By Grace A.T. Worm
In the tabletop roleplaying game The Treasure at the End of the Dungeon is an Escape From This Dungeon and We Will Never Escape From This Dungeon (hereafter The Treasure), players enter the game’s imagined world, a dungeon, knowing that the ‘treasure’ they seek by playing the game is impossible to acquire. The game cannot be won, only perhaps eventually abandoned. It may seem counterintuitive to discuss utopia in a game that announces from the beginning that its systems and structures are permanent, and that any attempt to escape them is ultimately futile. However, it is through this surrender to the process that players learn the lessons of continued hope, perseverance, and community that serve as a foundation for much of contemporary utopian thinking. For these reasons, in this chapter I describe The Treasure as a utopia, while also recognising that it may appear dystopian.
The Treasure can be understood as a process for utopia that, through play, invites the players to build their own counternarratives about what is valuable in the world they enter into, and also work together to change that world, even knowing that practically they will never ‘win’ the game. It is necessary to adapt an in-flux knowledge of utopia through a queer and feminist understanding of a future that will never reconcile the painful past. If the players cannot escape the dungeon, then the focus shifts to developing their characters’ relationships through roleplaying. The absurdity of the players’ situation, the cycle of endless dungeon rooms, and the descriptions of characters and rooms, encourage a sense of camaraderie and community. In this sense, the game reflects the structure of utopian hope. For the players, the importance lies in fighting the cycle even when the outcome may never change for, as the game states in the world description, ‘We will never escape this dungeon. We will always try to escape this dungeon.’ It is possible to work towards utopia while being pragmatic in the knowledge that a perfect future does not exist. In the rest of this chapter, I examine the function of archetypal characters, the utopian dimensions of the players’ roleplaying, and how the game mobilises themes of pragmatism in relation to its feminist and queer utopian ideals.
Utopia is a complex term, and how different pieces of media create and present utopia varies wildly. For this chapter, I approach utopia as a practice stemming from discontent that arises from problems in the present, and exploration of possible futures where these problems are solved or nonexistent. Later in this chapter, I will explore how this vision of utopia shifts into focus through a queer and feminist lens. As suggested by Lucy Sargisson’s Fool’s Gold?: Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century (2012)and Erin McKenna’s The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective (2001), utopia can present visions of a future in which deeply entrenched social, economic and political problems are resolved or transformed. Sargisson writes that utopia is working towards ‘identifying core problems with today […] and placing them in a new imaginary context. They thus imagine how the world might be if the core “wrongs” identified by the author were transformed.’ McKenna explores utopia in relation to the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, and also emphasizes the centrality of hope in interacting with utopian ideals: ‘Utopian visions are visions of hope that can challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.’
Utopia is ostensibly where problems are fixed. The creation of a completely separate and carefully integrated fantasy world has often been central to utopian thinking; and not just that it is separate, but that it is totalising. Fredric Jameson describes the movement away from causal utopias as either obsolete due to an inability to solve any and all social disintegration or due to the unparalleled global wealth and technology; however he argues using utopia as an idea to examine politics is still useful. Thomas Moylan in Demand the Impossible similarly describes this developing idea of utopia as imperfect and rejects utopia as blueprint, he describes utopia as ‘[f]igures of hope’ through opposition where utopia is ‘produced through the fantasizing powers of the imagination, utopia opposes the affirmative culture maintained by dominant ideology’. The completely separate utopian world — with readily available solutions for all the problems it seeks to overcome — has fallen out of favor. As Sargisson writes, ‘Most contemporary utopias tend not to offer visions of complete worlds. And most contemporary utopias avoid depicting a single solution; they decline to offer one complete and finished vision of the good life.’ In contemporary society, where political, religious, social, and environmental issues have remained at least as divisive as they have been historically, the idea of a perfect utopia that solves all the major conflicts of our current society seems impractical. The Treasure is fundamentally focused on creation and exploration, while providing enough character descriptions to spurn new identity formation without homogenising identity experiences. For example, there is no perfect solution to climate change, and scientific consensus on its causes has not translated to broad political and public agreement, but this does not preclude the struggle for environmental justice. So progress must be made in a more improvisatory, patchwork way. Similarly, contemporary utopias usually don’t try to articulate one single vision of society that is so compelling nobody could refuse it.
