Lateral Ethnographies: Hopeful Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Tools of Collaborative Speculation

I was in good company at the Anthropology, AI and the Future of Human Society conference organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute this year in June where I presented a paper on a panel titled Lateral Ethnographies: Exploratory Knowledge Production, Speculative Fictions, and Alternative Future-Making. The paper looked at how tabletop roleplaying games can and should be part of a renewed focus on multimodal anthropology; games, as a method of knowledge production as well as a tool for research, create open and generative spaces for people to collectively create alternative ways of thinking about the future. Games are a way of inviting others to participate in encounters of knowledge production not as researcher/subject, or even as creator/audience (as implied in mediums such as films, exhibitions or installations), but as players and co-creators, with generative, unexpected and protean outcomes.

Roleplaying games interest me as a speculative tool because they enable not just action but also makes the framing of action visible and changeable: as people do not just do things but understand and negotiate what can and cannot be done. Everyone, therefore, is both social actor and theoretician as they glide between the bracketed game world and the bracketing of the game world. So, for example, in Pride and Extreme Prejudice, I might choose to queer it by undoing its heteronormative expectations, such as by choosing to fall in love with another woman (while recognising that the game is a critique of heteropatriarchal relationships in Victorian England). This of course depends on the community and group in which one plays: while proposing that TTRPGs can be a useful speculative tool to think about and enact hopeful futures, I do not propose that the tables at which we play are havens free of conflict or discrimination. Yet the potential of games is that in games, we act and we try to understand the conditions through which action emerge. Moreover, we act within it and reconcile ourselves with its limitations—while also collectively negotiating these limitations as a group.

The slides for my talk can be found here.

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