The Laboratory of Dreams: Theory from an RPG Sourcebook

(Image Credit: Grand Universe by Gary Tonge,

When we’re children we’re often taught that great ideas are the product of great minds; blessed ideas that spring forth from the creator’s cranium like Athena from Zeus, fully formed and miraculous. But the truth is that ideas of the most compelling sort have no one source, and can come from the most intriguing of places assembled from seemingly dissociated bits and pieces. Recently in my writing about theory I’ve tried to convince you to look at it as something that grows from daily life and is itself a kind of practise as a result. What this way of looking at things enables you to do is see ‘theory’ as being more ubiquitous than it may first seem when you, say, look at a college textbook.

Enter Eclipse Phase, a pen and paper RPG set several hundred years in the future with a post-apocalyptic setting. The action, however, need not take place on the despoiled Earth. Our Solar System is home to countless colonies, some independent, some confederated, that express the gamut of human ideologies. One of the game’s overarching themes is transhumanism which the book itself defines as: “an international cultural and intellectual movement that endorses the use of science and technology to enhance the human condition, both mentally and physically.” Now, there is certainly no question that such an ideology has innumerable pratfalls. It could potentially become a 21st century expression of eugenicism, for example. People with disabilities in particular are right to be wary of such and the cultural genocide it can entail in the wrong hands.[1]

But the funny thing about ideas is that they are multifaceted and thus easily repurposed, and Eclipse Phase’s presentation of its interpretation of transhumanism is quite compelling. Loving a good ‘trans’ pun myself, I decided to explore the concept a little bit, and sure enough, I was rewarded:

To many transhumans, gender has become an outdated social construct with no basis in biology. After all, it’s hard to give credence to gender roles when an ego can easily modify their sex, switch skins, or experience the lives of others via XP. Though most transhumans still adhere to the gender associated with their original biological sex, many others switch gender identities as soon as they reach adulthood or avidly pursue repeated transgender switching. Still others examine and adopt untraditional sex-gender identities such as neuters (believing a lack of sex allows greater focus in their pursuits) or dual gender (the best of both worlds). In many bioconservative habitats and cultures, however, more traditional gender roles persevere. (Eclipse Phase Sourcebook, p. 35)

You see, in this distant future, humanity has discovered technological means of changing bodies at will, preserving consciousness in a handy, downloadable file format, and in the process taking “my body, my choice” to a whole new level. The game explores economic inequality in depth as well, and thus the limitations of one’s bodily autonomy imposed in a world where economic injustice has simply evolved in certain crucial ways. But nevertheless, this section on gender elucidates something rather fascinating that RPGs can do for us: allow us to imagine and actually play around in a future that we might do well to fight for (at least in part- I could do without the rampaging out of control military AI that destroyed Earth in Eclipse Phase’s canon, thank you very much).

What is fascinating, in part, is twofold. One, trans people of all sorts (myself included) are already living that paragraph in various ways, and two, that the future it posits is one in which being transgender is not only accepted, it’s an experience virtually the whole of transhumanity (transhumanity!) shares. Biological essentialism has been well and truly shattered, and right along with it, patriarchy.

This kind of imagining, the sort that helps you more meaningfully toss dice about, is a good deal more important than it seems. The reason? Well, recently I have taken certain feminist theorists to task for their insistence that in some vaguely imagined post-sexist utopia, trans people would not exist. Cultural genocide, in other words. Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna take a slightly more nuanced approach and say simply that SRS would not exist because in a world sans biological essentialism, we wouldn’t feel the need to peg identity to primary sex characteristic. Leaving aside the fact that transsexual transition is far more complex than that, there is still more to this problem. Chiefly the fact that these transphobic feminists are too often the ones controlling the ‘future’ for us. In response to this academic trend, I said the following:

“Some theorists have correctly identified that our system of binary gender rests heavily on genitalia being an immutable and ineluctable base to the superstructure of gendered expression. In short, genitals are seen as being ‘everything’ in determining and attributing gender/sex. Thus these theorists argue that when we reach a point where we no longer see genitals as these all important moorings of identity, no one will ever get SRS. What this conceptual argument neglects is an explanation of why anyone wouldn’t get SRS in such a world. Remember (as if you could forget) that much of the revulsion to trans people is about how we ‘mutilate’ ourselves. Genitals are seen as so sacred and inviolate that cis people project onto us their own fears about their genitalia and use that to question our sanity, agency, and genders. “Only a madman would cut his penis off!” might go the usual, blokey transphobia. Thus, let us imagine a world where genitals were seen as far less vital and integral. Why would someone not get SRS? If there is no stigma attached to such surgeries, it is conceivable (especially in a high technology environment) that people would make the switch, as it were.”

A bit chunky, but I think it makes the point quite well. It asks quite simply: “if we can imagine a world where the body was not held as sacrosanct in its immutability, and biologically essential, then why wouldn’t people try to change theirs?” Eclipse Phase goes a step further and creates a universe where such is the norm. It is, after all, the high technology environment I spoke of made manifest.

