Telling the Acrobats which way to Jump: Irrigation Gaming and Utopian Thinking

Maurits W. Ertsen

“I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump!”

James George Hacker (portrayed by Paul Eddington)—Yes Minister, Series 2, Episode 2: ‘Official Secrets

Utopia and Irrigation

This is an article about The Irrigation Management Game (IMG), reflecting on my own use of the game in educational settings, and drawing some links with utopian and dystopian thought. The relationship between water and human wellbeing has been extensively studied and debated. Perhaps the most famous overarching theory is that of Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel argued that certain climates imply certain forms of irrigation, which in turn imply certain political and social institutions.[1] In particular, Wittfogel thought that ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Hellenistic Greece, Imperial Rome, the Abbasid Caliphate, Imperial China, the Moghul Empire, and Incan Peru, were all ‘hydraulic societies,’ whose despotic character arose from the need to manage complex irrigation infrastructures. Although Wittfogel’s environmental determinism has since been discredited, his work remains a great reminder that water management is seldom simply a set of technical problems. Instead, water management is intimately linked with power, labor, knowledge, discipline, control, and utopian and dystopian possibilities. Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—or is a fan of Michel Foucault—will surely recognize such themes.[2] Irrigation is one of many domains where governments have attempted to improve collective welfare without undue interference in individual freedoms.

Irrigation was on many development agendas, in states as diverse as the Neo-Assyrian empire[3], colonial states in the 19th and 20th centuries[4] and modern settings[5]. In these developmental settings, irrigation—including its aspects of control—was often associated with utopian futures, at least within state propaganda and planning discourse. In colonial Africa, for example, European powers imposed irrigation regimes on communities they treated as ‘historyless’, while perceiving themselves as creating an ideal, rational order.[6] After the Second World War, with many colonized countries gaining independence, irrigation systems that had been constructed and/or planned became part of post-colonial international development.[7] Former colonial experts became international experts, and new experts were trained within irrigation approaches developed in colonial times.

In the first decades of post-WWII development, the main focus was on building new and rehabilitating existing irrigation infrastructure. From the 1970s onwards, more attention was paid to issues of managing these infrastructures—including relationships between managers, farmers, and other water users. These discussions intensified in the 1980s, if only because results lagged behind the expectations (sometimes too optimistic—utopian!—expectations) of governments and engineers. New methods of design and management began to emerge, and slowly began to adopt more participatory processes, to accommodate stakeholders’ knowledge and wishes. The main topic of this article, the Irrigation Management Game (IMG), is a result of these intensified efforts.

The IMG was initially developed to support discussions among irrigation managers on farmer strategies and water delivery problems, especially in the larger systems in South and South-East Asia.[8] After positioning the IMG within a gaming context, I will examine how the game reflects the realities that I study—both in practical and theoretical terms. I will conclude by suggesting that the IMG allows us to explore how utopia and dystopia are in the making, and not fixed in advance by a given environmental setting and management system. Especially in irrigation, I will suggest, the margin between utopia and dystopia can be thin.

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The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn

By Tyler Brunette

In ‘Back to the Future: Wells, Sociology, Utopia, and Method,’ Ruth Levitas argues:

[…] we would be better served both as sociologists and as citizens by a more utopian method, one which embraces the Imaginary Reconstruction of Society (IROS) as an active device in reflexive and collective deliberations about possible and desirable futures.[1]

Few activities dovetail better with Levitas’ proposal, one of collective deliberation and active imagination, than tabletop roleplaying. Indeed, both utopianism and tabletop roleplaying are often derided by their detractors as mere frivolity, and unworthy of serious consideration. However, as an interactive medium based on cooperative imagination of the possible, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) offer a unique opportunity for analysis of the practice of the IROS.

Cover of The Book of Cairn. A hooded anthropomorphic mouse gazes over the hilt of a sword, which they are holding by the top of the blade.

In this article, I analyze one such game: SoulJAR Games’ The Book of Cairn (Cairn). While at first glance, Cairn appears to be little more than yet another ‘fantasy heartbreaker,’ I argue that Cairn’s combination of unique rules and use of a pastoralist utopian setting function as a method of critique, of both contemporary social conditions, and of the themes embraced by the TTRPG industry more broadly.[2] Specifically, I argue, two interlocking rhetorics are built into the rules of Cairn, producing through play of the game both a sense of what would be necessary to maintain (albeit imperfectly and abstractly) a small pastoralist utopian society, and also an enactment of those activities around the gaming table. Before turning to my analysis of Cairn and the implications of its rules, I first address the theoretical underpinnings of my approach. After my analysis, I conclude by discussing the limits of Cairn’s IROS.

Continue reading “The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn