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Author Topic: Of Utopias and Dystopias  (Read 15932 times)
Roger
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« on: November 10, 2005, 10:28:27 AM »

Of Utopias and Dystopias


Settings, in role-playing games as well as in fiction, can be very broadly described as resting somewhere on a spectrum which has utopias on one end and dystopias on the other.

By utopia, I mean an ideal and perfect world.  If you'd do anything to live there, it's probably a utopia.

By dystopia, I mean a terrible, awful world.  If you'd do anything to avoid living there, it's probably a dystopia.

Somewhere between the two is a neutral ground which is neither strongly utopic nor strongly dystopic.


Similarly, characters, in a very broad sense, are somewhere between heroic and pathetic.  If you want to be like the character, he is probably heroic; if you wouldn't want to be anything like the character, he is probably pathetic.


Some examples:

Dungeons and Dragons gives us strongly heroic characters in a  mildly utopic setting.  Various other settings such as Dark Sun and Ravenloft have been less utopic, but the characters largely remain heroic.

Call of Cthulhu gives us generally heroic characters in a dystopic setting.  There are terrible things out there, but the characters are usually fighting the good fight.

Vampire: The Masquerade is a bit tricky.  The setting is a dystopia.  Nominally, the characters are pathetic creatures, driven by inhuman desires.  In play, however, the characters are usually strongly heroic.  They have superhuman powers, with limits that are often only cosmetic at best.

Subtly, there can be differences between what the players think of the setting, and what the characters think of the setting.  The characters in V:tM may well see the setting as utopic, and may consider themselves to be more pathetic than the players might.

Paranoia is a dystopia, although it's played for laughs.  The characters are fairly neutral.  They have some special powers, but also some severe limitations.

Superhero games, in general, give us utopian settings and heroic characters.

Kill Puppies for Satan give us deeply pathetic characters.  The setting is largely neutral, however.  Sure, there are agents of Satan at work, but all they're liable to do is send Spot to the great dog pound in the sky.

My Life With Master is classically dystopic.  The characters have both pathetic and heroic elements -- indeed, much of the game is about how these elements interact and change.

Gamma World may be dystopic to the players, but it is neutral, or even slightly utopic, to the characters.  The characters are generally heroic to the players, though they may see themselves in a more neutral light.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a bit tricky.  I'm inclined to say the setting is dystopic, at least to the players.  It's probably significantly more utopic to the characters.  The characters are generally neutral with heroic leanings.

Zombie games, as a very broad category, are generally dystopic.  The characters span a wide range between heroic and pathetic, depending on the specific game.  Moreso than in many other games, the characters may be neutral.

Warhammer Fantasy is dystopic, particularly in comparison to D&D.  The characters are generally heroic, though that can vary between characters and over time.


Trends and Observations


In fiction, at least, utopias have been out of fashion for quite some time, losing significant ground to dystopias, which are as popular as ever.

With RPGs, the trend is not quite as clear.  Among the indie scene, dystopias are dominant.  The settings are almost universally horrible places that no one in their right mind would ever want to visit, let alone inhabit.

Among mainstream games, however, I'm of the impression that utopian settings are still going strong.  The generic medieval fantasy is free of peasant abuses, bad sanitation, and religious intolerance.

Heroic characters, at least in fiction, are still widely enjoyed.  The occasional pathetic anti-hero comes along, but only as an exception.

The pathetic character is better represented in indie rpgs.  Indeed, a game could likely claim a place among the indie ranks only by virtue of pathetic characters.  Among the mainstream games and many indie games, however, heroic characters are still the mainstay.


Exercises for the Reader


I would suggest the following questions are worthwhile to consider:

- Why are there so many fictional dystopias as compared to fictional utopias?

- Why do so many of the mainstream RPGs have utopian settings?

- Why do so many of the indie RPGs have dystopian settings?

- Why are heroic characters more popular than pathetic characters?


To the game designers out there, I would suggest that the following questions are important with respect to your own games:

Setting:

- Is my setting utopian, dystopian, or neutral?  What value does that add to the game?  Would the game be substantially changed if the setting moved elsewhere on the spectrum?

- Do the characters think of the setting in the same way the players do?

- If my setting is dystopian, what could make it even worse?  If it is utopian, what could make it even better?