One of the most sure-fire ways to fight back against a “you don’t exist in utopia” trope is to create your own utopia. The power to envision a better future is something often written off as so much fantasising and wasted time. Yet as I said earlier, look more closely at what games like Eclipse Phase are doing (whether its authors intended this or not). They’re taking something that goes on quite regularly today (transsexual and transgender transitions) and turning them into a future social norm with an attendant system of gender that is a ways ahead of our own. They’re then asking people to play around in that world. Not too long ago I spoke about “roleplaying as resistance” and why it’s an underrated mechanism of rebellion- because of what it enables you to do in social environments that are both very imaginary and very real. You can perform, in front of others, a notion of gender that accommodates transsexual and transgender people, and thus affect their socialisation in a way, however small, that could change how they see trans people in their own real world.

The same can be said for feminist visions of gender more broadly, critical disability theory’s vision of a world without ableism, and so on. These games are elaborate thought exercises, potentially, and yet something more than that too. If we are what we know, and if we have even that slightest potential to make dreams reality, then why undervalue workshops of dreaming?

A laboratory of dreams, if you will.

One of the most trenchant and common criticisms levelled at traditional roleplaying games is that they are worlds tailored to a hegemonic white cis male perspective. In certain ways, Eclipse Phase is no different. In the future, apparently, all the women are still half naked supermodels and so forth, and the archetype of the Venusian Diplomat I’d like to play is wearing a cocktail dress rather than the space age business suit I imagined. But in other rather dramatic ways, it’s very different, and this anti-patriarchal vision of gender is one of them. You see, one of the consequences of the aforementioned hegemonic perspective is that fantasy becomes a world in which you as a marginalised person don’t exist. Empowered woman who exists on her own terms? Doesn’t exist. Person of colour? Poof. Gay or queer? Invisible. Trans? At best, a side gag.

So what does it mean when a brilliant RPG can be written where transgender transition is a social norm? I think it means something quite important. It’s a reminder that the laboratory of dreams should not be discarded as a mere flight of fancy. Science fiction and fantasy are powerful because of the possibilities they compel us to imagine, and roleplaying games go a step beyond books and film because they allow you to actually play in that imagined world and explore it, to really test the limits of your progressive imagination.

Praxis with dice and stats sheets.

The game does not shy away from making players think. In a prominent sidenote later in the sourcebook it says the following:

The Eclipse Phase setting raises a number of interesting questions about gender and personal identity.

What does it mean when you are born female but you are occupying a male body? When it comes to language and editing, this also poses a number of interesting questions for what pronouns to use. The English language has a bit of a bias towards male-gendered pronouns that we hope to avoid in these rules.

For purposes of this game, we’ve sidestepped some of these gender neutrality quandaries by adopting the “Singular They” rule. What this means is that rather than just going with male pronouns (“he”) or switching between gendered pronouns (“he” in one chapter, “she” in the next), we have adopted the use of “they” even when referring to a single person. To some folks, this is bad grammar, but there is actually some good evidence that this usage has strong historical roots (look it up), and it certainly gives our editors fewer headaches.

When referring to specific characters, we use the gendered pronoun appropriate to the character’s personal gender identity, no matter the sex of the morph they are in.

I can very personally answer the question of “what does it mean when you are born female but you are occupying a male body?” Indeed such a question evokes something much more than a game for me, something painful. Yet I smile wide because of how this game can compel cis people to stand in my shoes for a while, to get a small, simulated taste of what that must be like. I also find it interesting that they consider gender identity separate from the body, entreating people to potentially take someone whose ‘morph’ can be gendered male and still refer to her as a her. Think of how that simple act undermines all of our own programming of gender.

It could be argued that such actually reinforces misgendering but critically, the developers seem to emphasise “the character’s personal gender identity”- not “whatever you as a cis person think their gender is.”

All of this in a fascinating, well designed RPG.

Of course, that sidenote still speaks in our contemporary language. The mores of this future Solar System and the way of life many transhumans share call into question just what it means to be “born female” or “born male” and it also calls into question the split between mind and body. On the one hand it’s the ultimate reification of the Cartesian split: your consciousness can be transmitted at will. But on the other, your body can become a major expression of your identity. It’s not worthless, it’s not simply there as a hindrance to your omnipotent mind. It’s a critical outgrowth of it that transhumans cannot do without.

It is also worth briefly mentioning the following:

Subjects afflicted with [Body Dysmorphic Disorder] believe that they are so unspeakably hideous that they are unable to interact with others or function normally for fear of ridicule and humiliation at their appearance. They tend to be very secretive and reluctant to seek help because they are afraid others will think them vain— or they may feel too embarrassed to do so. Ironically, BDD is often misunderstood as a vanity-driven obsession, whereas it is quite the opposite; people with BDD believe themselves to be irrevocably ugly or defective. A similar disorder, gender identity disorder, where the patient is upset with their entire sexual biology, often precipitates BDD-like feelings. Gender identity disorder is directed specifically at external sexually dimorphic features, which are in constant conflict with the patient’s internal psychiatric gender.

