typical archetype of the warrior, hunter, and trickster. But over time he argues it becomes more difficult to show off just how heroic you are. Trophies and treasure gained in exploit can only take you so far. Enter two more ways to show how much agency you have: conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Eventually heroes have so much accumulated riches from exploit that they can afford to blow those resources on ever more extravagant goods and services and on long periods doing nothing of value. Remember back to the carousing rules from the early Conan RPG and the early DnD rules for building your own keep, crafting magic items and doing spell research. All these things signal to the rest of the world just how formidable you are. Different RPG archetypes focus on different mixes of these four building blocks of agency and status.
- Courage: imposing agency via force of arms and brute strength
- Cunning: imposing agency via cleverness or guile
- Conspicuous Consumption: showing status via display of resources gathered in heroic exploit
- Conspicuous Leisure: showing status via not performing otherwise productive work when not involved in exploit
Veblen says that the expression of these qualities has social value in that you get special treatment for having or displaying them. They are largely expressed in the form of what Veblen terms invidious comparison. I am stronger than that person, I am smarter than this other person, more moral than this person, etc. More abstractly, they can be expressed through trophies of exploits, what resources you have, what groups you associate with, who you work for etc. In the extreme, one who successfully gathers large amounts of resources via exploit can’t spend it all themselves, and may even hire retainers whose only job is to spend their lord’s money. Interestingly, some of these expressions are cultural and change over time. Recent studies have shown that modern Americans are less inclined to give others status for having lots of leisure time and lots of expensive possessions, which were major status symbols in Veblen’s time and are still (apparently) status symbols in other places. (article 1  and article 2 ).
What in particular struck me while reading through the book was that a large part of RPGs was an attempt to emulate characters with far more agency, and thus status, than players generally have. That’s of course an oversimplification. Different people play RPGs for lots of different reasons, and you can probably find some that don’t hinge on playing with agency, but I can’t think of any . Feel free to correct me if you like. What this means is that in theory RPG experiences featuring the right balance of character agency (enough agency to impose their will on others but not so much that opponents don’t appear to have agency of their own) should be a more satisfying play experience, and giving the characters markers of agency and status should also lead to satisfying play. In fact, one could write an entire book digging through Theory Of The Leisure Class and pulling out elements to enhance games*.
As a side note, plenty of playstyles and even problem playstyles can be chalked up to Veblen’s agency. On the innocuous side is pushing for more PC vs NPC agency. On the destructive side is outright player vs player or player vs GM agency. If you’ve ever wondered what the player who enjoys making everyone else’s experience miserable is getting out of it, this is it: imposing their agency over that of the other players and GM, and if they can’t be convinced to pick a more suitable target, they should be shown the door before it gets worse.
However, even though Veblen explains RPG motivations very well it turns out that taken to extremes, pursuing agency and status also explains a variety of the more unsavory elements of humanity: Slavery, discrimination, sexism, racism etc. are all big markers for agency and status. Some of them, like slavery, are a direct application of agency. One person has the agency to literally own another. Isms are a little more abstract but boil down to an imbalance of status between two groups. If you belong to the group an imbalance favors, you benefit from that status boost. You can see the evidence of this in plenty of the fiction that inspired the RPG hobby. Conan, for example has a scene in at least every other story where he forces himself on a woman and halfway through the act, she stops struggling to get him off her and starts struggling to get her panties off, because he’s just so manly and good at kissing it changes her mind, and Robert E Howard doesn’t even hold a candle to John Norman  in that regard. A lot of early space opera sci-fi was heroic American vs evil communist Asians  . . . innnn spaaaaace! There are still plenty of vestiges of this era sticking around too. All dwarves are racist against elves, elves are racist against . . . mostly dwarves, but also everyone. Lots of sentient species are kill on sight morally repugnant, and every half-orc gets the one good half orc treatment.
So, TLDR: RPGs are big power fantasies about imposing your will on others and everyone fawning all over you for doing it, and taken too far the natural extension of this is some of the worst parts of the human experience. Lovely.
Let me put on my devil’s advocate hat for a moment and just take things too far. If the above is true, wouldn’t featuring all of those uncomfortable bits of bad human behavior and allowing PCs to wallow in them make your game a more powerful expression of what RPGs are all about, and wouldn’t your game be better for it? Shouldn’t I be saying: “All this stuff adds to the fantasy that is explicitly the entire point of the game, so put it in your game, lots of it!”
That would be an awfully weird position to take, wouldn’t it? Turns out it’s a tempting position, but not necessarily a good one. First, there’s more than enough opportunity for heroic exploit, agency and status in your average game. Dipping into the more problematic aspects of agency just isn’t necessary. Even if you wanted to, most are very sensitive subjects and should be handled with care and only with complete group buy-in. And of course if you don’t take sensitive issues seriously, like other problem play styles, you run the very real risk of trading in game status for out of game status (i.e.: you get labeled a jerk and no one wants to play with you because you don’t respect others’ boundaries.)
But, can dealing with these difficult extremes of agency and status in your game be done without issues? Yes, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. On the extreme end, with player buy-in you can absolutely play an evil game with PCs that push the envelope. In a more traditional game, you can include these issues but reserve them for villainous NPCs that heroic PCs put a stop to. You can include lesser versions of them (the faux racism of all dwarves and elves). You can reserve involuntary traits indicating a lesser status for non sentient or irredeemably evil beings (golems and demons are OK to pick on because even though their status is linked to race one is a mindless automaton, the other is literally made of evil. If your golems and demons don’t follow that mold, things get hazier. This is where the “all orcs are evil” problems come from. Are orcs inherently evil like in Lord of the Rings, or do they fall in a spectrum like most fantasy races?) In fact, these could lead to some interesting introspective role playing moments. Nothing groundbreaking. All common enough that this is not the first time you’ve heard of them.
So that’s it. That’s the short version of viewing role playing games through the lens of Veblen’s Theory Of The Leisure Class, and the problems that come with it. Hopefully it’s an interesting perspective.
* Writing said book has been on my “someday projects” list for quite some time. Also feel free to let me know if that sounds lame and I should let it languish or if it sounds awesome and I should move it up the list