By Nicholas L. Stefanski
The worldbuilding TTRPG Arium: Create by Adept Icarus promises a utopian procedure for creating gameworlds that are generative, safe, and liberating environments for roleplayers, an undertaking animated by recent debates over the prevalence of harmful, stereotypical, or simply repetitive tropes throughout the TTRPG industry. While the shift away from these problematic tropes is admirable and perhaps overdue within the industry, Arium’s approach to addressing this issue is also notable for its enthusiastic endorsement of creativity techniques stemming from the world of corporate management and innovation consulting. Specifically, Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding approach shares many commonalities with the Lean management philosophy that emerged in the 1990s, largely inspired by Toyota’s operating model. Both Arium’s Lean, and Lean as it is now understood in business, are associated with the pervasive use of Post-it notes for ideation and collaboration.
This article explores how Arium’s utopian solutionism and endorsement of a signature technique of post-Fordist management presents both pitfalls and opportunities for inventive, utopian roleplay. Beginning in the critical mode, I suggest that by adopting techniques that reduce the art of imaginative worldbuilding to a ritualized formula, Arium: Create risks building worlds that are creative merely for the sake of creativity, and consensual mainly in their appeal to the lowest common denominator. Inspired by Adorno and Horkheimer’s critiques of jazz and the culture industry, and following Eitan Wilf’s ethnography of Post-its and critiques of the innovation and creativity industry, the first movement of the article asks whether such strategies of routinized, commodified creativity can only ever produce the ‘freedom to choose what is always the same.’[i] Nevertheless, while this danger should not be ignored, I argue that it would be wrong to dismiss Arium or to label it as utopian in only the pejorative sense. Taking cues from theorists responding to Adorno’s pessimistic stance toward popular culture, notably Adorno’s Frankfurt School colleague and interlocutor Walter Benjamin, the second movement of the article suggests that despite its embrace of corporate solutionism, Arium’s collaborative worldbuilding contains a generative kernel, revealing an additional movement in the dialectic between oppressive technologies of control and the utopian impulse.
In order to resolve this gap between the two possible readings of Arium, the Adornian and the Benjaminian, I rely upon a humble but illuminating critical methodology: actual play! Upon my first close reading of Arium’s marketing materials, the parallels to critiques of the culture industry that use Post-its as a fetish for the creative process seemed self-evident, and I was poised to judge Arium harshly. Yet, as I assembled a play group and gave Arium: Create a playthrough, the second, generative utopian movement began to suggest itself. While critiques of corporate creativity culture certainly apply to Arium, my experience of actual play suggests that the game manages to stumble towards the affirmatively utopian, even as it fails to deliver on its promise of permitting only an idealized mixture of setting and tropes.
The ultimate goals of this article are twofold: first, to explore Arium as an artifact occupying a particularly kairotic position within contemporary cultural discourse, poised as it is at the fault line between corporate managerial technocracy and contemporary social justice activism; and second, to suggest that play, described here as a critical methodology, gestures toward a theory of the utopian that allows us to reassess the dialectic between ‘critical’ and ‘blueprint’ utopias. Specifically, I argue that utopia is that which offers an education in the art of the compossible.
Arium and the Critique of Post-it Creativity
Arium RPG is a TTRPG system designed for creating, playing in, and evolving bespoke fictional game worlds, or ‘ariums,’ for roleplaying. The game system consists of two distinct publications, Arium: Create and Arium: Discover, each available in either digital PDF format or as a bound paperback zine.[ii] This article focuses on Arium: Create, the publication devoted to worldbuilding. Although the publisher Adept Icarus is a newcomer to TTRPG publishing, and Arium is at most a mid-sized participant in the rapidly expanding ecosystem of crowdfunded tabletop projects, Arium: Create features utopian marketing rhetoric, a self-conscious response to perceived problems with the worldbuilding tropes of the broader TTRPG industry, as well as an enthusiastic mobilization of neoliberal corporate innovation techniques, that make it a potential ideological bellwether for the TTRPG world and an illuminative artifact of study.
Arium’s utopian rhetoric occurs at the intersection of two influential constellations of contemporary rhetoric: the increasingly assertive, social justice-focused TTRPG consumer activism on one hand, and the practices and ideologies of corporate management ‘creativity’ culture on the other. To begin with the former, in recent years the TTRPG hobby has come under increased scrutiny from critics, online activists, and consumers regarding tropes with racist, misogynistic, or simply derivative and repetitive legacies used in worldbuilding and game design.[iii] While diversity and representation within the hobby are complex, multi-causal and deep-seated issues, Arium’s marketing materials recast the problem as simply one of inadequate creativity, asking: ‘Why play in someone else’s sandbox when the whole group can have a blast creating their own?’ The suggestion is that if only a TTRPG’s setting could be engineered to contain just the right mixture of tropes, such problems could be neutralized.[iv]
The ‘better living through creativity’ frame clearly connects Arium with neoliberal ideologies of corporate creativity and innovation, and the point of suture is none other than the Post-it note. Arium: Create’s Lean Worldbuilding method proceeds as follows: first, a timed ideation phase in which participants write up to three ideas on Post-its, strictly one idea per note; second, a collaborating phase in which the GM and participants group notes that are either similar or perhaps harmonize with one another into clusters; and finally, a voting phase determining which clusters will be included in the final, built game world. In practice, the clustering phase involves a high degree of deliberation and of the GM recording, handling, sticking, unsticking, and re-sticking the ubiquitous Post-it notes according to the collaborative preferences of the players. The three phases are then iterated across an increasingly narrow series of worldbuilding steps: Universal, Big Picture, Culture & Organizations, Landmarks, People, and Goodies (the latter refers to items or ‘loot’).[v] Arium intends that each step be productively constrained by the preceding steps; the Universal step of my first game session produced a ‘neo-noir, modern fantasy world that blends sci-fi and magic featuring Western criminal mafias in an apocalyptic wasteland with society versus world themes’ with the exact nature and extent of magic, role of the mafias, geography and bestiary of the wasteland, and so forth further delineated in the subsequent steps. The Post-its, and more importantly the reification of potentially complex ideas into portable, recombinant nuggets that the notes encourage, play a key role in every phase.
