Friday, October 3, 2008

Philosophy vs. Feel

Our playtest from two weeks ago produced a coherent story, which impressed me enough on its own, but as far as a finished game, it fell short of the goal. Yes, it produced a coherent story, but it produced the wrong kind of story. Firstly, very little felt distinctly western Pennsylvanian about it; the Fifth World aims to produce a very bioregional game, and with this one set in the Land of the Three Rivers, that distinctive western Pennsylvania culture should bleed through. Secondly, as my brother keenly points out, it told a fairly typically Native American story. Specifically, the Native Americans we know today; if people have survived into the Fifth World, that happened only because we managed to work out a new Native American. Europeans have imagined themselves as the heirs of a dying Indian cultural world for centuries now, and I have a good deal to say about that, cultural appropriation, and how all of that applies to the Fifth World, but for now, I think I can safely sum up that living like an invasive species doesn't have much of a future left in it. At the very least, the Fifth World says so. The game should talk about the descendants of us, today, who have become native to the place they live. Such people wouldn't consciously espouse the so-called "neo-animist" principles of David Abram or Graham Harvey. Even if shaped by the world around them and funneled into those patterns, they wouldn't espouse them consciously. They would consider themselves good Christians, or good Muslims, or good Buddhists. The symbols and names of religious traditions persevere even after the entire substance of the beliefs have reversed themselves (compare the modern American Christian's preoccupation with gay marriage and the rich with Jesus' own teachings in the Gospels; yet, despite contradicting everything their god stood for and died for, they still call themselves Christians and say they follow Jesus—that distance makes the jump to animism seem small by comparison).

Did Gary Gygax set out to write a game that expressed Platonic and Cartesian assumptions of ontology and epistemology? Of course not! He did so, but only because he had no other philosophical assumptions to start from. He wanted to make a fun game about heroes having adventures; the philosophy in it came not from careful consideration, but from the lack of consideration. The Fifth World should present a fun game about heroes having adventures, but it should come from a different philosophical foundation. It took me a lot of time and effort to really understand that foundation, and because of that, it seems like the game revolves around that right now. It will take even more time and effort to move past that, and to take all of that for granted—just like Gygax took Plato and Descartes for granted.

This week, I've worked on a second pass on the Land of the Three Rivers, now a pastoralist society somewhat like the Saami, with Big Men called Bosses that evoke steel mill bosses, union bosses, and philanthropic robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, and shamans called Fathers that evoke the ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. I listened to Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon" today, and while I could hardly disagree more with the "moral" of the story, I did enjoy the prose. I picked up Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias today as well, an anthology of ecotopian fiction edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. And not a moment too soon; with luck, this will help me break out of the deep theoretical mindset I've needed with the project so far, and get back to the higher level where players should operate, the level of "cool." I think we have a solid mechanic at its base. Now comes the hard part: using that to evoke a new vision of the world. As Michael Green put it in Afterculture:

America has always been a land of destiny. We have always looking forward to a rosy future, first by westward expansion, then via Tom Swift and his Electric Things, But the realities of ill-conceived ideals have finally caught up to us. The West was bought by genocide, Tom Swift left us with nuclear dumps and ozone holes. There are still official candidates for the Cool Tomorrow. There's the Bill Gates's Virtual World where everyone's on-line, and your home says hello—but no one's particularly interested except LCD manufacturers. Star Trek had the hum for a while, but cyberpunk science seems more plausible now. Becoming a dot com millionaire and retiring at 25 would be admirable, but behind every shining Epcot City the rain forests are burning, and we all smell the smoke.

The truth is that for the first time we are bereft of a positive vision of where we are going. This is particularly evident among kids. Their future is either Road Warrior post-apocalypse, or Blade Runner mid-apocalypse. All the futuristic computer games are elaborations of these scenarios, heavy metal worlds where civilization has crumbling into something weird and violent (but more exciting than now).

The AFTERCULTURE is an attempt to transmute this folklore of the future into something deep and rich and convincingly real. If we are to pull a compelling future out of environmental theory and recycling paradigms, we are going to have to clothe the sacred in the romantic. The Afterculture is part of an ongoing work to shape a new mythology by sources as diverse as Thoreau and Conan and Dances with Wolves and Iron John. The Afterculture is not "against" the problems of our times, and its not about "band-aid solutions" to the grim jam we find ourselves in. It's about opening up a whole new category of solutions, about finding another way of being: evolved, simpler, deeper, even more elegant. Even more cool. Even very cool.

