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The New Laboratory of Dreams: Role-playing Games as Resistance
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The New Laboratory of Dreams:
Role-playing Games as Resistance

"The virtual world" can be said to encompass a great many things: the Internet as a whole, specific spaces therein, the simulacra of media imagery in general, or video gaming specifically. The emancipatory potential of the whole enterprise has long arrested feminist theorists (Haraway 1990; Stone 1995; Turkle 1995), and some reflect on the history of feminist interventions into the virtual as evincing a dichotomy between "utopian" and "dystopian" thinking (Boyd 2001; Magnet 2007). However, I would challenge the idea that the distinction is so clean. This dichotomous abstraction obscures the complex perspective often sketched by so-called dystopian cyberfeminist theorists. Lisa Nakamura (1995), for instance, was an early theorist who suggested that there was a profound continuity between the physical world and the virtual one. She showed, with sobering ethnographic examples from the online roleplaying game LambdaMOO, that the balance of power in the world seeped into the World Wide Web; what disrupts the "dystopia" narrative, however, is that this complex understanding of power was not intended to be pessimistic. Toward the end of her paper, Nakamura offered her hope that the players themselves would push back against the boundaries being constructed in the virtual world. Eagerly seizing on the rich stable of metaphors that technology offered, Nakamura said each act of roleplay that countered the "Orientalized theatricality" of racist/sexist play was a "bug" that would "[jam] the ideology machine."

What is roleplaying and how can it do this? Roleplaying is something that instantiates what "utopian" cyberfeminists dreamed of: creating a character of your own design that you then perform and embody in virtual [End Page 70] social space. But to understand its emancipatory potential, and the possibilities it raises as a "third way" between the false dichotomy of u/dystopia, we have to rediscover Hilary Rose's Laboratory of Dreams—a vivid workshop where feminist science fiction became enchanting feminist theory. We must also survey pen-and-paper roleplaying games (an excellent summary thereof can be found in Dormans 2006). Such games render social construction richly visible through their heavy emphasis on character, imagination, and story, which all work together as part of a process of constant enactment and engagement; a perpetual process of 'becoming.'

I will begin by elaborating on the history of the Laboratory of Dreams concept and its roots in feminist science fiction, then move into a brief auto-ethnographic discussion that illustrates a defiant becoming in the midst of oppressive virtual space, finally moving into an analysis of the roleplaying game (RPG) Eclipse Phase as something that builds on "becoming" and institutionalizes it in a way many other RPGs simply do not. Like literary science fiction, roleplaying is always moving toward something new, iterating through never ending phases that progress one's character toward an infinite horizon. The enchantingly creative art that inheres to creating a new world and fully human characters within it fires the imagination anew as regards this world. The warnings of earlier cyberfeminist theorists are vital to keep in mind—the whole purpose of this essay is to combine an emancipatory project with their nuanced understanding of the pitfalls and continuity of power, not to fall into the trap of Utopia. But in the process I hope to show how Nakamura's "ghost in the machine" is rising in virtual space and that instituting feminist roleplaying games as a new laboratory of dreams can build on this hopeful trend.

The Laboratory of Dreams

In many ways, feminist science fiction is the historical antecedent to the avowedly feminist roleplaying games I hope to see created. For feminist scholar Hilary Rose, science fiction was an important issue to take on in her book Love, Power, and Knowledge (1994) precisely because it spoke to a passionate urgency and the need to imagine the world for which feminists were fighting. Toward the end of her book, she situates feminist science fiction as essential to transforming science-in-fact. In a chapter titled "Dreaming the Future" she quickly lays out why something as seemingly frivolous as the pulp genre of sci-fi, repurposed as a creator of "feminist [End Page...