Post-it note invention comes to Arium via a direct lineage from similar techniques used by the innovation and creativity consulting industry, often servicing Silicon Valley startups and Fortune 500 companies. This appetite for Post-its arises within a more general inclination of the corporate world toward provocative but largely unproven pseudoscientific creativity techniques, most notably the ‘lateral thinking’ craze of the 1970s based upon the works of Edward de Bono and his successors. Arium’s lead designer, William Munn, worked for several years within this constellation as a corporate creativity consultant, and credits that experience with inspiring Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding.[vi]
It should perhaps be unsurprising that the Post-it would arrive to capitalize on the TTRPG industry’s crisis of tropes: as Eitan Wilf’s critical ethnography of the innovation and creativity industry has shown, the Post-it has become a key technology of post-Fordist corporate management.[vii] Wilf’s ethnography shows how two of the Post-it note’s physical properties make it an alluring, but ultimately problematic technology for promoting invention. First, the small size of the notes gives rise to a condition of pragmatic ambiguity because in order to fit on a single note, complex ideas must be reduced to their most basic form.[viii] This hyper-distillation of ideas can accomplish the beneficial function of loosening our assumptions about an idea’s typical context, but at the cost of potentially removing so much context that the underlying idea becomes ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness. Wilf’s ethnography humorously describes creativity seminar participants focusing intently on the supposedly deep and illuminative contradiction at play in ‘tools versus dialogue,’ as suggested by the juxtaposition of two Post-it notes, yet when pressed, no participant could explain the idea that either of these notes was intended to convey.[ix] Second, Post-its’ weak adhesive properties, purportedly an enhancement to the mobility of ideas and chance combinations, in practice often results in chaos when the notes fail to stick as intended and scatter about the floor.[x]
Arium play sessions illustrate how the very same qualities of the Post-it that seem to facilitate mobile ideation also lead inevitably and simultaneously to its breakdown, and furthermore, that this breakdown is actually necessary to producing the consensus promised by the game. While the material affordances of Post-its enhance the mobility and recombinancy of ideas and generation of insights, these very same properties can cause the invention process to reverse into meaninglessness.[xi] Yet importantly, this meaninglessness need not always take the form of gibberish or communicative noise, but rather the blandness of broadly acceptable pablum. In my own Arium session, the single Universal-step note ‘society versus world’ proved to be very popular and was continually voted along for inclusion in the final Arium. Yet when pressed, no participant was able to explain this note’s meaning. Of course, intuition can legitimately contribute to creative collaboration and to democratic deliberation. However, to the extent that Arium positions its worldbuilding as consensus decision-making, the difficulty players encounter in trying to explain their votes draws into question whether consensus is used as a means of confronting and unpacking nuanced and thorny points of contest, or rather as a means of papering over these difficult issues while still celebrating the justness and novelty of the result. Furthermore, some ‘Landmark’ notes such as ‘Black Sea’ proved initially popular, but support for the note similarly evaporated after the note’s author was asked to specify whether the note referred to the Eurasian body of water or rather the general concept of a black-colored fantasy sea. In these cases, pragmatic ambiguity enabling participants to fudge a consensus by skirting disagreement may, at worst, allow a vapid or meaningless note to pass; however, in other cases, such as with my sessions’ ‘antagonistic matriarch’ note, the note’s ambiguity could allow it to evade the very process of creating a safe space for roleplay free from gendered stereotypes promised by the game.
Wilf describes how, in the corporate setting, the ritual of moving notes around and fitting them to a pre-arranged template conforms to the presumed paradigm of ‘what an insight should look like.’[xii] Such ritualization can lead to a kind of innovation for the sake of innovation, relatively distanced from any need to justify its social usefulness or ethical acceptability. Because Arium takes place within the distinct social space that Huizinga calls the “magic circle” of gameplay,[xiii] Arium not only participates in such ritualization, but may even intensify it.[xiv] Experienced TTRPG players are already habituated to trust the dice, or other aspects of a game’s resolution engine, as a fair, neutral arbiter for the outcome of the collaborative narrative. By gamifying the worldbuilding process under the mantle of TTRPG play, Arium extends the magic circle’s ambit to include the worldbuilding process itself as well whatever mixture of tropes it happens to mash together. Thus, if a note such as ‘antagonistic matriarch’ manages to join a coalition that makes it through the voting process, it is presumed to be not only consensual, but also carries the halo of having survived the magic circle. In my game, I noted that some players seemed to have some hesitancy surrounding the inclusion of the note; however, they were reluctant to voice that hesitancy after it had passed Arium’s prescribed voting process.