This is not to say that utopias are no longer being created and explored in art. Clearly they are, but how they look and what they present has shifted. While utopias may have changed, in that they no longer present perfect solutions, they still offer utopian futures or utopian ways to interact in our own world. McKenna notes that contemporary utopias are far from extinct: ‘Some people argue that in our complex world utopia is dead, or too dangerous to pursue. There is, however, a recent resurgence of interest in the idea.’ Sargisson notes that while contemporary utopias conduct a more fluid exploration of core issues and their solutions, ‘not all utopianism is about realizing dreams (or progress or harmony) and not all utopianism is driven by perfectionism.’ Ursula K. Le Guin’s influential 1973 short story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’ and N.K. Jemisin’s more recent response, ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight,’ both attempt to contend with these imperfect utopias, and they both reconcile the utopia of a happy community by requiring the necessity of suffering.
However, they do this in different ways. Le Guin sees arbitrary suffering as necessary to understanding happiness for the citizens of Omelas and focuses on the dilemma of whether or not to accept happiness for many if it depends on the misery of a few. By contrast, Jemisin focuses on the feelings and attitudes of culture that can lead to utopia — respecting fellow lives as equal, while celebrating diversity and uniqueness of the individual — and on fighting to protect these values, “[t]ooth and nail, spear and claw, up close and brutal; no quarter can be given, no parole, no debate.” In Jemisin’s utopia Um-Helat, the younger generations are shocked that these differences once formed the basis for treating others as lesser: ‘what shocks the young citizens of Um-Helat is the realization that, once, those differences of opinion involved differences in respect. That once, value was ascribed to some people, and not others. That once, humanity was acknowledged for some, and not others.’ Those who seek forbidden knowledge of hierarchies are executed by a class of pike-wielding “social workers”. 
The utopias of Le Guin and Jemisin are more dynamic than the rigid plans of many eighteenth and nineteenth century utopian thinkers. For example, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ reflects openly on its own believability, and the narrator confesses to doubts about many of the details: should there be drugs? Should there be cars and helicopters? Likewise, ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’ imagines Um-Helat in a state of constant secret struggle against the return of hierarchy. However, while both utopias recognize the imperfections inherent in humanity, both also focus on the separation of suffering from happiness, rather than the knowledge of suffering as part of the process towards change and reconciliation. In Omelas, the knowledge of the child is something that citizens cannot repress or reconcile; they walk away. However, in Um-Helat, the social workers seem to brutally protect the citizens from the “poisonous” knowledge of this world. By contrast, The Treasure encompasses all of these notions — the imperfection of utopias, the pain and ignorance inherent in human society, and the painful past (and present) of inequality — but goes a step further, by embracing the process of change as a painful one that can motivate the greatest human compassion and empathy.
The core problem identified by The Treasure is that the players are trapped in a dangerous dungeon, typical of Dungeons & Dragons and many other fantasy games: a labyrinthine environment filled with monsters, traps, and puzzles. The utopia presented is the escape of the dungeon. The game assures the players that escaping is impossible. However, the players are not invited simply to accept this impossibility and camp out in the first room. Instead, they are invited to continue to pursue the impossible. The Treasure consists of two pages of general rules, character sheets with abilities/powers for each archetype, and description of five rooms. Characters have to overcome different ‘elements’ in each room before they can progress to the next. For example, players choose from a list with options such as ‘a curse’, ‘victory’, ‘a cave-in’, and ‘the sea’ and answer questions to describe the element picked. Of particular interest are elements like ‘realizing your friends are all you have left,’ ‘cherishing what you have in the face of destruction’, ‘a breathless hug after escaping’, and ‘plucky optimism that this time things will be different’ that have the players spend the entire room roleplaying purely emotional and metatextual. There are also questions in each room that encourage players to interact with the room differently each time they enter. How the players do this, while prompted by questions associated with each room, is ultimately up to the players’ collective play and imagination. The rooms repeat endlessly and change each time the group enters, and death is a central part of the game mechanics. In these respects, The Treasure also reflects the influence of the ‘roguelike’ and ‘roguelite’ genres of video games, including titles such as Nethack and Hades, which place emphasis on procedurally generated dungeons.
