Waystations to Utopia: Writing a Hopeful Game

An image of a solarpunk airship station. Trees and greenery grow from the infrastructure, and a blimp/airship is seen in the distance. People wait to board a docked airship. The hues are bright and warm.

I was recently honoured to win the Digital Impact grant from the Association of Southeast Asian Studies (UK) to work on a project titled Waystations to Utopia: Tabletop Roleplaying Games as a Method of Hopeful Speculation. Now I have to shed the modality of academic writing–that thorough, patient, dogged pickaxe-chipping through soil and bedrock and whatever lies buried beneath that to assemble something weighty and fossilised–in lieu of the modality of creative writing, that restless, fragmented feeding through all the things that present themselves as inspiration.

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This project will develop a roleplaying game that invites players to speculate about climate futures through the ethos of applied hope. Applied hope games draw from a burgeoning creative movement that seeks to imagine utopic futures through genres such as solarpunk and hopepunk in opposition to dystopic worlds founded on apocalypse and despair. These games can conjure a space of playfulness, openness, and potentiality in our relationship to the future; by doing so, they create imaginative latitude for action and change in the present.

A TTRPG is a game where small groups of 5-6 players create a collaborative story together, supported by some form of luck-based mechanic. In a TTRPG, a gamemaster describes an imagined world and players narrate their actions and interactions within that world. These games are bounded by rules that might require players to roll dice to determine their success in conducting particular actions within that world. Because of the flexibility in terms of rules and how they are interpreted by each individual group, TTRPGs can offer a “generative, performative space that is anti-hierarchical, experimental, and process-based, privileging agency and emergent collaboration over a predetermined product or outcome” (Kawitzky, 2020, p. 129).

This grant supports the writing, publication and distribution of an independent game through consultation with local climate change activists and Southeast Asian game writers, researchers, and artists working on speculative futures. It will be:

  • Hopeful: It will challenge dominant game ideologies, for e.g. that progression arises from violence, the accrual of wealth, or the pursuit of power. Instead, the game will focus on imagining a speculative world through a lens of community building and resource redistribution
  • Accessible: It can be run in a single session spanning 3-4 hours with little prior knowledge about what RPGs entail and with few to no additional tools
  • Participatory: As a methodological intervention, the game will explore how anthropologists can create more lateral relationships with local communities as a fellow player
  • Transformative: By modelling strategies of collaboration and community-building, games have potential to intervene in climate doomism and paralysis 

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