The ritualized Post-it innovation at play in both Arium and the corporate setting both conforms to and normalizes the rapid turnover and superfluous recombinancy characteristic of late capitalist production. In the corporate setting, it is easy to see how Post-it invention’s ability to produce, on demand, innovation merely for the sake of innovation accelerates the turnover of capital through the creation of endlessly iterative new products, services, and even free updates to digital services that nevertheless generate monetizable views and clicks. When a group of executives gathers for a bout of Post-it invention, they are guaranteed to produce a combination of concepts that is both nominally new and carries the halo of having been produced through the ritualistic process; whether the resulting combination is any good is seemingly beside the point. Indeed, Arium advertises its ability to create worlds with ‘time traveling sasquatches kidnapping kids’ or ‘an underwater society on the far side of the universe that could easily be at home in the works of Lewis Caroll’without pausing to ask whether that particular combination of tropes is really something we actually need, or poses any novel or interesting questions for roleplay.[xv]
The very leanness of Arium’s signature Lean Worldbuilding is also suggestive of the relationship between ideologies of creativity and the rhetoric of neoliberal austerity. As Oli Mould has shown, creativity, as a normative social value, is often invoked as a cover for austerity and defunding of social programs as individuals and institutions are entreated to become more creative in the face of being asked to do more with less.[xvi] In place of the laborious and time-consuming processes of traditional fictional worldbuilding including J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of the Elvish language, Kim Stanley Robinson’s detailed study of Martian geography and landforms, N.K. Jemisin’s interdisciplinary extrapolative reasoning across science, economics and culture, or teams of full-time, salaried professionals in the writer’s rooms at Wizards of the Coast or Catalyst Game Labs, Arium suggests that we can rapidly crowdsource the process using only the tropes that already exist collectively in the minds of the participants, as long as we are armed with Post-it notes, a timer, and just the right procedural creation technique. In this, it resembles many other rules lite worldbuilding TTRPGs, though in pushing the contentless approach to the limit, it is a particularly notable exemplar. In practice, this style of lean collaboration often produces gaps and inadequacies that will have to be addressed either by the GM after the worldbuilding session or through improvisational roleplay, not unlike neoliberal austerity’s tendency to nominally cut costs by pushing additional labor and risks onto workers, and their family and support networks, without compensation.
As we have seen, Arium diagnoses the growing unrest with traditional TTRPG tropes as a crisis, and it responds to the crisis with the creative destruction characteristic of neoliberalism.[xvii] As an observation made in tech writer Tom Goodwin’s digital column—later achieving prominent ephemerality as a viral text macro—characterizes these deliberately disruptive new business models: ‘Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.’[xviii] Arium Create aims to join this growing constellation as a TTRPG book that features no characters, no maps, no stat blocks, no campaign settings, nor any of the other standard components of the medium. Instead, in response to the perceived crisis Arium sells us the utopian promise of unlocking our own creative potential as experienced through its signature worldbuilding procedure. This contentless approach has the added advantage of shielding the designer and publisher from the types of controversies surrounding identity and representation currently faced by D&D and other legacy TTRPG franchises. Along with its content, Arium effectively crowdsources the responsibility for safe and consensual roleplay to its players. While it may be laudable to sweep aside the subtly (and not so subtly) entrenched misogyny and racism of ‘old school’ TTRPG settings, one should remain mindful of the ways in which neoliberal methods and ideologies quickly move in to fill the void.
Because it creates value from the interplay of its own proprietary procedures and the ideas, inclinations, and desires of its players, Arium, despite being played on pen and paper, might be understood as an instance of what Mould calls algorithmic creativity or even ‘algocracy.’[xix] Under conditions of algocracy, our lives are increasingly determined by the outputs of digital algorithms posing as neutral organizers of data, even as they extract value from the data produced by the algorithms users themselves. In the gaming world, algorithmic creativity in the form of procedural content generation has become a hot topic among scholars studying digital games; however, consider that traditional pen and paper TTRPGs are perhaps among the earliest implementers of procedural content generation.[xx] In addition to the obvious use of stochastic dice rolls to decide outcomes, since the earliest days of D&D and Tunnels & Trolls TTRPGs have always used paper procedural generation tables to assist GMs with implementing the details of an emergent narrative, such as wandering monster appearances, NPC reactions and behavior, and even impromptu quests or adventure hooks.[xxi] While in one sense Arium simply amplifies this existing TTRPG practice, creating a procedure for generating the entire campaign setting itself, it also participates in monetizing its players’ own capacity to create content and marketing it back to them in a way that echoes Web 2.0 monetization practices — the expectation that producers and consumers will merge into prosumers, and the utopian promise that crowdwork, supported by well-designed algorithms, will make all their work feel like play anyway.