The premise of the game may lend itself to comedy, but the tone of the game writing is sincere and heartfelt (although it is also playful at times). It asks sincerity and attentiveness from its players: ‘we crawl this dungeon with friends who we care for, and we ask first before approaching treacherous spaces.’ The game is not a dystopia or anti-utopia; it is not focused on dissatisfaction with the present, or on extrapolating more extreme forms of contemporary social issues. It does not ‘articulate fears and sketch worlds that people fear might arrive’ but rather it is founded on idealism and hope. As a player, the game asks you to create and inhabit a character who desperately hopes and seeks an escape while knowing that it is impossible—how does one create motivation for that character? Why don’t all the characters give up and sit in the first room they encounter in the dungeon, never to move again? Because the game asks for hope and because it drops the players into the middle of the cycle and not at the beginning. They are told that they have been trying to escape the dungeon, that they will always try to escape this dungeon, that they have died many times trying to escape this dungeon, and that they will die many more times trying to escape the dungeon. Certain people in society have always been trying to improve the future: this is the history of human existence, and it is a history of fighting seemingly insurmountable challenges: death, hunger, disease, religious oppression or persecution, racism, sexism, class, environmental destruction, pollution, the unwanted impacts of technology, etc. Particularly articulated through the growing awareness of the current climate emergency, some people sit in the first room, refusing to go any further because the solution is impossible. They fail to answer the question, what is the point of effort if the end remains broadly the same? Others, and perhaps especially those who explore utopia through playing The Treasure, understand that while the human journey may repeat endlessly on the same issues, seemingly making no progress, society may have crossed a point of no return in global climate catastrophe, then utopia is in the struggle rather than the result. The Treasure perfectly encapsulates this hope, this perseverance despite immovable obstacles.
My knowledge of the game comes from three main sources: my experience of studying the rules, my experience of playing the game, and my experience of watching others play (in an online recording). As Nicholas J. Mizer writes in Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds, ‘Experience is not some mysterious substance that stands in opposition to the real, objective world of things; experience encompasses both the objective and the subjective […] By definition, therefore, experience is all we can ever know because it encompasses both the knowledge and the thing known.’ This emphasis on lived experience is not in opposition to the imaginary or fantastical, but rather includes it. Fantasy TTRPGs also offer both wonder at fantasy conventions, magic, fluid physics, monstrous creatures, etc., and yet can also reveal things about the real world that more ‘realistic’ portrayals tend to hide. As Sarah Lynne Bowman argues in The Functions of Role-Playing Games, by allowing players to see things that are not real, fantasy allows players to think more widely about what is truly possible, and so rework their experiences of the real world:‘The ability to take up a fantastic viewpoint can […] aid us in putting things in better perspective; what we “recover” in fantasy is actually a clearer sight than we normally employ in viewing the world because it is a less narrow sight.’ While The Treasure has fantasy elements nonexistent in our own world, the way the rules are written, the interactions between players as they roleplay, and ultimately the futile effort for change all echo our own world and allow the players to play, experience, and interact with the feelings of hope, resilience, and change.
While each play of The Treasure may be different depending on the worlds players create, some aspects of the game remain stable: the utopian elements described here, the motivation for the game, and the tone set by the rules, all remain consistent throughout games. TTRPGs offer the experience of a blend of realities that players use to create their own cohesive and unique interaction with the game: Mizer describes the experience as simultaneously multitude and unified, ‘as we synthesize disparate details into a cohesive experience, we inhabit not a singly unified world but instead a limitless number of worlds, each with their own unique characteristics. We access this multiplicity of worlds through attention or inattention to various aspects of our experience.’ The attention The Treasure asks of its players is to focus on the cyclical nature of the gaming experience and on their own interactions with others — both as their characters reacting to the world and as themselves in creating the world. The characters/selves are purposefully vague and rely on archetypal representations, The Mage, The Thief, The Healer, or The Muscle, to both encourage players to create their own version of the character and to further emphasize the communal nature of the game. The selves are also ever-changing: for example The Healer has to give up or change their sacred oaths in order to heal. The selves have always traveled the dungeon as these archetypes, even as their look, powers, personalities, and relationships have changed, and have been trying to escape the dungeon long before the players inhabit them. And the four characters must journey together, and the use of their powers often relies on the rest of the group.
As in most TTRPGs, players are encouraged to experiment with an identity beyond their own, to play at being someone different: ‘role-playing offers participants a safe space to enact alternate personas through a process known as identity alteration.’ TTRPGs also provide a way for these personas to interact, increasing their substance and complexity, and participating in a shared world: ‘Role-playing is an interactive process of defining and re-defining the state, properties and contents of an imaginary game world.’ The formation of characters and world encourages the players to navigate performances of identity and to play with their own self-images. In The Treasure, the vagueness of the characters and of the world, as described in the official game rules, further encourages players to playfully explore, subvert, and reject stereotypes, and gives the players both autonomy over the game and yet the feeling that they are not unique nor are their adventures. The opening rules and world formation use ‘we’ throughout, further emphasizing the cooperative nature and universal experience of the game. The players are creators and characters; the game is a game and real. This juxtaposition is crucial in The Treasure as it asks its players to be sincere in their roleplaying but also to recognize that what identity the players create is less important than the actual creation of the identity. The Treasure balances unique identity formation, identity interaction between player and character, and identity interaction through world-setting roleplaying and game formation. The strongly cooperative nature of the game is also a reminder of the players’ shared predicament — while they are constantly helping one another, none of them ever has the power to give them what they most crave, escape from the dungeon. At the same time, in confronting their powerlessness to overcome the rules that govern this world, players can also discover their power to remake their own identities.
