Games are playgrounds for ideas, and, these days, the playgrounds that best entertain ideas are role-playing games. Since the advent of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, tabletop role-playing games have been crucibles for both ideas about gaming and ideas about the subjects of the game. RPGs have greatly influenced how we play everything from video games to card games and how we think about, say, killing things and taking their stuff.
Posthuman Studios, a game development company, is focusing the idea-power of RPGs on the questions raised by transhumanism. Their new game, Eclipse Phase, allows players to explore the most far-out transhumanist possibilities in a cosmic horror setting. Playing this game, you quickly realize that, in a transhuman future, killing things is often a bad idea… and you may not even want their stuff.
Posthuman game developers Rob Boyle and Brian Cross set out to contend with the broadest variety of transhuman notions. "Eclipse phase is a biological term, referring to the moment between a virus’s infection of a cell and its duplication within it. The game occurs at a time when the full spectrum of transhumanity lies scattered across the stars. Humanity has divided into factions, differentiated by their socio-political practices and by their distance from baseline humanity. Vastly powerful artificial intelligences lurk in the darkness and a mysterious plague, the Exurgent Virus, has wrought deep transformations on swathes of transhuman civilization.
Eclipse Phase enlists players as agents of Firewall, a conspiracy that crosses the transhuman factions. “If you took the Singularity Institute and the Lifeboat Foundation and meshed them together in this setting… and put them underground,” says Boyle, “that’s kind of what this Firewall organization is.” Firewall agents deal with existential risk to transhumanity — the Exurgent Virus, intra-transhuman conflicts, malevolent AI, and other massive threats.
Players choose the sort of transhumanity their characters embody — from uploaded intelligences to “uplifted” animals. It’s here that the real work of the game becomes clear. RPGs have always won acclaim for the way that they can get players to identify with characters different from themselves, but what happens when the characters are really different? h+ talked with Boyle and Cross to find out.
H+: How did you look at transhumanism while developing Eclipse Phase, and how do you see the game as a means for exploring transhumanist ideas?
BRIAN CROSS: I’d say that, at least initially, one of the things we wanted to do was attempt to engage with a lot of the issues that you see coming up on transhumanist websites, amongst transhumanist listserves, when transhumanists get together and discuss these things. We try to engage with a lot of those discussions in the game setting, so as to let people play those out in the game. But also — and this is one of the fun things I’ve had in teaching people the game — we’re getting people familiar — who may not otherwise be familiar — with thinking of some technologies as transhuman technologies, thinking in a transhuman way, or engaging with the movement.
It’s both a teaching resource and a way of debating some of these issues in a less high-pressure environment, where it’s easy to say, “Oh, well; it’s a game. No hard feelings,” but you can still engage with these things, while rolling dice.
ROB BOYLE: I think we’re both fairly pro-tech, and we can consider ourselves transhumanists, in the sense of the Transhumanist Declaration. We’re not bio-conservative or anti-tech. But we do think that, with a lot of the technologies, there comes a lot of risks and a lot of questions about how humanity is going to change.
h+: A core question for players of the game is: how much change will I accept in my character? How different from itself can humanity become?
BC: Right. And I’d say also that related to that core question is the question of survival: what you have to do or need to do in order to survive. Because transhumanity is very obviously on the edge of extinction, partially due to their own actions, partially due to these external things. So, how do you use the technology? How much do you change yourself? And at what point do you become no longer transhuman? These sorts of questions figure into it also.
H+: Let’s talk about the forms the characters can take — the choices that players have in developing their characters. Traditionally in role-playing games, players come together as a team or party of adventurers. What’s different about an Eclipse Phase party?
RB: You could, if you wanted to, play a party composed of entirely the same character that has forked himself, made copies of himself, and then downloaded them into different bodies.
h+: But it’s also traditional for a party to consist of specialists. Do the opportunities for customization in a transhumanist milieu eliminate the need for specialized characters?
RB: I’d still say that character within a group in Eclipse Phase tend to specialize in specific roles. In the sample characters that we offer in the core book, there are definitely characters that are more geared towards being scientists or knowledgeable people and other characters more geared towards being combative types or social types. So there’s still a bit of specialization, it’s just that, when you switch bodies, it affects your core characteristics, which affect your skills, allowing you to expand your abilities in different ways.
h+: How do players relate to their characters, then? Do they still form attachments to them? Do they still care what happens to the character?
