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.

Waystations to Utopia: Writing a Hopeful Game

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