The image of a dungeon is classic to TTRPGs, calling to mind adventurers trapped in dark and dangerous places far below the warmth of the sun, society, greenery, or free movement. Dungeons are full of traps and are often dank, stifling, and dark—places people generally avoid—although they can occasionally also be the scene of sublime marvels and beauty. The most famous tabletop roleplaying game, of course, closely deals with dungeons—it’s in the name. Could The Treasure then be read as an answer to the limitations of Dungeons & Dragons, including the constant attempts to break away from its often sexist and racist use of characterizations and archetypes? Helen Young notes that racial discourse in D&D is ‘deployed through core rulebooks and supplements’ which creates ‘an inherent dichotomy [between GM and players] with less need for active participation in world-building and narrative creation’. This power dynamic and the reliance on pre-written races, leaves little creative space for imagining alternatives. And given the huge influence and popularity of D&D, might The Treasure also be seen as an attempt to critique and reimagine TTRPGs more broadly? The Treasure also follows a looser structure than D&D since there is no complicated fighting mechanics or leveling system, and no rolling whatsoever. Significantly, there is also no Dungeon Master: this ensures that The Treasure will develop completely through cooperative play, as the player who opens the door to a room (the players all take turns opening doors) decides on the reality of the room. The game’s instructions include the equalizing line ‘none of us owns the dungeon and we all own the dungeon.’ This echoes our current ownership of the global climate crisis and violent political movements of the 21st century: we are all at fault and yet no one individual is at fault alone. We all have a responsibility in the solution, even if we all have varying degrees of culpability in the current situations because climate change catastrophe affects all humans currently alive. And just as with the current climate crisis, there may be no way to return to before but there is still possible positive change.
Critical work on the cooperative nature of TTRPGs has often focused on benefits such as social interaction, improved mental health, and education. While these approaches are interesting, they risk missing the stranger and more potentially disruptive aspects of TTRPG cooperation. Cooperating in the medium of a TTRPG can give rise to a great variety of social dynamics, some of which may be elusive to describe or to judge. They may not always resemble what we would normally call ‘cooperation’ in other contexts. ‘Role-playing—and performance in general—also entails a reconfiguration of social roles. The player is stripped of previous rank in the external world and given equal status to fellow players.’This is especially true of games like The Treasure, where there is no GM, and where the absence of a GM figure occasionally becomes quite conspicuous as players cooperate to shape the world that they inhabit. They can find it difficult, at times, to negotiate boundaries. For instance, ‘The Battle Room’ in The Treasure always involves a creature of some sort wanting to do deadly harm to the players. For a player, it can be uncomfortable to harm another player through the monster, without the overriding authority of being GM. In imposing shared responsibility for storytelling, The Treasure mirrors practices of improvisational theatre, where actors must stay closely attuned to the group’s dynamic and create a cohesive narrative without overshadowing other group members.
It also mirrors anarchist practices of consensus decision-making, Roleplaying in The Treasure is an equalizer, and despite the previous experience of players entering the game, they all have to accept their new roles within the game structure and to equally recognize that power in the other players. This experience of negotiation further serves to equalize the players within the world, and to explore alternate democratic imaginaries. There is no escaping from the dungeon, so there is no escaping from conflicts that arise between characters, or from the tensions between the individual and the collective. Similarly, in our 21st century struggles for equality, diversity, and sustainability. communities may be fractured politically and unable to find consensus for dealing with larger social issues, yet we are connected by the world that we share, the world that we will never escape. At least in The Treasure, all players should be equally focused on the same mission, which is to escape the dungeon. Players’ characters may develop additional motivations, especially when confronted with the repetition of rooms and disappointed hopes. The Healer, for instance, is guided by a changing Oath. Furthermore, their healing mechanic asks other players to reveal “what they cherish about the world,” which may also enrich the universe beyond the sole objective of escaping the dungeon. Then there is the Thief, who presumably wants to steal, perhaps even steal from their companions; the Thief player is invited to deceive the other players by pretending to follow “horrendously complicated” rules, which do not really exist. So despite the united purpose, players often have to give up autonomy to other players at various points in order to progress the game. The game then is never static, but in a constant state of flux, with power sometimes being concentrated in the hands of a particular player, and sometimes more evenly distributed.