Characters:

- Are the characters heroic, pathetic, or neutral?  How does the System make that happen?

- What would happen if a player tries to make a character of the opposite type?

- Do the characters typically become more heroic through play, more pathetic through play, or do they generally stay the same?

- What about NPCs?  Are they more heroic or more pathetic than the player characters?

- Do the characters look at themselves in the same way as the players do?


I don't necessarily expect or want specific answers to these questions myself.  I merely offer them as another way to think about games and game design.



Cheers,
Roger
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MatrixGamer
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« Reply #1 on: November 10, 2005, 10:37:11 AM »

Let me see...a game about pathetic whimps on the planet Crypton.

Not much drama in that unless you want to wallow in self hatred.

"My guy tries to get up in the moring but just can't manage it..."

No, no drama at all. That's the problem with Utopias - no problems.

Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
Josh Roby
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« Reply #2 on: November 10, 2005, 11:27:55 AM »

Roger, your terms are... really imprecise and some of them are used in subtly but importantly different ways than their common definitions.

Utopias are ideal societies, they are not settings.  Strictly speaking, a setting cannot be utopian or dystopian; the societies depicted in the setting will be.  Dystopias are nightmare societies, the opposite of utopias, and the same applies there on the setting/society distinction.

Heroes are characters who affect change in their world that accords with cultural norms; "pathetic" characters are characters who a reader can sympathize with.  Neither distinction has anything to do with power level.  The addition of super powers does not create heroes; the lack of extraordinary abilities does not prevent characters from being heroes.  Heroes, villains, and any other character can be pathetic or not.  There is no spectrum between heroic and pathetic behavior, and indeed in the best of circumstances, a story has behavior which is both heroic and pathetic at the same time.

If you want to talk about power level of characters or the general shittiness of the setting, I think there is some useful discussion to be found there (starting with finding a better term than "general shittiness"), but these are not the terms to do it in.  I'd suggest that the focus be on the setting's potential for conflict, and the characters' comparative ability to resolve those conflicts in their favor.

Chris, that's a commonly-held but very erroneous tack to take.  Utopias are not settings without conflicts; they are ideal societies.  There is nothing to say that utopias cannot have conflicts, and in fact utopian societies can actually foster more focused and specific thematic content because characters drawn from these societies defending them against conflicts have a strongly defined set of ideals that they strive for.  The Federation in Star Trek (especially in TNG) is a utopia; they didn't run out of things to do for years upon years.  As an RPG example, Blue Rose is an excellent setting with a utopian kingdom that the characters defend from threats within and without.  For that matter, the Faithful in Dogs in the Vineyard are a utopian society (whether or not you agree with their ideals) and characters get a lot of oomph out of defending its ideals from conflicts that threaten them.
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Joel
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« Reply #3 on: November 10, 2005, 01:54:20 PM »

I agree with Joshua. You're using very specific terms to describe general ideas. To that end, I would argue that "pathetic" characters are not characters you sympathize with, but characters that do not take action in defense of themselves. That doesn't necessarily make them uninteresting, or even not fun to play. Take Hamlet for example.

I do, however, agree with the "meat and potatoes" of what you're saying. Many of the "Mainstream" games give you an Ideal World, and the Indies (Which I am just now becoming acquainted with) do go into darker realms.

Why? Well as far as the mainstream goes, it's marketability. No one wants to try and sell a book that's going to appeal to niche group. There's no way to recoup costs, and that's what the majority of the "Mainstreams" are trying to accomplish. As for the Indies, I would suggest that the reason behind an Independent movement in ANYTHING is that the status quo simply isn't good enough anymore.

So do something about it! And that, I believe, is what the people here at the Forge are doing. At least I hope it is, because that's why I've started coming here. :-)
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #4 on: November 10, 2005, 07:38:25 PM »

Setting aside the question of whether the proposed terminology is good, let me attempt to address the questions.
- Why are there so many fictional dystopias as compared to fictional utopias?

- Why do so many of the mainstream RPGs have utopian settings?

- Why do so many of the indie RPGs have dystopian settings?

- Why are heroic characters more popular than pathetic characters?
I've created a few utopias both as game worlds and as settings for fiction. Although Chris' notion that such settings are completely boring is overstated, the fact is that if you have a utopia you pretty much have to make something go wrong to get a story out of it. The utopia has a hidden dark underbelly, or the utopia is abruptly threatened from the outside, or someone rebels against the structure for reasons that are solely personal. With a dystopia, you automatically have problems.

I am not certain whether it can be said that mainstream RPGs tend toward utopian settings. They do tend to be skewed to favor the side on which the player characters are expected to be aligned. For example, Gary Gygax designed many elements of Dungeons & Dragons to favor the good guys, because he wanted the players to play the good guys and he wanted them to win. It's fun to be on the winning side, and if doing the right thing will put you on the winning side, that's a reinforcing aspect. For what it's worth, of the early games I played the one we dreaded was Gamma World. Whether it was the referee's style or the game's design (I'm inclined to think the latter, as I've heard similar reports from others), we always felt as if at any moment we might die for having done something for which there was not so much as a hint to warn us. Even when there were hints, we often missed them. Other games--D&D, Star Frontiers, even Metamorphosis Alpha for the brief time we were playing it--gave us to feel like we had a good chance to win and the chance was getting better. Gamma World made us feel like we had a good chance of dying, and the odds of dying were constantly increasing. To some degree we played it so as not to offend the guy who put the time into preparing it; to some degree we played for the same reason that proverbial guy banged his head against the wall: it felt good when we stopped. The dystopian world made it very difficult to build any hope in that game, and so it did not give us the same kind of reward we got from playing heroic characters in worlds in which we were generally successful in our endeavors.

As to Indie games tackling dystopian worlds, it may in large part be an effort to explore what has been left unexplored, supplemented by the desire to do something distinctive so as to stand out from the crowd. It may also be that because these games are distinguished thus they are the ones noticed. There have probably been far more fantasy heartbreakers written by independent game designers than there have been dystopian settings, but the former all blur together as "D&D clones" and the latter make their marks in the game world.

Finally, we like to play heroic characters because in identifying with them we feel good about ourselves. Most of us can remember reading superhero comics, and identifying with Batman or Spiderman or whoever, in the sense that we wanted to be that character. If we're old enough, we wanted to be the heroic cowboys. We wanted to be the detective that solves the crime, the police officer who saves the day, the knight in shining armor that slays the dragon. In short, we wanted to be the admirable person to whom the world looks with respect. As you observe, the characters in World of Darkness games are generally drawn to be pathetic, but played as heroic. Games in which you play pathetic characters tend to encourage dissociation from them, so that you can manipulate the characters in creating the story without the feeling that you're the creep or the loser.

Those are my first impressions on this.

--M. J. Young
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Roger
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« Reply #5 on: November 14, 2005, 10:00:15 AM »

Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

In looking over the comments and giving the topic further thought, I think I've figured out what it is I'm trying to talk about.

It's an issue of wish-fulfillment, and its complement, which I'm going to call fear-fulfillment.

Utopias and dystopias (which I think are serviceable enough terms for now, but I'm open to suggestions) are those we wish we could live in, or fear we could live in, respectively.

Admirable and despicable characters (an improvement over heroic and pathetic, I hope) are those we wish we could be, or fear we might become.

Is there something more inherently marketable about wish-fulfillment?  Is there something more inherently artistic about fear-fulfillment?  I'm not entirely sure.  It's certainly a safe bet in any industry to just follow the money around.  On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if, like many other facets of RPGs, it arises out of unquestioned tradition.  That's the way it was in "The Lord of the Rings", so that's the way it was in "Dungeons and Dragons", and so on.

In terms of RPG design, I think it's worthwhile to consider the concepts of wish-fulfillment and fear-fulfillment for the players.



Cheers,
Roger
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Neal
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« Reply #6 on: November 14, 2005, 11:01:33 AM »

I've got little to add here beyond what Joshua has already said, but I would like to trouble the definitions a bit.

Technically, "utopia" means "no place."  It's "eutopia" that means "good place."  If you read More, you'll probably detect at least a faint trace of irony running through Utopia.  It's almost certainly there on purpose, and it fits with his choice of title.  The perfect place, I think he's saying, is an unattainable dream, a no-place.  Make of that what you will.