Works such as Wilf’s critique of the Post-it note and my initial reaction to Arium: Create assume a thoroughly pessimistic critical stance toward technocratic attempts to administrate creativity through the manipulation of tropes and other cultural material, a critical stance that has been indelibly marked by Adorno’s critiques of the 20th century of mass culture. Along with his collaborator Max Horkheimer, Adorno, with great prescience and sophistication, shows how the culture industry stripped cultural production of both the salt of truth contained in traditional peasant cultures and the potential for spontaneity and newness opened up by bourgeois high culture, instead engaging in a standardization of cultural production and for the first time bringing it reliably within the ‘realm of administration.’[xxii] Adorno and Horkheimer show how the outputs of the culture industry such as 20th century Hollywood films plunder the repertoire of the classics for familiar tropes and plot structures, and then produce economically safe but artistically unremarkable blockbusters by adding lead actors and cinematographic effects according to industry formulas. This process is strikingly similar to the way Arium’s Post-it invention takes tropes already accepted and internalized by its players, purging them of objectionable content through consensus voting, and then combining them with similar tropes in a nominally new yet largely predictable arrangement. Old, recycled tropes appearing on the Post-its are reanimated, recombined and sent into battle fresh off the assembly line as if reanimated by a steampunk necromancer, yet when they arrive they have nothing to tell us but the same old stories once again.
Yet this same culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer also contend, can simultaneously celebrate and cultivate all kinds of novelty, disruption, and spontaneity, so long as these proceed according to strict, safely administered formulae. In his essays on jazz, Adorno again takes aim at attempts to standardize and ritualize the creative process. Adorno argues that jazz’s much-celebrated improvisational character is itself standardized, scripted, and pasted on in a half-hearted attempt to cover over an underlying commercial sameness: ‘The elements in jazz in which immediacy seems to be present, the seemingly improvisational moments—of which syncopation is designated as its elemental form—are added in their naked externality to the standardized commodity character in order to mask it-without, however, gaining power over it for a second.’[xxiii] Although jazz scholars have contested how much Adorno actually knew about jazz, the essays are notable for further theorizing the process by which the universally valorized qualities of improvisation and change might themselves function as pseudo-creative lures of the culture industry, and it is precisely this form of ‘creativity on demand’ that Arium: Create now offers to the TTRPG world.
Arium as Training for the Utopian Imagination
Adorno’s critiques of the culture industry’s attempts to standardize creativity and bring it ‘within the realm of administration’ clearly implicate Arium to an uncomfortable degree; however, the works of Walter Benjamin, Adorno’s Frankfurt school colleague, offer hope for a more positive assessment of the game. While Benjamin does not deny the oppressive aspects of 20th century mass culture, he also takes care to show how, despite their problematic effects, such artifacts nevertheless also participate in a dialectic that opens up new opportunities for practicing human freedom on a mass scale. Notably, Benjamin shows that while mass technological reproducibility may have indeed destroyed the ‘aura’ of authenticity and creativity relied upon by the singular works of earlier eras, it simultaneously does us a service by freeing the masses from a ‘parasitic subservience to ritual’ and thus clearing the way for a new forms of attention to and engagement with creative works.[xxiv] For 20th century mass media, such novel forms of attention included the development of an ‘optical unconscious’ revealed by the technical affordances of photography as well as film.[xxv] Rather than simply lamenting the public’s infatuation with at times repetitive and formulaic instances of media photography and film, Benjamin instead shows how mass attention to the camera’s ‘resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating, stretching or compressing a sequence, enlarging or reducing an object’ have in some respects enhanced the collective sensibility of the masses.[xxvi] Public attentiveness to the microsecond (perhaps further enhanced in our own time through ubiquitous instant replay technology) and to the smallest details of people, objects and environments have arisen in this way.
It is again Wilf’s ethnography, in a very different environment than the Post-it infused corporate boardroom, that allows us to see something like the Benjaminian dialectic applied to more recent technical developments impacting the relationship to creativity. Almost as if in retort to Adorno, Wilf looks at technology-assisted efforts to teach, imitate, and recombine the improvisation and creativity of past jazz masters through technologies such as The Amazing Slow Downer, an immersive digital audio program that allow jazz students to ‘fuse’ with the playing past jazz masters.[xxvii] The results complicate the prevailing Western understanding of creativity as an authentic and wholly original process, exemplified by the auratic works of the Romantic and earlier periods, and certainly having little to do with rote copying. Yet the technologically-assisted jazz students do seem to build a capacity for improvisation by copying the improvisation of the masters, enacting a kind of ritual in which the student ‘inhabits’ the improvisation of the masters at technologically adjustable speeds, thus enabling them to reenact them as the experience of their own improvisation.