The fantastic, the mundane, the collective, and the individual, all form the experience of the game. Mizer has explored the power of roleplaying to bring together apparently contradictory states, especially past, present and future: ‘the nostalgic draw of gaming goes deeper than childhood memories’, and through skilled rituals of playful enchantment, players may come to term with the “disenchanting and disempowering wounds of modernity’’ Understanding The Treasure as these unique and separate elements that blend together through play into one ‘experience’ is the core of experiencing utopia through this game. The game does not ask its players to passively view a perfected vision of utopia, in which all contradictions are resolved. Rather, the roleplaying and collective story-telling and worldbuilding all give the players agency over their own game, and forces them to understand through experience how this collection of juxtapositions can coexist: past, present; fantastic, mundane; collective, individual; entrapment and escape; utopia and dystopia. The players are given the autonomy to create the dungeon, to deconstruct but not destroy it, and to yearn to escape without the power to do so, even if they still wield power over the larger environment; just as we as individuals in the world are given the agency to create our own unique experience and identity that ultimately has to follow certain rules of existence.
Intriguingly, the agency of play also invites the players to come up with their own justification and rationalization for why they cannot escape the dungeon. It is one thing to be told that you cannot escape, and another to be in control of the world, fight to escape it, but ultimately be unable to by your own design. The players in The Treasure surrender themselves willingly to the process and find solace, not in gaining victories, but in cooperative gameplay and the story they create together, both as individuals and as a collective. In one of my own plays of this game, players ultimately gave up our own identities, arguing that without the selves to be endlessly trapped in the dungeon, the dungeon could not endlessly trap us. Another play-through with the same people saw players finally returning to the beginning of their journey, recapturing an imagined or shared history, full again of hope and faith in our escape from the dungeon. Each player and game will ultimately have to find their own justification for the continuation of the cycle, limited by the game’s instructions but also motivated by their own characterizations and journey. This mirrors our own society, where people with all their unique motivations and identities ultimately have to work cooperatively to reconcile the impossibility of changing the human condition with the necessity of radical hope.
Utopias are not always happy, as McKenna writes — utopias as visions of the future ‘have been used both to inspire and warn.’ The Treasure ultimately does both. Reading The Treasure through a feminist lens helps to further identify the kind of utopia presented by the game. The feminism of The Treasure does not mean it ignores other diverse political issues. As with many feminist utopias, it serves ‘to illustrate one of the main functions of utopias’ is ‘engagement in contemporary debates.’ This reading relies on aspects I identified earlier in this chapter: the equalizing nature of the roleplaying, the ambiguous and genderless archetypes, the way the archetypes depend on each other, and the cooperative worldbuilding, all mean that autonomy is relational, not individualistic. In the fundamentally unjust world of The Treasure, players have little choice but to embrace an ethic of care, and make their own world out of their relationships.
The Treasure is not a passive experience, and the game wouldn’t be very fun without a commitment to the roleplaying, and so this forces the players to adopt the ideals of the game and to find a way through the story to reconcile and reevaluate their goals. The game’s feminist emphasis on relationality does not mean it is without struggle or conflict. Just the opposite. The future utopias imagined, with a critical understanding of gender inequality, can become part of a process of working towards gender liberation. Such utopias need not wish away the historical and current difficulties that plague the movement, but can become ways of understanding those very difficulties. The desire for change is inherent in feminism, a movement that has often needed to reflect critically on itself, and reimagine itself in more inclusive ways. Likewise, the players of Treasure must accept evolution and revelation with new iteration, or else stagnate within the broken cages they sought to deconstruct. Despite condemning the players to never escape the dungeon, the rules in The Treasure repeatedly rely on the imagery of breaking free, of breaking oppressive cages. Sargisson argues that when utopias ‘fail’ to imagine radical difference, far from being a failure of utopianism, it ‘indicates the need for utopian thinking, which is an on-going struggle of political discontent, desire, failure. This face of utopianism is about dissatisfaction, desire, struggle, failure and then picking up oneself to struggle some more’. Sargisson’s description echoes the feeling of playing The Treasure, where gameplay moves endlessly through the same rooms, where characters die and are immediately reborn as the same archetype, where heroic deeds bring them no closer to their final goal. This game is about the struggle and then struggling on again until the players agree to give up on struggling and end the game. It’s about exploring your character, finding freedom within constraints, and about what you do with the knowledge you gain from the experience. Players as creators are made to take responsibility for the suffering within the game, as they collectively tell a story. McKenna argues that feminist utopias are ‘visions of what could be possible, as an experimental process—an experimental coping with conflict and difficulties’ and that beyond seeking perfection, ‘the process model of utopia seeks to create and sustain people willing to take on responsibility and participate in directing their present toward a better, more desirable future.’ This is the experience of playing The Treasure, a process of play that encourages players to act together to make an enjoyable game experience and to journey together towards the possibility of a better future. As Allison Weir writes, ‘the struggle to resolve conflicts through an openness to difference is essential to the practice of change and the generation of new meaning. It is impossible to understand the developments in the self-understanding of feminists, and the feminist movement, without acknowledging the role played by individual and collective struggles to understand differences and make sense of and resolve conflicts’. In The Treasure, the fact that the players cannot reach their goal only emphasizes the importance of utopia as the experience of relational autonomy, working through tensions and conflicts, making progress even if the progress is often cyclical, and bearing responsibility for the ending, even though its course was set beforehand by others.