As for "dystopias," some folks working in scholarly studies of science-fiction have broken them down into the more standard nightmare societies of which you speak and something else, sometimes refered to as "anti-utopias."  A dystopia, properly considered, is a place where things have followed a trend downward that's lead to abominable conditions.  An anti-utopia, on the other hand, is a nightmare place precisely because someone tried to build a perfect place; it's a eutopia gone horribly wrong, or one which is eutopic only for folks other than the protagonists.  Think of just about any latter-day SF dystopia that isn't cyberpunk, and you're probably thinking of an anti-utopia: Gattica springs to mind, or the less serious Stepford Wives.  Of course, you could say Johnathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels plays with this idea in the society of the Huynmnms (sp?), so it's been around for quite a while.

All this is really to say that good gaming can be found just about anywhere except in a true eutopia.  But since we don't really have examples of true eutopias, that's kind of a moot point.  Someone's eutopia is someone else's anti-utopia.  The point is to ask, first, "What makes this society a perfect place," and then to ask, "Who would disagree with that assessment?"  The answer to the second question, whatever form it takes, will show you who the player characters should be.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #7 on: November 14, 2005, 06:38:32 PM »

I flatly disagree with the contention that you can't game in a Utopian setting (Polaris is Utopian.  So is, I think, Dogs, though Vincent might disagree with that assessment.)  I do think it is interesting to study the existence of Utopias and anti-Utopias in RPG design, especially given all the different sorts of anti-Utopias possible (to draw from RPGs -- compare Paranoia to Mage.)

yrs--
--Ben
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DrVital
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« Reply #8 on: November 14, 2005, 07:15:54 PM »

I think you're confusing Distopia and Anti-Utopia's.
You could game in a Utopia I suppose, but why would you want to? 

Remember what Agent Smith said?
Quote
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?  Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy.  It was a disaster.  No one would accept the program.  Entire crops were lost.

At some point something will go wrong.  Whether it's invading hordes or the breakdown of the system, your perfect world is going to fall apart.  It would be nice to stand around and chat, but the fact is that Utopia's are almost devoid of conflict.
But once the conflict happens, it's become a Dystopia because the flaw in this perfect world has been revealed.

And I posit that's the ponit where the game is going to begin...

I'm very interested in the discussion about why people enjoy playing desire driven characters over fear driven ones.  One thing that's important to remember here is that heroism is a matter of perspective.  One man's hero is another man's terroirst.   In fact in conetemporary stories the terrorist is often the villain (fighting to protect the system), in sci-fi stories they're often the heroes (fighting to destroy the system).
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #9 on: November 14, 2005, 07:23:08 PM »

A utopia having flaws does not make it a dystopia.  It makes it a utopia with flaws.

Has no one ever seen Star Trek?  Come on, people!
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #10 on: November 14, 2005, 08:04:10 PM »

I think you're confusing Distopia and Anti-Utopia's.
You could game in a Utopia I suppose, but why would you want to?
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DrVital
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« Reply #11 on: November 14, 2005, 09:46:17 PM »

Hey!  My name is Andrew.  If you want to use that name you're welcome too.  Perhaps I should of opened the account with my real name, but I figured this was RPG board, so I chose a fictional name...

Ben, you have an interesting point.  I haven't read Polaris, but what you describe is oddly similar to the Federation.  What we get to see is the life of the soldiers who defend the Utopia of the Federation. There's no drama in that perfect society though.  Instead we get a story about the oddballs who aren't able to fit in with the perfection of their society, and must go outside to seek out new frontiers.
When we see mistakes made in the ST universe, it's not by the society internally, but instead failures of the troops to protect the Utopia from outside influences or interact with those outside influences.

Joshua, a utopia with flaws is a dystopia as far as I understand it.   "Brave New World" is a great example of an "almost perfect society".  But it's also the classic dystopian novel because those flaws make everything else that happens within that world a lie.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #12 on: November 15, 2005, 09:50:37 AM »

What we get to see is the life of the soldiers who defend the Utopia of the Federation. There's no drama in that perfect society though.  Instead we get a story about the oddballs who aren't able to fit in with the perfection of their society, and must go outside to seek out new frontiers.
When we see mistakes made in the ST universe, it's not by the society internally, but instead failures of the troops to protect the Utopia from outside influences or interact with those outside influences.

