Friday, August 5, 2016

Five or So Questions with Jason Godesky on The Fifth World

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Jason Godesky on his game, The Fifth World, produced with Guilianna Maria Lamanna. The Fifth World is currently on Patreon as an open-source shared universe, and Jason had a lot of interesting stuff to say about the game! Check out his answers to my questions below.

Tell me a little about The Fifth World. What excites you about it?

The Fifth World takes place 144,000 days from now -- one b'ak'tun in the Maya Long Count calendar, or just shy of 400 years. Civilization has collapsed, but humanity thrives beyond civilization. Most of the problems we face today have disappeared. Instead, they have to navigate a tangled web of kinship that binds them to a more-than-human world, where people you love and respect may want completely opposite things from you.

I got started with this by combining two things that have excited me for quite a while: creating an open source shared universe, and creating neotribal, ecotopian, animist realist fiction.

Many people have argued before that shared universes like Marvel or DC, Star Wars or Star Trek, Doctor Who, or the Cthulhu Mythos constitute our modern-day mythology. Unfortunately, we've also seen what happens when our mythology constitutes a corporation's intellectual property. They don't always handle it with the care we'd want them to. We still bring all of our enthusiasm to it and create these wonderful and amazing fan art and fan fiction, but we run into limits with that, too, again because our mythology constitutes a corporation's intellectual property. What if we could change that, though? What if we could have an open source shared universe, where that mythology doesn't belong to a corporation, but to the community who loves it? What could we do with an open source roleplaying game designed to explore an open source universe?

That idea actually got into my head first, starting with an excited discussion my brother and I had about what could happen if you took the Open Game License beyond a marketing ploy and instead really ran with it. My wife helped me connect it to the other half, reminding me of something we'd long wanted to explore more deeply that we couldn't really dig into in any other way.

Giuli and I had both studied anthropology, and that had stripped away a lot of the common misconceptions about life beyond civilization for us, but it was really artist Michael Green's "Afterculture" project that helped bring it all together for us and really see it. On the project's homepage, he even describes it as "a return to the rich 'cultural biodiversity' that has characterized the human species for most of its sojourn here," and challenges us "to imagine other versions, other tribes." Michael Green has amazing talent and creativity, but ultimately he has only his own brain. I can add a bit more to it, but I only have my own brain. Giuli can add a bit more to it, but she only has her own brain. As an open source shared universe, though, where we provide people with tools to imagine life in a neotribal, ecotopian, animist realist future in their own bioregion, we might begin to glimpse what such an incredible, diverse, beautiful, vibrant world could look like.

I think those both speak to things that a lot of us deeply need right now: a mythology that we can really make our own, and a hopeful vision of the future that we can really believe in.

What kind of shared mythologies have you been building, and do you intend to build?

In a world like ours, we can talk about "world history," because we live in a time of globalization, where the individual strands of local history become more and more entwined, like strings forming ropes, and ropes forming cords. The Fifth World takes that in reverse, letting the big cord of world history unwind into hundreds of thousands of local histories. We want people to join in with local, bioregional histories of the future. I read a lot of indigenous authors who say things like what Joe Sheridan and Roronhiakewen "He Clears the Sky" Dan Longboat wrote about their own experience as Onkwehonwe that "[o]ld-growth minds and cultures mature, emerge, and encompass the old growth of their traditional territory." Mythology comes from our specific place, and binds us to it. We can't tell someone in Tasmania or Johannesburg or New Orleans or Taipei what stories that place tells. Instead, we try to make the Fifth World a way for a group of friends to listen to what a place has to say, try to tease it out, and have fun doing it.

That said, of course, the Fifth World does have some lasting legacies from our world. My wife, Giuli, is working on a novel set in the Fifth World called "Children of Wormwood," which deals with the effect of nuclear waste four centuries in the future. It starts with an idea that Thomas Sebeok proposed to the Human Interference Task Force in 1981, formed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel to start exploring the problem of how you can establish protocols to protect nuclear waste, when nuclear waste remains dangerous longer than any human culture or language has existed before. Sebeok had the idea of establishing an atomic priesthood that would use ritual and myth to preserve knowledge of the locations of and dangers associated with nuclear waste. The idea has its problems, and when the novel begins we soon learn that these Vulture Priests pay a terrible price to slow the march of an inevitable problem. Without giving too much away, the novel tells the story of how they find a lasting solution by forming an alliance with a very different form of life.

My favorite stories in the Fifth World usually mix hard, mundane science fiction with animist realist sensibilities in just this way. That combination creates stories rooted in the real world, but look at it from a different perspective.

How does the game function mechanically and narratively?

Actually, I really owe you for my biggest breakthrough on that. I believe you had just started this interview series, and Epidiah Ravachol recommended it on Google+, and he said that questions offered the most innovative, powerful tool in roleplaying games today, and pointed to you at the forefront of that. That got me thinking. Today, questions really form the core of the Fifth World RPG.

Your character has some points of awareness (starting with five, but things can happen to change that), and you spend those points on a few things, but most prominently, asking questions. You spend a point of awareness, you ask a specific other player a question from a limited set available to you, and they answer. We talk freely during an encounter, but we don't know any of those things for sure. We might discover later on that we misunderstood or misconstrued. When you spend a point of awareness and ask a question, we know something for sure, and the knowing creates one new constraint.

I think this really puts exploration at the heart of the game, and it makes the open source nature of the project fit right in with the game's rules, as the wiki becomes a repository to all of the answers to the questions you've asked. Even with this, where we always learn more about the world, we never run out of questions to ask. We always find new corners to explore. One playtester once told me that he appreciated how the game made the familiar unfamiliar. Part of that comes from this focus on questions, because it pulls you in to explore deeper and ask more questions about places you thought you understood.