Afterculture provided much of the original inspiration for The Fifth World, and it shares the same aspirations. But you don't get that from preaching, you get that from an alluring vision of the future, a world that's fun, a world that's cool, "even very cool."


Jason Godesky said...

Looks like Simon C has had similar subjects on his mind of late. I've corresponded a bit with Simon on Story Games before and found him a very intelligent and creative individual, and this particular idea really hit me as a good one. I don't know how exactly I could apply it to the Fifth World yet, but it feels like it has a lot of potential to really bring out that cultural richness. Perhaps this needs worked into the Oracle; after all, in the native view, culture comes from the land, not from purely human customs. Tim Ingold takes this as far as to suggest that "culture" does not exist, and I have to say that as clumsy as the word's removal would make my language, I tend to agree with him.

Willem said...

Could you explain a bit more fully how the story the playtest produced felt like a typical "Native American" story, rather than what you want? I don't entirely understand.

Jason Godesky said...

Sure. By the time our story had ended, three out of four players had died and become ghosts. We had plenty of vision quests, plenty of offerings to animal spirits, plenty of clan politics and staked-out hunting grounds to defend. But aside from the mostly unstated influence of the pharmaceuticals that drove the corruption of the Mad Valley, and my character who died there during character creation to become its champion, you could almost have missed that our world had every happened. The people felt like Indians who had taken the country back with very little interruption, rather than a synthesis who became a single, native people. As my brother criticized, wouldn't Christian imagery come up? For western Pennsylvania, wouldn't Catholic imagery, specifically, come up? People here follow football like a religion, yet nowhere did that influence appear in our story. What about beer? Sure, they won't have much of a chance at growing domesticated wheat fields, but without dams our rivers flood every spring, and the Pittsburghers I know would put in the time to harvest wild grain to brew beer.

The new world won't look like the old one; we won't succeed in just copying the past, we'll need to innovate and weave things together. We'll have to jam with our stories, our myths, our beliefs, all of that. What comes out will sound like a creative synthesis, not like what we have now, nor quite what our native predecessors had. Basically, with the Fifth World I want to inspire people with the vision I have for how intensely we can mix those things. To indulge a sweet little metaphor, I managed to whip up something palatable, but it had too much chocolate and not enough peanut butter, so I have to adjust the recipe a bit.

Willem said...

Okay - I get it now. Thanks. :)

Bill Maxwell said...

So, suggestion before I forget it :)P

Looking at things in a simple dichotomy, which is where many game starts, I could break my life down into hopes and fears. I hope I'm going to catch dinner tonight. I fear I'm going to go hungry.

One thing we've forgotten is that in civilization these forces are magnified due to the wild swings of starvation, so the people who've got it all horde it because they fear they'll lose it and the people who've got nothing keep what they've got because they fear they'll never get it again.

Hopes and fears -- the main difference between us and the Afterculture? -- in that future, we'll still have hopes and fears. Only this time we'll have allies.

We'll look up and know that's Crooknose. That's the wily old raven who keeps finding a way to sneak meat from the camp. Or maybe I've spotted his family and know I can rely on him. Or maybe that's a new raven. Hunh. Wonder what he's doing here. A friend? Family? Old rival? Interesting.

And look! It's mistletoe. I used to love her sisters around our encampment. Snow Kisses, we call her, for the tradition of puckering up when you see her exposed in winter-time.

And over there, the old Crossroads, stuck out of some half collapsed building. It shows the Skyroads leading the Heaven where DeadJesus watches over us, protecting those that invoke his name.

I've got allies so when I see that stranger come up the hill from MadValley, I know I've got backup, I've got hope, I've got people who will help me overcome my fear.

And that's what makes the difference.


Bill Maxwell

P.S. In case I wasn't clear above, it's the allies and your direct need for unique friends in your community (like Crooknose, who is your contact to the generic Raven spirit that you use like we when we pray to Jesus) that keeps it non-generic and place specific.