Riverhouse Games, the creator behind The Treasure, describes the company as ‘weird queer tabletop games’, explicitly inviting interpretation of The Treasure as a queer game.This queerness can be seen in at least two ways. First, the characters are written as genderless figures, and the rules support and encourage ambiguity and/or fluidity of gender identity. The game as written mentions no genders. The ‘selves’ are assembled by a list of options that are not conspicuously gendered: players circle a ‘look’ from a list of options like ‘Mischievous & Mercurial,’ ‘Leather & Lace,’ or ‘Hale & Hallowed,’ circle a specialty/weapon/spell/oath, and circle a power source. Directions are addressed to the player in the second person, and the players are encouraged through storytelling to develop their characters, to perform different genders, or as several of the players I played with, to remain genderless throughout the game. The experience of playing The Treasure does not conform to mainstream norms of gender or sexual identity because roles that would be seen as typically masculine, The Muscle for example, is genderless and only has a gender when a player playing the game actively makes them express one. The essential performance of roleplaying is queer because it asks a person to create an identity not their own, often one, as in the case of the games I played, that doesn’t align with the player’s gender or sexual identity. Crucially, however, the game also does not ignore social issues or homogenize identity exploration, but rather provokes players to share their unique experiences through questions rather than minute character descriptions.
Second, more broadly, The Treasure explores queerness through ‘transgressive forms of play’ that abandon winning and losing and focuses on the repetition of actions, rooms, characters, and motivation. Queerness, as defined by Bonnie Ruberg in Video Games Have Always Been Queer, ‘serves as an umbrella term for people and experiences that do not conform to mainstream norms of gender and sexuality’, and ultimately may be a starting point for questioning any norms whatsoever. Ruberg connects this sense of queerness with the experiences that games offer of ‘failing’ and ‘dying’, experiences that often mingle frustration and pleasure, oblivion and enlightenment. José Esteban Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Futurity that ‘queerness is utopian, and there is something queer about the utopian’ due to the desire to live in a heteronormative society and yet wish for and envision a future that is tolerant and equal. The Treasure lives in the present of the unchangeable, and yet asks its players to envision a future where they can escape. Just as queerness, for Muñoz, “must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon,” escape from the dungeon is visible only in the horizon. One room of the dungeon is the full title of the game, ‘THE TREASURE AT THE END OF THIS DUNGEON IS AN ESCAPE FROM THIS DUNGEON AND WE WILL NEVER ESCAPE FROM THIS DUNGEON’, and tells players to choose an element that makes them believe they could escape the dungeon, while asking them to question why they ever thought they could leave the dungeon. Every time the selves enter the room, there is a different element to the room, a tangible thing that generates a specific sense of grounded hope in that moment. The play in this room ultimately ends by asking players how they feel in realizing that they are back at the start of their journey with the final message being that though they never escape, they will relive eternally the hope of escaping. Muñoz, who famously asserts that “[w]e have never been queer,” nonetheless recognizes queerness in hoping for a better future while overcome with despair and suffering in the present; he writes that ‘ultimately, we must insist on a queer futurity because the present is so poisonous and insolvent.’ A queer utopia recognizes the eternal struggle and burdens of the past and hopes for a better future despite the present.