BC: For my players, they still formed attachments, if not more so, but it was in a different way. It wasn’t necessarily concern for the bodily sanctity of their characters. They were less concerned with issues of injury and death, but more protective of issues concerning their mental health and overall level of sanity because that’s where you actually suffer damage in the game.
h+: Lots of horror-themed games measure characters’ sanity in some way, as a means of doubling up on the threats players face. Characters might die, or they might go crazy. In Eclipse Phase, they can die and then go crazy. How does that work?
RB: There’s a mental health mechanic in the game that’s very similar to the physical health mechanic; they work on the same principles. You pick up physical damage from being wounded in a fight. You can also pick up mental distress — mental trauma, we call it — and if you build up a lot of it, then you develop mental derangement’s and disorders over time.
You pick up this stuff from dying, depending on how you get brought back. There are different methods of reinstating yourself and backing yourself up. You might remember your death, which is one way of suffering trauma, or you might have suffered a gap because you had to revert to a previous back-up that’s six months old — so you just lost six months of your life. And you may not even be certain that you’re dead. There might still be a version of you out there somewhere, because maybe they didn’t find your body. There’s a bit of trauma from that.
h+: What other stresses may have an impact on a character’s state of mind?
BC: We have uplifts in the game, so it’s possible to place your consciousness, if you’re born human, into something that’s distinctly non-human, such as an uplifted great ape or an uplifted octopus. And that’s a little odd.
It goes the other way, too. If you’re born an uplifted octopus, you’re not very familiar with walking around with two legs and two arms. That can cause a bit of mental stress and lead to a mental breakdown… as you can imagine.
h+: Besides their relationships with their characters, how else does Eclipse Phase challenge players with transhumanist ideas?
BC: I’ve run it with two different groups now, and it’s been fun seeing the process where they approach it initially as a standard role-playing game, and then, over the course of the first few sessions, came to understand the differences, and the ways in which it allows them to expand upon traditional ideas in these games.
RB: There’s a bit of a hurdle sometimes. The group I had wasn’t familiar with a lot of the technology at first. So it took a little while to explain things to them and get them going. I think they did kind of start with that standard role-playing game mentality. And then as things went along, they started to see some of the possibilities, but also some of the drawbacks. For example, they were much more reluctant to kill people in the game, to make enemies of people, because when you kill someone in the game, they’re not necessarily dead. They can come back from a back-up, and then you’ve made an enemy for life.
h+: Let’s reverse the question. How does the game allow the players to experience a critique of transhumanism?
RB: You could have a game take place in one of the settings, the Jovian Republic, which is a militaristic, bio-conservative faction that are opposed to uses of nano-fabrication and extensive usage of biotechnology. By having an adventure that involves that faction — or by interacting with characters from that faction — you can kind of explore those bio-conservative arguments against using that kind of stuff within the game. And you can have it counterposed to people who have a more anarchist or libertarian or straight-up capitalist outlook.
Things that I noticed really had people thinking in some of the games I ran were some of the possibilities that come up with sousveillance — the fact that when everything is networked and equipped with sensors and all meshed together, there are possibilities for universal surveillance. It really got them thinking about the possibilities and uses of it. And sometimes I think it even freaked them out a little bit, thinking about how things might turn out.
It’s possible to place your consciousness, if you’re born human, into something that’s distinctly non-human, such as an uplifted great ape or an uplifted octopus.
h+: In the end, how do you hope Eclipse Phase will expand the conversation on transhumanism?
BC: I’d say it’s the kind of game where, after the game session ends for the night, it’s not unusual to find people sticking around talking about some of the topics that came up in the game that night. And how they see hints of that in coming technologies in the world that we currently inhabit.
One of the groups that I run it for — about half the people identify as transhumanists. They’re active in the local community, so they have a lot of fun with it, both suggesting things to talk about, but also using the game to explain things they’ve talked about in the past to other group members who haven’t necessarily been that familiar with transhumanism.
The Eclipse Phase core rulebook will appear in full-color hardback this fall. A PDF version of the rulebook is available here.
More Nachos Entertainment, headed by producer Stephen Marinaccio, has optioned an Eclipse Phase film. Boyle is working on the script with Davidson Cole, another game writer.