Brave New World 9: How do you make utopias gamable?

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Utopias are often portrayed as calm and conflict-free. (Examples include the Brave New World, Star Trek's Federation, Banks's Culture, and the upper-class goings of of much steampunk). How do you create compelling stories and game opportunities based around these cultures? Solutions include the conflict between individual happiness and the greater good (such as Marx's arc in Brave New World), outsiders coming in to the utopia (Gulliver's Travels), the utopia interacting with its "less enlightened" neighbours (Star Trek, Culture), or people realising that the supposed utopia has a darker underside (Soylent Green?).

How can you bring a utopia to the gaming table in a compelling way? Can pure utopias be the setting of an interesting story?

Comments

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    Gaming a utopia is easy if there is a threat, going forth to do good elsewhere, coming into contact or being threatened by other societies, or if the utopia isn't all that it seems. Plenty of examples in fiction and gaming, some of which you've raised - the Federation of Star Trek and the Culture also came to my mind.

    But that's cheating. What stories can take place within a utopia that is all that it seems?

    I can think of a few:

    Rescue operations. Even if the Earth is a utopia, there will still be natural disasters and accidents and people need to deal with these. Though maybe this is cheating again.

    Crime procedural. Even in a utopia not everyone will be happy, and it's not a utopia if there's not the freedom to commit crime. It might be exceedingly difficult meaning it's incredibly rare, and so there aren't professionals who can solve it. Or this can drift to make things not a utopia - what if there's actually no freedom?

    Comedy. Let's play things straight. I mention P.G.Wodehouse before. If we ignore the greater picture of less privileged classes, aren't his stories basically set in a utopia? Couldn't we do an SF version where the rich numpties portrayed are everyone? Maybe with robot butlers. Or are we forced to question whether this is an actual utopia?
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    Wow, I love the examples given so far above. P.G. Wodehouse as a utopia - yes, that's fantastic thinking! And yet there's lots of conflict in his world. Sure, most of the conflicts seem trivial, and I guess that's part of what makes them funny - the stakes are not that high. It's mostly about saving face and hiding the fact that oneself doesn't live up to the utopia, or about saving the utopia from threats (like marriage to a wife who believes in 'self improvement'). But just look at all the colliding threats that come to roost in a Wodehouse short story. That's very inspiring.

    I wonder in a similar vein if The Dying Earth also fits the bill? I haven't read the novels, but from playing the setting, my impression is that the conflicts are all rather Wodehousian.

    Breaking out of the Utopia could also be a drive - that might lead to the realization that it's a dystopia, or one might leave the utopia intact. Perhaps the drive to leave is based not on a dissatisfaction with the society, but something else - a personal drive to be non-conforming, for example. How hard is it to be an individual in a society of conformists, even if the society is perfect? From what I remember, Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars has this theme.

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    @dr_mitch commenting on crime procedurals brought to mind Minority Report (I'm thinking of the film as I haven't yet read the book) - would we class that as Utopian or Dystopian, I wonder?
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    Incidentally, this also reminded me of a game mechanism in @clash_bowley 's new opus, The Great Game, in which colonisation of the solar system is triggered by problems happening on Earth. The basic assumption is that people need the impetus of difficulty or disaster in order to go adventuring in space, and so if everything is hunky-dory then nobody does anything new. So the gameplay is based around keeping enough instability at home to keep fuelling expansion, but not so much that everything falls apart.

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    Another couple of topics that could be interesting stories in utopias:

    • Romance and relationships. People form attachments and pair-bond. Sometimes those relationships are wanted from only one side (many romance stories) and sometimes the relationships break down. Sometimes there are contradictory pressures from the needs of self, partner, children, and society. Brave New World deals with this by having very few such deep relationships, but both Lenina and Marx fell short of this ideal.
    • Politics. There are always choices between what's desirable, necessary, or feasible. There are limited resources, even if that's just time and attention. Politics is how these choices are decided, and people will have histories and bear grudges. Mond and Helmholtz both have jobs that seemed to require them balancing these different factions.
    • Coming of age. People will mature to become adult members of the society. BNW sidesteps this by having most people remain infantile, but even Linda had to qualify to become a incubation specialist, and there was a brief aside of the visit to Eton school, where Alphas were trained to exercise some independent thought and judgement.

    And there were plenty of references in the Brave New World text for how problems occurred and were dealt with. The commonplace soma holidays, the Violent Passion Surrogate, and the rapid response of riot police.

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    @RichardAbbott - Utopias always become insular. It is both the path to their utopia and it's key weakness. The larger the insula - that is the extent of the utopia - the more difficult it is to maintain. Making a partial Utopia, like Jeeves and Wooster's world, is more practical. Maintaining a shadow enemy to serve as "them" a la 1984 is one strategy. The autarch maintained support of his internal enemies in order to understand and co-opt them in the Book of the New Sun. But really, note there is no mention of anything beyond the Earth-Moon system in Brave New World. The solar system is not part of the 'world' of the utopia, and I wonder what is out there!

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    @clash_bowley said:
    @RichardAbbott - Utopias always become insular. It is both the path to their utopia and it's key weakness. The larger the insula - that is the extent of the utopia - the more difficult it is to maintain. Making a partial Utopia, like Jeeves and Wooster's world, is more practical. Maintaining a shadow enemy to serve as "them" a la 1984 is one strategy. The autarch maintained support of his internal enemies in order to understand and co-opt them in the Book of the New Sun. But really, note there is no mention of anything beyond the Earth-Moon system in Brave New World. The solar system is not part of the 'world' of the utopia, and I wonder what is out there!

    Naturally this got me wondering what the correct plural for utopia should be :) utopiae, perhaps?

    But regardless of that rabbit hole, I agree with your point, and add the following. I think what you refer to as "maintaining a shadow enemy" is in fact the only strategy, though that enemy could be something other than a human adversary. For example in both Logan's Run and The City and the Stars, the enemy is the (presumed, and unverified) lethal nature of the outside world.

    In both utopias and state-maintained dystopias, it is, I think, necessary for the occupants to have such an external enemy in order to think either "it's so much better than that in here", or else "I mustn't leave because it's so dangerous to be anywhere else". In either case, but for different reasons, you need your populace to not really be investigating what things are actually like. Open dialogue and discourse between inside and outside probably spells doom for any utopia or dystopia.

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    edited January 7

    I agree with your observations... Which leaves the lack of any external 'enemy' in the solar system puzzling.

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    Wasn't the enemy the "Savages" on their reservation? Reject the BNW order, and we'll all be plunged into barbarism like them!

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    edited January 7

    They weren't enemies, I think. They were examples of the world before humanity woke up.

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    @clash_bowley said:
    They weren't enemies, I think. They were examples of the world before humanity woke up.

    Though the regular BNW folk considered them fairly revolting, and their society a salutary example of how not to live.

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    "Sire! The peasants are revolting!"
    "I know, and agree completely."

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    @clash_bowley said:
    They weren't enemies, I think. They were examples of the world before humanity woke up.

    Though the regular BNW folk considered them fairly revolting, and their society a salutary example of how not to live.

    Yes. Let's exclude that middle! Of the two, which sounds more appealing? :D

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