Jean-Vivien said...


you said sometime that you were working on a book. Is it a book that will sum up your vision of humankind (civilization, primitive people, etc) after the study of anthropology, or a book that will deal with the 5th world ? Or maybe both ?

Sorry to ask that at a moment when yourself are wondering about litteracy vs orality... :-)

Jason Godesky said...

Bill, absolutely! I would say, in those terms, that the problem I find now lies in detailing good local allies. Crooknose and Mistletoe play bigger roles in some places than others; and they don't always go by those same names in some places. Making the spirit of the land come alive means detailing the kinds of allies you find there, the names they go by in those parts, and the attitudes they typically take.

Jean-Vivien, I do hope to write a straightforward non-fiction book one day, in the vein of Derrick Jensen, David Abram or Richard Manning. But I've also become acutely aware of the limits of that endeavor entirely. I'll also have plenty of things to help express the Fifth World, including books, but I don't see an either/or involved. I started the Fifth World because it gives me the best chance to communicate that vision. The academic writing could persuade some, but even after reading all that I'd poured into that, people still came away thinking of it as gloomy or pessimistic; "doomerism," as I found it all too often filed. Obviously, I have failed in one of the most fundamental tasks of all: communicating the excitement, opportunity, and hope that lies in our future. For that, I've come to the conclusion that only a story can succeed where so many essays and footnotes have failed.

Jean-Vivien said...

¿ So you plan to continue living on an office job for the next years to come ?

Jason Godesky said...

I like the moderation policy Willem has at ask a question or tell a story. I hope the Fifth World will advance this practice, too. So I hope you won't mind if I answer your question with a story, Jean-Vivien.

Not far from here and not too long ago, two men talked about the horrors of the food system: its gross inefficiencies, its cruelties to both plants and animals, and its unsustainability. Both resolved to take part in it no more.

The first went back to his apartment, and eventually became hungry. He went to gather some food, but found his lawn empty. He went to hunt, but he didn't know how. He had quit his job, so he soon found himself evicted. He became hungry, cold, and bitterly cursed the idea that he should have left the comforts he used to know. He returned to the fold of civilized life after a few months, and forevermore considered the young idealists who called their way of life unsustainable idealistic fools.

The other man kept his job, because he recognized that as much as he hated the system he found himself in, he had no alternative yet. But he didn't spend his money idly like others did. He saved his money. He planted gardens, so that he could eat from them and save more money. He treated the flow of money through his life with the same principles of permaculture he used in his garden, like the flow of water across that garden. He used habits and practices that worked for money like swales work for water. He did this for a long time, and eventually eliminated his need to earn. He learned the skills necessary to make a living without that system, and the money he would need to find a space and convince that system to leave him alone in it. It took longer, yes, but when he had finished, he had become sustainable, instead of superficially sustainable in such a way that he could not sustain it.

Yes, I'll have to work an office job for a while yet. And most of the primitivists I know either do something very much like that themselves, or rely on someone who does. I have no one to rely on but myself in this regard, so I find myself in the position of the two men in the story. I know many people who call me hypocritical for not following the example of the first man, but I personally think he has adopted those ideas only superficially. I think the second man sets an example of someone who demonstrates a deep understanding of those ideas, and chooses to live by them, so I prefer to follow that example.

Jean-Vivien said...

Sgëno !

Okay, since I don't have a story in mind, I will answer with a question :-) Will you write that beautiful story into your book ?

And believe me, my previous question did not follow any forethought (I also live by an computer science job, which I sometimes even dare like) : I was just inquiring about your life. But the story acts as a good reminder to everyone :-) And the main thing I know about you comes from what you write... Which already earns my respect. Because you changed the perspective from which I live my own story, and your blog has led me to become interested in anthropology and archeology, besides giving me a brighter vision than the Peak-Oil-Doom vs Science-Fiction-Dystopia. Blessed those who live in interesting times :-)

And computer programming makes a cool field to work in, albeit not really sustainable. It exerts the tracker part of your brain, as you wrote yourself in one post of the anthropik blog :

Oh, I need to ask one more question : could you email me, or republish, the two following papers which I believe you once wrote :

Asceticism as Political Resistance in Roman Judea, 6–66 CE

War and Society (2000)