This is in a section on various mental traits your character can possess that run a gamut of neuroatypicality. A critical disability theorist might be able to better comment on the meaning of some of these entries than I and it lends itself to interpretation: on the one hand it can be seen as stigmatising to see these things all listed as disorders, on the other the invitation to make and roleplay a character with certain neurotypes opens up new possibilities of empathy and consideration that break apart the normal/abnormal dichotomy. It’s interesting how the developers frame this, after all:

Disorders should not be glamorized as cute role-playing quirks. They represent the best attempts of a damaged psyche to deal with a world that has failed it in some way.

While they may stigmatise through saying “damaged” it’s very worthy to note that they shift responsibility to a world that has failed the person in question, rather than a moral or personal failing on the part of that person. They also remind players that those who play as characters who start with or whose campaign leads them into certain neurotypes will also have to confront ableism in society and find a way to deal with it: “Additionally, people in many habitats, particularly those in the inner system, still regard disorders as a mark of social stigma and may react negatively towards impaired characters.”

How does your party deal with ableism and its implications? The question arises too with “Gender Identity Disorder”, and while I have criticised the concept of certain genders being inherently disordered, I find it interesting that cis players could walk a mile in my shoes, so to speak, and learn (especially under the guidance of a good GM) what it feels like to have been where I stood, in a body that I didn’t control and was prevented from making my own until I fought long and hard for that right.

It could be said that by turning it all into a game, the developers here are commodifying and making light of serious social issues, but this vastly underrates games as being mere toys. The whole concept of a laboratory of dreams rests upon the idea that the thought experiments they entreat people to make have ramifications in the real world, and on balance I think making neurotypical and cis people stand in the shoes of people they might normally dismiss can have very positive consequences. From what I’ve read thusfar, Eclipse Phase’s developers are encouraging precisely that kind of serious exploration, rather than devil-may-care appropriation.

I can’t overstate the amazing reality of the fact that we as trans people exist in Eclipse Phase as something more than a joke or side gag. Everything written thusfar is not really an advert for this game, although I do encourage you to see for yourself. It’s meant to elucidate something critical: if EP is possible, what else is? What would RPGs built from the ground up by traditionally marginalised people look like? Rare quality RPGs like Eclipse Phase tantilisingly show what is possible when you take the personal as political.

Take one more compelling example about the body here, from the section on the different types of morphs you can possess:

Bouncers are humans genetically adapted for zero-G and microgravity environments. Their legs are more limber, and their feet can grasp as well as their hands.

These humans are uniquely adapted to habitats that have little to no gravity. On asteroids and zero-G habitats, what is “disabled” changes quite drastically. It completely upends the reified models of disability many people still work with today and makes abundantly clear to players of this game that it all depends on one’s environment. If you are not a Bouncer, you possess a kind of disability in a zero-G environment, for example. Such common scenarios demolish the myth of an ontological reality to physical disability and brings the social model into full relief.

There is still more I could explore here: how “body politics” takes on a whole new meaning in this universe, how sexuality changes in a world where immortality is achievable, how gender roles become meaningless in such a society.

And really, that’s the point. Games are more than just games. Written well and designed well, they become that laboratory filled with oodles of fascinating kit to toy around with and potentially create something new, even if it is just a new consciousness for yourself. As I read through the book and its discussion of “bioconservatives” I couldn’t help but think of people like Janice Raymond or Kenneth Zucker, scientific antagonists of the trans community, or of the anti-choice “pro-life” brigade, or those who look down their noses at people with tattoos, piercings, and a host of other body mods. Or anyone who might say I’ve mutilated myself, for that matter.

Such bioconservatives still exist in Eclipse Phase’s world, but they are a marginalised minority themselves, now, seen as extremist reactionaries well out of step with literally over 95% of transhumanity.

Now that’s a future worth imagining.


[1] This is indeed a major pitfall to be found in many expressions of science fiction, and it’s as common as the chrome-plated patriarchy imagined in most lazy renditions of the future which seem to be our society plus lasers and warp drive all too often. But the point of this article and things I have written in the recent past is to enjoin you to not only righteously criticise and tear down these oppressive fantasies, but to “seize the means of production.” Ideas are things that are produced, among them fiction and visions of the future. We all know that fiction is never just fiction, it shapes how people see reality, however imperceptibly. In Marx’s time the only means of production he could see were factories. I’m asking both myself and all of you to look at it a little differently: RPGs are a means of production, textbooks are a means of production, blogs are a means of production, YouTube videos are a means of production, and they have revolutionary potential to be seized without a shot being fired in anger. The more ideas we produce, the more alternate realities and visions of the future we produce, the stronger we become. Long before I was born people in many radical traditions have done this, it’s not a newfangled theory. But the potential exists now to do so much more with it; the popularity of interactive gaming, whether digital or PnP opens up possibilities that did not exist until recently. I want to take advantage of them.