The dungeon in The Treasure is impassive and genderless, but as the players enter and create the space, they call on their own experiences of identity, where gender and sexual orientation are often central to a person’s creation of identity in society. The importance of entering this queer space through TTRPGs is one of embodiment and performance in relinquishing typical game structures and enjoying the experience of roleplaying with other humans. Even the character developments, which players make throughout The Treasure when asked introspective questions and when forced to confront elements of the rooms, are less important than the overall experience of the world of The Treasure, the experience of repetition and hope. Understanding this game as a lived experience of another world superimposed over our own is central to embodying the message of The Treasure since, to again quote Mizer, ‘one major result of this approach has been an increasing sense that one of the most important things going on in TRPGs is not character development or plot progression but the experience of imagined worlds themselves.’ All games ask players to create identity, often in relation to other players and characters, and to embody these characters. Ruberg sees this connection as a common longing for change and resistance to inherent power structures: ‘queerness and video games share a common ethos: the longing to imagine alternative ways of being and to make space within structures of power for resistance through play.’ The process of cooperative play in TTRGPs is central to queerness through engaging with alternate power structures, particularly negotiating consensus among players on an equal footing. Playing The Treasure is not a straightforward experience of utopia; it is muddled, messy, confusing, violent, humorous, fun, sad, frustrating, and hopeful. All these experiences while playing represent a far more accurate journey to future progress, one that recognizes the inherent jumble of personal experience. This experience, too, is queer, for progress is not linear nor complete; in fact, ‘these experiences are often far messier, more winding, and ultimately richer than tales of straight movement from oppression to acceptance would suggest.’ The experience of playing The Treasure — of hoping despite evidence to the contrary and of accepting the cycle of progress is not a linear experience — matches contemporary ideas of progress more closely than a traditional utopia with all the answers to current issues presented by the author as complete or coherent.
There are two definitions of pragmatism that help inform this utopian reading of the game. Pragmatism in a philosophical sense focuses on words and thoughts as methods for problem solving and action rather than mirroring our own reality. Certainly, The Treasure can be understood in this context as a utopia of tools rather than direct representations of answers to our reality. When McKenna describes this utopia of winding, messy progress, she emphasises the importance of self-reflection. She writes, ‘Envisioning the future from a pragmatist and feminist perspective results in what I call the process model of utopia. In the process model, it becomes important for us to critically examine the goals we choose to pursue because what we choose to pursue now defines what we will be able to pursue in the future.’ The Treasure invites players to critically examine their goals. Who are we, and who are we becoming? Why are we trying to escape this dungeon if we can never escape this dungeon? What would it mean to escape the dungeon? What might we find within the dungeon, and what kind of life might we build here? Can we change the dungeon? Might there be a way to leave the dungeon without ‘escaping’ it? In this way, The Treasure also invites players to continually recreate motivations for pursuing a better future, despite their knowledge that the future that they are chasing will be forever elusive. I also see the play of this game as direct pragmatism, as a recognition of the failures of our reality while simultaneously enacting an imagined representation of method and process. Or in other words, a fantasy landscape that is not limited by reality but through artistic manipulation, explores the philosophical process of utopia. As I wrote this chapter, and as I played and watched others play The Treasure, I could not stay away from themes of global climate disaster. The themes of hope, fighting for progress, and cooperation are particularly poignant in this context. We, the people alive right now, have inherited a dying planet with the knowledge that political ambivalence and outright lies are impeding progress. And yet, there is still much hope in the face of certain catastrophe and continued perseverance from dedicated individuals to combat climate change. The game examines shared histories and personal responsibility, emphasizing the importance of progress for alternative ‘selves’ rather than as an immediate answer to problems. As a player, I found myself asking through my character, ‘How do we fight for progress when the battle is impossible? How do we play when we can’t win?’ We may not be the selves that survive the coming global change, but we can push forward in the hope that something will endure in the future, if not this self or this individual. The game encourages players to embrace the cyclical nature of the imagined world, with an option for ending the game by realizing they are back at the start of the game. It relies on inherited stories of opposition to expand utopian thinking rather than as a limiting history of failures. This is not about impressing on the players that nothing they do matters. The players’ actions do matter: they are real in the lived experience of the game and in the social bonds made between players. The fact that they have struggled endlessly to find the treasure at the end of the dungeon only validates the importance in the process, that the treasure is worth finding. Struggling for utopia as a human is about embracing the struggle itself, about embracing the histories of those who have struggled before, and about finding meaning as an individual in this shared experience. The utopia presented in The Treasure asks for critical self-understanding and infinite hope. It asks the players to find meaning in the process of seeking change.