Joshua, a utopia with flaws is a dystopia as far as I understand it.   "Brave New World" is a great example of an "almost perfect society".  But it's also the classic dystopian novel because those flaws make everything else that happens within that world a lie.

Andrew, what about all the episodes where there was conflict between the captains of different ships?  Or the episodes where the captain defied orders from Starfleet Command?  Or the specific episode where Wesley gets in trouble at the Academy because his flight buddies decide to show off and accidentally get somebody killed?  What about the Maquis?  What about Sisko's continual arguments with his superiors?  To say that all the conflict in ST comes from the outside is a tremendous oversimplification, and to describe the characters as the misfit oddballs is... kind of glossing over half the cast (want to explain how Beverly Crusher is an oddball?).

And secondly, I hate to flash credentials, but I completed a semester of studying utopian and dystopian literature, and very nearly wrote my thesis on the subject, so please believe me when I say that a utopia is not invalidated when it isn't perfect, and it certainly doesn't make it a dystopia.  There's a difference between ideal and perfect.  I refer you to Walden Two, Kim Stanley Robinson's "Three Californias", and Woman on the Edge of Time.  Each utopia presented is laid out according to ideal principles, but each also recognizes flaws and difficulties, which create narrative conflict.
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Neal
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« Reply #13 on: November 15, 2005, 10:46:38 AM »

I agree with Joshua.  A utopian society which has to deal with internal problems is still utopian because it is working constructively toward broader and/or more stable perfection.  With an anti-utopia, the struggle toward an ideal (usually something like "social stability") introduces injustice, usually (though certainly not always) toward a minority.  A dystopia is a frickin' trainwreck of a world where any pretense toward perfection has been abandoned.  We could cite examples of each all day, but the point here (in fiction as in gaming) is how the society involves the protagonists in conflict.  So here are three examples, none of which is perfect:

In Star Trek, an advanced and enlightened society must contend with outsiders (and occasional dissidents), recruiting into its fold those who are willing to live by its social contract, and repelling those who are not.  The protagonists experience conflict because they are the ones doing the recruiting and repelling.  This is about as close to a utopia as fiction can offer while still maintaining the interest of the reader, given that a pure eutopia/utopia would rule out conflict.

In Neuromancer, a society has ceased to work toward its own perfection.  A deepening badness has carried the day because that badness benefits some members of the society, who care not a whit about social justice.  It's dog-eat-dog, and the protagonists (while their motives may be good, bad, or indifferent) experience conflict because the world is actively trying to grind them down, use them up, and spit them out.  Their struggle is for survival, not perfection.  This is a dystopia.

In Brave New World, a society has succeeded in regulating human life to the exclusion of the kind of randomness and chance that produces struggle; people are engineered to be content with their lives.  The protagonists experience conflict because this utopia is not a utopia for them.  It is anti-utopian.

Viewing utopias, dystopias, and the like in an abstract way is of limited use.  It's rather like arguing whether a 15% flat tax rate is good or bad.  What matters is who benefits and who suffers.  The definitions resolve themselves based on how the society interacts with the protagonists.
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Neal
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« Reply #14 on: November 15, 2005, 01:58:58 PM »

I flatly disagree with the contention that you can't game in a Utopian setting (Polaris is Utopian.  So is, I think, Dogs, though Vincent might disagree with that assessment.)  I do think it is interesting to study the existence of Utopias and anti-Utopias in RPG design, especially given all the different sorts of anti-Utopias possible (to draw from RPGs -- compare Paranoia to Mage.)

I must have missed this post entirely.

Ben, I think the thing that's fascinating about DitV (since you mentioned it) is that you have one group of people trying desperately to build a eutopia, and they are forced to send out enforcers/judges to keep that eutopia from slipping away.  Okay, there you have an example of gameplay in a utopia.  That's fine as far as it goes.  But now take a look at some Actual Play examples from DitV: you have players saying things like "Man, I hate my character for having to do what he does."  That's the very point where the "pure utopia" idea breaks down.  Dogs routinely force their will on people whose choices do not coincide with theirs; that's part of the interest this game generates.  So is it a utopia just because the Prophets and Ancients consider it to be one?  Hm.  One wonders why there are so few Dogs still riding the circuit past the age of thirty.
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