As my own play sessions of Arium: Create unfolded, it seemed increasingly plausible that Arium’s own technical reproducibilitycan also provide a similar kind of training in genuine creative capacity of the type explored by Benjamin and Wilf. Although Arium’s standardization and iterability indeed implements the kind of assembly line of cultural tropes that would make Adorno cringe, it can also perform a significant teaching function, prompting new players to ‘inhabit’ critical thinking and invention in a way not unlike the students in Wilf’s jazz ethnography. For instance, recall that during the first ‘Universal’ ideation step, my group overwhelmingly voted that a ‘criminal mafias’ note be included in the final game setting. Of course, as a discrete Post-it, ‘criminal mafias’ is laden with tropes and cultural stereotypes. Yet as play progressed and the note had to be integrated with other notes into a coherent roleplay setting, the common mafia tropes and stereotypes began to drop away. As new notes were added in subsequent phases, a persistent question became where the actual ludic content of the game would take place (or ‘where is the power struggle,’ as asked by my players) relative to the already-included criminal mafias: within a single crime syndicate, between two crime families, between the mafias and society, or a combination of the three? Eventually, as the participants discussed integrating the mafia note with popular notes from later phases (‘magical families,’ ‘hereditary magic,’ ‘clankers vs. casters’), the mafias gradually morphed into neo-aristocratic families of magi and the locus of criminality shifted from organized crime to the criminality of a corrupt society itself, in which the ruling magi class exploits an underclass of dieselpunk technicians. As the players thought more deeply about the type of ‘mafia’ setting they wanted to actually play in, and how it could work ludically with the other notes, the mafia trope was investigated and opened up for critical reassessment in order to preserve the meat of the desired ludonarrative content (the ‘power struggle’) while casting the unnecessary, stereotypical baggage aside. Thus, while Arium largely advertises itself as a problem-free engine for the efficient selection and recombination of acceptable pre-existing tropes, as actual play unfolds, the challenge of making such tropes fit together into a setting in which one might actually want to spend time roleplaying potentially shifts the focus to an interrogation of the internal contradictions within these tropes themselves. It must be noted, though, that this doesn’t always happen, as with the ‘antagonistic matriarch’ note mentioned previously.
It is Arium’s very standardization and iterability, the qualities most disparaged by the critical Adornian reading, that are instrumental in prompting its players to engage in the interrogation or opening up of potential tropes. If the technologized jazz classroom studied by Wilf develops sensibility to an ‘acoustic unconscious’ modeled upon the ‘optical unconscious’ Benjamin saw revealed by the reproducibility of photography and cinema, then Arium’s iterability can develop its players’ sensibilities to a ludonarrative unconscious. While the concept of ludonarrative, or the intersection of a game’s ludic and storytelling elements, is typically used to spotlight any inconsistencies or ‘dissonance’ between the two,[xxviii] I use ludonarrative unconscious more generally to describe the gaming public’s immersion in and attunement to the broader megatext of tropes, game mechanics, and concepts relied upon to construct the gaming experience. Our level of attunement to the workings of this unconscious background can be altered by the types of artifacts and technologies we routinely encounter. If we recognize Arium’s iterative Lean Worldbuilding as a technology of perception, not unlike photography or The Amazing Slow Downer, its ability to sharpen sensitivity to the ludonarrative unconscious becomes apparent. Consider that the public audience of TTRPG players has been habituated to react to ludonarrative tropes in one of two ways: either normalized by their ubiquity and hence accepted uncritically; or the opposite, singled out by professional critics as dissonant, immersion-breaking, or otherwise problematic and then unreflectively rejected by the gaming public. Arium, intentionally or not, repeatedly prompts players to operate in a third, middle register: once a given Post-it has been voted for inclusion in the final arium, as the standardized invention sequence proceeds players must tarry with the trope for a prolonged period, and engage in discussion about how the trope contained on the note can be made to fit with other, seemingly disparate tropes in a setting that could actually function for a roleplaying game. When this process is iterated, both within the creation of a single arium and potentially across multiple plays, it can prompt players to engage in a style of nuanced judgement of TTRPG setting tropes that exceeds the familiar acceptance or rejection binary. This process is not what Arium promises, a formula for constructing a safe space by iterative audit and exclusion of problematic tropes. Instead, it is much more Benjaminian in spirit, offering players the chance to meditate dialectically on how mass production is not easily separable from uniqueness, how contract and consensus are not easily separable from violence, and how, even as the culture industry has relentlessly impoverished human culture and experience, people may take what first appears as loss instead as an opportunity to ‘free themselves from experience […] for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty.’[xxix] It may even be considered education in the art of the compossible: challenging players to suspend contradictory ideas simultaneously, and to grow attuned to the ways these ideas repel each other or collapse into each other.
Clearly, we cannot make strong generalizations about what it is like to play Arium, since this will vary group by group. It is a ritual which emphasizes whatever values and knowledge the players happen to have brought with them, and one that can bestow a halo of legitimacy on them. Although it is possible to supplement pre-existing knowledge by doing research or seeking outside voices, the system does not explicitly encourage this. Thus, in much the same way that participants in an innovation workshop are almost guaranteed to convince themselves they are having deep insights, since the workshop gives them ‘what an insight should look like’ (Wilf q.v.), there is the risk that any Arium group will find some way to convince itself that whatever it is doing is revolutionary, or at least somewhat progressive. At its worst, this forced overproduction of undertheorized solutions may participate in what Adorno called ‘actionism,’ or the constant demand from protestors and activists that, whatever the situation, we must above all always do something, a call which may lapse into obsessional activity and a regressive, uncritical instrumentalism: ‘At this time, no higher form of society is concretely visible: for that reason whatever acts as though it were in easy reach has something regressive about it.’[xxx] Better, perhaps, to resist the call to constantly act, do, and produce, and instead expend more effort envisioning in greater detail the type of society that might be able to address our problems with nuance and sophistication.