The other major breakthrough that helped me put it all together came from reading about the relationship between people, places, and awareness. I made awareness a pool of points, rather than a skill that you have, because that better models what we know now about how awareness works. You've probably read about decision fatigue, for example. Awareness works the same way. Even without a bunch of psychological research, just thinking it through, when you pay attention to one thing, you can't pay attention to something else. It turns out, though, that while some environments drain our awareness, others replenish it. Specifically, those places where we have the most exposure to other-than-human life do the most to restore our awareness.

This helped me close the loop on the game's mechanical cycle, and figure out how people, places, and awareness interact. Awareness accrues at places. People go from place to place and act in accordance with the spirit of the place (e.g., at a sacred place you can gather awareness when you perform a religious ritual, at a melancholy place you can gather awareness when you express your sadness, and at a creative place you can gather awareness when you create something). They spend that awareness to explore the world and pursue their dreams -- including, sometimes, their dreams of changing the world, their family, or themselves.

How do you avoid cultural appropriation in such a mutable environment?

I've thought about this a lot. You know this: in roleplaying games, we rely heavily on genre. Getting everyone at the table to imagine the same thing doesn't always come easily, and genre helps a lot. With the Fifth World, we don't really have a genre to point to. I always end up saying that this book fits except for these parts, or watch the first 30 minutes of this movie, but I find I can't really write a Fifth World mediography, only an annotated mediography. That can cause a problem, because even if it doesn't fit, players may turn to stereotypes about native people and use that as the thing to lean on.

We only have four policy pages on the Fifth World website at the moment, but one of them addresses cultural appropriation directly. We cite Susan Scafidi's "three S's" -- significance or sacredness, source, and similarity. Ultimately, we look at cultural appropriation as really failing to fulfill the project's goal. We want to imagine a neotribal future. If you imagine a family that has stolen Anishinaabe culture but doesn't actually descend from modern-day Anishinaabe with the right to use that culture and the knowledge of how to do so, you haven't done a very good job of imagining a neotribal future. These people come from a different background and face different challenges, so how would something stolen from others help them? I think that alone helps keep us away from anything too similar, and by keeping away from that "s" we can also avoid the sacred. Sweat lodges have a sacred place in the traditions of native nations across the Americas, and with good reason, but why would the descendants of Scandinavians in Wisconsin copy the Anishinaabe madoodiswan and not the Nordic sauna?

We take that approach to questions from the game and extend it to the rest of the project. As an open source project, we expect that we'll get contributions of questionable anthropological integrity. Usually it happens because of the gaps in anthropological knowledge generally. A lot of the things we know about traditional societies can seem really shocking to people. A lot of people won't even believe it when you show them the evidence, because it contradicts their beliefs about human nature (I've almost finished "Stand on Zanzibar" now, and quite enjoyed how this very kind of thing tripping up the god-like supercomputer Shalmaneser). We don't treat it as an error, though. Instead, we ask questions. We point out what makes it seem so unlikely, and then we ask, "What do you think happened here, to make such a bizarre thing happen?"

We haven't had enough contributions from others yet to put this to the test to see if it will work, but I expect it will happen sooner or later: when we get that really shallow, culturally appropriative contribution, I'll ask more questions about it. I'll ask about how it developed, where it came from, and what it means. For the moment, at least, I expect questions like that to drive it further and further away from existing traditions, meaning less and less similar, and I would hope less and less sacred. If necessary, we won't mind altering a contribution, though. Another of our policy pages makes clear that our community works together to make the best Fifth World we can together, and cultural appropriation doesn't help us do that.

The established power dynamic has a lot to do with what separates cultural appropriation from cultural exchange. Right now, the Fifth World mostly comes from me, a cishet white American man, and my wife, a cishet white American woman, but I don't want it to stop there. I don't want to take from other cultures and exclude the people. I want other people to join in, and tell me how they imagine their culture living and thriving in a neotribal future. I can't tell those stories, and neither can Giuli, and I often worry that people might mistake the lack of stories that we have no right to tell to mean that we don't want to hear them. I want to see Indigenous futurism and Afrofuturism in the Fifth World. My biggest hope for guarding against cultural appropriation lies in the open source nature of the project, again. I hope it means that we'll have voices far beyond the one I can offer, telling the stories we each can tell, woven together.

What do you want to see people do with the game beyond just building materials?

I started with the roleplaying game because a roleplaying game provides such an incredible engine for creating setting. It makes our worldbuilding collaborative, which fits in well with our open source nature, and it starts to fill in the world and make it more real. From there, more people will have ideas to do new things with it.

I mentioned Giuli's forthcoming novel, "Children of Wormwood." We plan on releasing that as serial fiction, releasing each episode in text and as an MP3 podiobook you can subscribe to. We've toyed with the idea of serial audio drama in the form of a podcast -- something like "Welcome to Night Vale" with the aesthetics of "The Memory Palace," but with neotribal, ecotopian fiction instead of surreal comedy. I'd love to make a Fifth World LARP once we have the RPG in a more established place. I'd love to start something like a Renaissance Faire, but with the Fifth World. I've mentioned how much I'd love to see a Fifth World play some day. I'd love to see a web comic. I'd love to see people steal any or all of these ideas and run with them.

I can't tell you what I hope to see most, though, because I most hope to see the thing that will totally take me by surprise, the thing that will make my smack my forehead and question why I never thought of it. Sure, I could've claimed to own the Fifth World, that I put these ideas together and so now it belongs to me, but really I'd much rather have the thrill of seeing the amazing things that other people might do with it. I'll trade intellectual property to take part in an active community any day.

Thanks so much to Jason for the interview! Make sure you check out The Fifth World on Patreon and see what this unusual and fascinating world has to offer, and what you can contribute!

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