A week ago I attended a game design convention called Metatopia. It was my first time there, but I will definitely be coming back. The purpose of the convention is for game designers to bring their games, and have other game designers play them and tell them what they think. This is called “playtesting”, whether it is in tabletop or video games.
I did not bring a game to test because 1. I am a big coward and 2. I didn’t have a design I felt needed playtesting and was ready for it. I did however get to sit on a playtest of a game designed by an acquaintance, now some I’d call a friend, named Jason Godesky. His game is called The Fifth World. In brief, the Fifth world draws upon the cultures and beliefs of indigenous hunter-gatherers to posit a post-apocalyptic world where humans are once again hunter-gatherers. The focus of the game is living as part of a band of hunter-gatherers, maintaining a web of relationships by meeting each others’ needs.
Like any post-apocalyptic game, or story, The Fifth World is saying something not only about the future, but about us in the here and now. I don’t want to speak for Jason, but I would say that The Fifth World is about what human beings do in order to flourish, when our unsustainable society no longer sustains itself.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories are as old as stories. They are in the Bible and in older documents, as well as in blockbuster movies each year. Something about these stories speaks to us, and always has. I think in our current day and age, these stories speak to a deep intuition that we seem to share – and this brings me to the television show Doomsday Preppers.
I don’t know how many of the people reading this post have seen Doomsday Preppers – if not, check out the embedded link. In brief, Doomsday Preppers is a reality tv show about people who believe the world as they know it is coming to an end soon, and who do things like build bunkers, collect thousands of pounds of canned goods, seed their swimming pool with tilapia and edible algae, and of course stockpile weapons, because God forbid society end and leave me unable to murder people.
Part of my fascination with Doomsday Preppers is watching the lengths to which people go, and how their families deal with their prepping – or not. But part of it is also the question, “What would I do? How would I prepare?” And there’s some fun in just watching goofy people, who sometimes have no idea what they are talking about, practice shooting each other with pepper spray or board up their house. It’s like Hoarders, but with canned food and guns.
But behind this is the core intuition – that intuition is that our society is radically unsustainable. I say intuition even though there is overwhelming evidence of this unsustainability, because I think it is possible to get the sense of our society’s unsustainability without even thinking about it very carefully. There is some part of our brain that knows that our garbage doesn’t go “away”, that the chemicals we put on our lawns probably isn’t so great to drink, and that there seem to be a lot of “hundred-year” storms and floods lately.
I think that the apocalyptic writings in the Bible had a lot to do with thinking “Surely God’s justice will come, and when it does, the whole world will change.” In our case, I think our cultural fascination with apocalypse, whether it is The Road or Doomsday Preppers or World War Z, is more rooted in the intuition that, “Surely we will pay for what we are doing, and when we do, it’ll be really bad.”
In contrast to The Road or the “Zom-poc”, Jason Godesky’s Fifth World presents a hopeful future. The Doomsday Preppers assume that it’ll be less hopeful, at least in the short term, but think that canned goods and ammo will be enough to see them through. On a level that seems to be widely shared, however, we seem not to question the plausibility of it all. Like a person in Jungian counseling encountering their Shadow-side, we are able to look at what we repress, but usually only obliquely. Instead of truly addressing the collapsing fish stocks, or swirling gyres of plastic, or acidification, or accelerating extinctions, or new lethal diseases, or widespread economic exploitation, or inexcusable waste in the face of hunger, or the sinking United States breadbasket, or desertification, or or or…we engage with stories of apocalypse, and perhaps wonder at their appeal.
Given the choices of preparing for the worst, or working to live in a different way, or lying to ourselves, I think on some level we all know which one we pick.