This is also a very practical way of living. Pragmatism and utopianism are sometimes seen as polar opposites. Muñoz argues against utopia as pragmatic in the sense that complex struggles should not be condensed for the sake of utopia, but probably agrees with McKenna’s arguments for pragmatism as instruments rather than reality. Muñoz writes that ‘pragmatic gay politics present themselves as rational and ultimately more doable.’ Despite some tension between the two concepts of pragmatism and its effect on process utopia, these definitions ultimately complement each other. I argue that pragmatism and utopianism are even more closely aligned than this in The Treasure. As a philosophical tradition, pragmatism includes the belief that ‘progress is to be found in the ongoing activity of people seeking meaning in a changing world’ (6). This is something it shares with process utopianism. We should not allow our lives to be ruled by abstract paradoxes that reason seemingly cannot solve, such as the endless striving to escape the inescapable. Instead, we should reflect on our practical circumstances, the things we need and care about right now: ‘we participate in and direct experimentation in light of our own purposes and goals’ (87). At the same time, pragmatism in this sense doesn’t mean simply living in the moment and abandoning all possibility of progress and growth, as individuals and as a community. Rather, the pragmatism of the utopia presented in The Treasure is the knowledge that while each individual’s journey may be unique, the methods and the overall shape of the change may not be. In particular, it is important that the hope that we nourish in this way is democratic in nature, so that it can “push us to accept our interrelatedness and plurality, which in turn pushes us to enlarge our visions – to look further beyond ourselves”. This is ensured by the cooperative nature of The Treasure. As well as a plurality of selves, The Treasure celebrates a plurality of futures. The singular happy ending of ‘escape from dungeon’ is impossible. As McKenna writes: ‘if one can get beyond trying to achieve final perfect end-states and accept that there are instead multiple possible futures-in-process, one has taken the first step to understanding the responsibility each of us has for the future by deciding how to live our lives in the present.’
Utopia is above all practical. Understanding utopia as an ongoing democratic experiment, within an unreasonable world, is what allows utopia to remain alive despite its imperfections: ‘pragmatism can keep utopia alive without falling back on the end-state model of utopia. Utopia can become an ongoing task rather than a resting place.’ Believing in utopia is not impractical, and does not mean the abandonment of reason, knowledge, or common ground. It does not erase the past. It embraces and integrates past, present and future through recognition and exploration: ‘both pragmatism and utopianism encourage people to think about the future as a guide to understanding the past and forming the present.’ Rigid, ‘perfect’ utopian worlds leave no space for real people to seek answers to issues and can court disastrous consequences of apathy, inaction, and futility. This game as a TTRPG constantly redfines identity, world, politics, emotion, and community and serves as a crucial act of navigating self and self-image.
As McKenna writes, visions ‘that seek specific ends, and encourage people to maintain a passive faith that the future will be better, run the risk of unleashing on the world, in an organized and devastating manner, genocide, nuclear desecration, sophisticated genetic engineering, and intentionally directed psychological manipulation.’ Action is necessary, it is not enough to acknowledge futility or to understand solutions practically, hope and perseverance are needed to fight for a future, to seek change when it is difficult. Utopias are ideals, as possible futures despite a comprehensive knowledge of the present, and this vision of the future, without the specific answer to the core issues, is inspiring as a fluctuating goal much nearer to our own understanding of social progress and cycles:
Utopia is an ideal, something that should mobilize us, push us forward. Utopia is not prescriptive; it renders potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility, not a fixed schema. It is productive to think about utopia as flux, a temporal disorganization, as a moment when the here and the now transcended by a then and a there that could be and indeed should be.
The Treasure is pragmatic; it provides a blueprint for experiencing hope and perseverance through cooperative play in order to accept the cycle of hope and dismay and yet work to somehow break the cycle. And the players must take responsibility for the world they inhabit while acknowledging a past riddled with the errors of others, must work together, and must find worth in the process. We have inherited the journey towards utopia, and yet we are still individuals fighting for it. Perhaps The Treasure can seem hopeless or unsatisfactory at first glance, but the experience of play within the world of the dungeon is the opposite. If we end at the beginning, we receive the gift of all the hope we possessed at the start of the journey, we surrender to the process, and we work as a community for better change despite the odds. Our world continues to prove that progress is not linear, that change is not always good, that some tragedies are irreversible, that many problems cannot be solved by the individual, but also that human hope, experience, and community are infinite. We may not find the treasure in our lifetime, we as humans may never find the treasure, the utopia, the escape from generations of pain, but we will never give up hope in the process of progress.
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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.