However, actual play of Arium at least shows thatPost-it invention can operate rather differently in the game room than in the boardroom. Building upon Wilf’s description of the Post-it, it becomes clear that boardroom Post-it invention thrives by enabling Post-its to function as ‘floating signifiers’ that freely index a variety of disparate, or even contradictory desires such as the initially exciting discovery of a seemingly deep contradiction between ‘tools versus dialog.’[xxxi] The temporary euphoria that accompanies the creation of a new such signifier is a ‘utopia’ of pure negation, in which widespread, but ambiguous dissatisfaction with the status quo is projected onto the promise of a new product or the latest technocratic methodology which is imagined as the solution to all problems yet may evaporate under the slightest scrutiny. Although this thrilling moment of negation contains a utopian kernel, the enthusiasm for the new all too easily becomes a ruse of a culture industry that standardizes and sells the very concept of newness over and over again as rapidly as possible. Yet, while it must be conceded that Arium also participates in the lure of the empty signifier (recall the excitement for the ultimately empty ‘society versus world’ note), this is seldom the ultimate focus of gameplay. After the moment of euphoria fades, players are left with a series of Post-its that must be rearranged and maneuvered extensively, and the notes come to function less as floating signifiers and more as training tools for exercising the utopian imagination. It could even be said that Arium succeeds, in large part because it fails: while the flaws of Post-it invention identified by Wilf allow for a fudging of consensus that fails to effectively prohibit unwanted or disjointed tropes, the call to create a coherent, playable game world in spite of this fact often leads to probing discussion and thoughtful invention.
Conclusion: Arium as Education in the Art of the Compossible
How, then, should Arium be judged in the final analysis? Keeping both the Adornian and Benjaminian readings in mind can reveal how the game participates in the utopian dialectic, and perhaps more importantly, can help formulate a theory of the utopian that is useful in our current moment. As this article has shown, Arium’s impulse to craft a standardized process for building ideal roleplaying worlds can be viewed as both the mass deception of the culture industry or as an opportunity to constructively exercise the faculties of imagination. Theorists working within utopian studies have attempted to craft a framework for resolving this judgment of particular utopian works, with ‘blueprint utopias’ that attempt to lay out determinate procedures or structures often judged harshly, and less prescriptive ‘critical,’ ‘ambiguous’[xxxii] or ‘iconoclastic’ utopias given more praise. As Russell Jacoby writes:
Inevitably, history eclipses or ridicules the most daring plans; it makes them appear either too banal or too idiosyncratic. Worse, such plans often betray more a will for domination than for freedom; they prescribe how free men and women should act and live and talk, as though they could not figure this out for themselves. I turn instead to the iconoclastic utopians, those who dreamt of a superior society but who declined to give its precise measurements. In the original sense and for the original reasons, they were iconoclasts; they were protesters and breakers of images.[xxxiii]
This current critical consensus might well pronounce Arium, and its prescriptive procedures that promise a straightforward, procedural solution, as an instance of the ‘bad’ or ‘blueprint’ type of utopia, insufficiently iconoclastic in Jacoby’s sense. The fear is that a blueprint utopian artifact like Arium will seduce us with its too-neat procedures (‘just follow these six easy steps to a perfect world!’) and lull us into a bland complacency, while still allowing us to imagine ourselves as agents of radical change, as in Adorno’s theorization of the culture industry. This position is by far the dominant critical posture for utopian artifacts today; in fact I myself was quite ready to paint Arium with this brush prior to actually playing the game.
Yet there are reasons to rethink the critical consensus against blueprint utopias, particularly in our historical moment. As Terry Eagleton notes, there is something of a contradiction in many utopian scholars’ too-neat blueprint against blueprinting, as our utopianism can fail just as readily by prescribing too little about the shape of the future as too much.[xxxiv] But perhaps the contradiction is not located within the work of the anti-blueprinters, but is rather an irony formed by the trajectory of history itself: 20th century commentators may have been right to fear various forms of totalitarian certitude ready to proclaim their own end of history, while in our time, the capacity to map out some kind, any kind of possible path out of our current malaise of apathy and powerlessness in the face of global environmental collapse is precisely what we most lack. The double bind of the blueprint-iconoclasm debate looms ominously over our era of climate crisis and environmental collapse. What should we fear more—the lure of implausibly quick techno-fixes based on vague promises and unproven technologies underwriting the continuance of business-as-usual for the fossil fuel industry? Or a mass lapse into hopelessness, denial, and collective inaction rendered more palatable by individual virtue signaling and personal carbon footprint fetishization?
The type of utopianism that is needed today, and that Arium in part pushes toward, is one that does not opt for either pole, but instead lingers as long as it can at the fault line between blueprint and iconoclasm. Utopia becomes interesting at the moment just after the euphoria of pure negation, when the blueprint is just beginning to be sketched out, and the possible outcomes suffer from neither the monomania of totalitarian ideology nor the bad infinity of the culture industry. Today, utopia must be that which offers education in the art of the compossible, meaning how the disparate elements of a world can exist together.[xxxv] The greatest literary utopias reside in this space of cultivating a fragile compossibility, such as carefully planning for the compossibility of a just and plentiful human society within a fragile biosphere, and the ability of a work to linger there for an extended period without falling to either pole is an impressive authorial achievement.[xxxvi] While the worlds created by Arium’s players may not rise to that level, Arium provides a jerry-rigged but workable template dwelling in this interstitial space of compossibility through its very proceduralism and iterability. Though it may participate in the rote repackaging of culture detested by Adorno and others, Arium’s contribution is to function as a pedagogical aid that helps first-time worldbuilders develop the skills in the art of the compossible through its very streamlining and iterating of the worldbuilding process.
Arium, of course, cannot fix climate change, nor can it reliably inoculate us or our tabletops against racism, sexism, transphobia, or any of the other ills faced by TTRPG enthusiasts and the societies in which they reside. But Arium’s value, as for any utopian work, lies not in its capacity to produce actual solutions, but instead in its creation of a practice of exercising the beneficently constrained collective imagination. When an Arium-built world inevitably fails to live up to the promises offered its shiny veneer and too-smooth implementation of neoliberal Post-it collaboration, it also offers its players the opportunity to dig in and pursue a much messier practice of collaboration by striving to think the compossibility of incongruous and problematic elements even, or perhaps especially, when that compossibility is ultimately doomed to fail. And here, Arium’s glittering exterior and signature processes reveal that, although they perhaps may be just more widgets of the culture industry designed to sell our own creativity back to us in a neat and marketable package, the very smoothness, speed, and iterability of that packaging opens up an opportunity for players to dwell that much more frequently at the elusive fault line between blueprint and iconoclasm.
[i] Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by Edmund Jephcott(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002)p. 136.
[ii] Drew Gerken, Natasha Ence, and William Munn, Arium: Create (Adept Icarus, 2020).
[iii] For Dungeons & Dragons’s 2020 announcement of a strategy aiming at more progressive depiction of fantasy races, including the removal of negative racial traits for Orc and Kobold player characters, removal of Roma stereotypes characterizing fictional Vistani humans, and the inclusion of content warnings on some of their older products, see Wizards of the Coast/D&D Team, ‘Diversity and Dungeons and Dragons’ (2020) <https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/diversity-and-dnd>.
[iv] Adept Icarus Team, Arium RPG (Kickstarter, 2021). <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adepticarus/arium>
[v] Gerken, Ence, and Munn, Arium Create, p. 23.
[vi] Gerken, Ence, and Munn, Arium Create, p. 6.
[vii] Eitan Wilf, ‘The Post-it Economy: Understanding Post-Fordist Business Innovation through One of Its Key Semiotic Technologies,’ Current Anthropology 57 (2016), p. 732.
[viii] Wilf, ‘The Post-it Note Economy,’ p. 733.
[ix] Wilf, ‘The Post-it Note Economy,’ p. 738.
[x] Wilf, ‘The Post-it Note Economy,’ p. 748.
[xi] McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects has described the tendency of a medium to reverse into its opposite when pushed to its limit. Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 107.
[xii] Wilf, ‘The Post-it Note Economy,’ p. 748.
[xiii] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 10.
[xiv] Wilf, ‘The Post-it Note Economy,’ p. 748.
[xv] Gerken, Ence, and Munn, Arium Create, p. 6.
[xvi] Oli Mould, Against Creativity (London: Verso Books, 2019), p. 100.
[xvii] David Harvey, ‘Neo‐Liberalism as creative destruction.’ Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 88, (2006), pp. 145-158.
[xviii]Tom Goodwin, ‘The Battle is for the Customer Interface,’ (Tech Crunch, 2015). <https://techcrunch.com/2015/03/03/in-the-age-of-disintermediation-the-battle-is-all-for-the-customer-interface/>
[xix] Mould, Against Creativity, p 130.
[xx] Mathew Guzdial and others, ‘Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Procedural Content Generators,’ International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, (2020). <https://arxiv.org/pdf/2007.06108.pdf>
[xxi] Gillian Smith, ‘An Analog History of Procedural Content Generation,’ FDG, (2015). <http://sokath.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/smith-fdg15.pdf>
[xxii] Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 104.
[xxiii] Theodor Adorno, ‘On Jazz,’ trans. by Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse 12 (1989), p. 48.
[xxiv] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,’ in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and others, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003).
[xxv] Walter Benjamin, ‘A Short History of Photography,’ Screen 13 (1972), p. 7.; Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,’ p. 266. <https://academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/13/1/5/1730936>
[xxvi] Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,’ 266.
[xxvii] Eitan Wilf, ‘Rituals of Creativity: Tradition, Modernity, and the ‘Acoustic Unconscious’ in a U.S. Collegiate Jazz Music Program,’ American Anthropologist 114 (2012), pp. 32-44.
[xxviii] Clint Hocking, ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock,’ Click Nothing (2007). <https://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html>
[xxix] Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’. In Selected Writings: 1927-1934, vol. 2, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, ed. by Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) p. 734.
[xxx] Theodor Adorno, ‘Resignation,’ in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, ed. By T.H. Pickford(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005)p. 292
[xxxi] Jeffrey Mehlman, ‘The floating signifier: from Lévi-Strauss to Lacan’ Yale French Studies (1972). pp.10-37.
[xxxii] Tom Moylan, ‘Beyond Negation: The Critical Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany,’ Extrapolation 21 (1980), p 236.
[xxxiii] Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. xvi.
[xxxiv] Terry Eagleton. ‘Just My Imagination.’ The Nation (2005). <https://www.thenation.com/article/just-my-imagination/>
[xxxv] For an explanation of the term’s original use by Liebniz, see James, Messina and Donald Rutherford, ‘Leibniz on compossibility.’ Philosophy Compass 4 (2009), pp. 962-977.
[xxxvi] As I have argued elsewhere, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy enacts a particularly productive form of rhetorical invention by grounding itself in a ‘planetary topics,’ itself a form of germinal blueprinting. Nicholas Stefanski, ‘Why not pitch the whole enterprise at the highest level possible?’: Speculative Radicalism and the Planetary Topics’ (Doctoral Thesis, University of Pittsburgh 2020), p. 7. <https://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/39452/19/Stefanski%20Final%20ETD.pdf>
Adept Icarus Team, Arium RPG Kickstarter (2021). <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adepticarus/arium>
Adorno, Theodor. ‘On Jazz,’ trans. by Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse 12 (1989), p. 45.
Adorno, Theodor. ‘Resignation,’ in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, ed. By T.H. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press (2005).
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press (2002).
Benjamin, Walter. ‘A Short History of Photography,’ Screen 13 (1972), p. 5. <https://academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/13/1/5/1730936>
Benjamin, Walter ‘Experience and Poverty,’ in Selected Writings: 1927-1934, vol. 2, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, ed. by Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, (1996).
Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,’ in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and others, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings. Cambridge: Belknap Press (2003).
Eagleton, Terry. ‘Just My Imagination.’ The Nation (2005). <https://www.thenation.com/article/just-my-imagination/>
Gerken, Drew, Ence, Natasha, and Munn, William. Arium: Create. Adept Icarus (2020).
Goodwin, Tom ‘The Battle is for the Customer Interface,’ Tech Crunch (2015). <https://techcrunch.com/2015/03/03/in-the-age-of-disintermediation-the-battle-is-all-for-the-customer-interface/>
Guzdial, Mathew and others, ‘Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Procedural Content Generators,’ International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (2020). <https://arxiv.org/pdf/2007.06108.pdf>
Harvey, David. ‘Neo‐Liberalism as creative destruction.’ Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 88, (2006), p. 145.
Hocking, Clint. ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock,’ Click Nothing (2007). <https://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html>
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, (1955).
Jacoby, Russell. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press (2005).
McLuhan, Marshall and McLuhan, Eric. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1988).
Moylan, Tom. ‘Beyond Negation: The Critical Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany,’ Extrapolation 21 (1980), p. 236.
Mehlman, Jeffrey. ‘The floating signifier: from Lévi-Strauss to Lacan’ Yale French Studies (1972). p. 10.
Messina, James and Rutherford, Donald. ‘Leibniz on compossibility.’ Philosophy Compass 4 (2009), p. 962.
Mould, Oli. Against Creativity. London: Verso Books, (2019).
Smith, Gillian ‘An Analog History of Procedural Content Generation,’ FDG (2015). <http://sokath.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/smith-fdg15.pdf>
Stefanski, Nicholas. ‘Why not pitch the whole enterprise at the highest level possible?’: Speculative Radicalism and the Planetary Topics.’ Doctoral Thesis, University of Pittsburgh (2020). <https://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/39452/19/Stefanski%20Final%20ETD.pdf>
Wilf, Eitan. ‘The Post-it Economy: Understanding Post-Fordist Business Innovation through One of Its Key Semiotic Technologies.’ Current Anthropology 57 (2016), p. 732.
Wilf, Eitan. ‘Rituals of Creativity: Tradition, Modernity, and the ‘Acoustic Unconscious’ in a U.S. Collegiate Jazz Music Program,’ American Anthropologist 114 (2012), p. 32.
Wizards of the Coast/D&D Team, ‘Diversity and Dungeons and Dragons’ (2020). <https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/diversity-and-dnd>
Dr. Nicholas L. Stefanski is an assistant professor at Alfred State College in western New York state, and often turns to TTRPGs and other gaming elements while teaching speech, communication, and philosophy courses. Holding a J.D. from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Stefanski researches games, speculative fiction literature, and other speculative artifacts as potential lenses for inquiry into both the limits of critique and the possibilities of speculative thought for imagining a more just and prosperous human future.
This article will be included in the forthcoming collection Utopia on the Tabletop (Ping Press). Thanks to the British Science Fiction Association, the Sussex Humanities Lab (Open Practice Group), and the University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.