Earth Matters: Role-playing games, storytelling and the fate of the earth

  • “This Place: 150 Years Retold,” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm et al., is an anthology of comics that tells the story of indigenous Canadians since settlers first came to Canada. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANISHINABEKNEWS.CA

  • Devotees play in a “limited” format tournament of Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures, where figures are drawn from two fresh packs of miniatures, in January 2009. BENNY MAZUR/VIA WIKIMEDIA

For the Bulletin
Monday, August 22, 2022

The role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) first gained popularity in the late 1970s and is now enjoying a resurgence. For the unfamiliar, players go on a series of quests to kill bad guys, get more powerful and collect treasure along the way.

It’s a form of collaborative storytelling and I know many people use it as a tool to build and maintain community. So what could that possibly have to do with Earth Matters?

Stories shape how I think about the world, about problems, about the ways I relate to other humans and the way I think about the Earth and myself. Stories are effective ways to communicate and change minds. Games like D&D are designed to tell a particular set of stories about power, exploitation and colonization.

D&D is mechanically designed to enact violence on the indigenous peoples of a space. Activist and game designer Avery Adler says it like this: “If the mechanics are about ‘heroes’ going from one place to an exotic and dangerous different place and killing the things they find there and then taking all of their resources and then going and fighting additional things elsewhere, then that is the colonialist story regardless of what color you paint it.”

Of course — as many of my friends would be quick to point out — you can change D&D to tell all kinds of different stories.

Maybe you’re a small group of activists trying to overthrow a fascist or you’re helping an Earth Elemental save her planet, or you’re fighting against colonizers to protect your home. But the mechanics of the game center on accumulating power and enacting violence without having to worry about the humanity of indigenous peoples.

In my experience of the world, power isn’t earned through virtue — it’s accumulated through inheritance and exploitation. Furthermore, climate change disproportionately affects the people with the least allotted political power, and it’s overwhelmingly caused by people and corporations with too much of it.

So many of our stories in the common canon center on individuals or small groups of people wielding power at the expense of the Earth and indigenous peoples. D&D is a clear example but I could easily include Settlers of Catan, Minecraft, Lord of the Rings or The Avengers, and more. I hope this column invites you to explore new or familiar stories about revolution and activism.

Climate activist stories center community over individuals. Historically, the most powerful climate justice movements (and social justice movements in general) have been driven by community.

Avery Adler’s The Quiet Year is a role-playing game that centers community in the form of a map held in the literal center of the table as you play. Rather than thinking about the needs of an individual, the game asks players to reckon with the needs of a complex community.

Climate justice stories also demand and celebrate local expertise. At the Hitchcock Center we read a book called “Yellow Eye,” a picture book about the Impartaja indigenous community of Australia working with their government to save a species of fish called Yellow Eye. Indigenous knowledge is a key part of nurturing the Earth and as the climate changes, activists need to build and value deep local knowledge of place.

“This Place: 150 Years Retold” is an anthology of comics that tell the story of indigenous Canadians since settlers first came to Canada — an apocalypse to indigenous peoples. “This Place” tells stories of indigenous survival and resistance, and it holds in it the truth that indigenous peoples have a past, present and future.

Stories that tell non-linear plots, or stories where the main character doesn’t progressively accumulate power, are another key part of climate justice work.

Jay Dragon’s Wanderhome is a role-playing game where players cooperatively wander a vast, mysterious and beautiful world. There is no end goal or winning moment in Wanderhome other than the collective joy shared among players, and while stories shift and change throughout the game, characters don’t get progressively more powerful.

Wanderhome reminds me that accumulating power isn’t an end goal of stopping climate change. Wanderhome is a celebration of the Earth and our relationships to each other.

I also recommend Octavia Butler’s book “Parable of the Sower” (with content warnings for rape and graphic violence). It explores how a group of diverse people traveling together in an apocalyptic near-future depend on each other and their variety of skills, world outlooks and life experiences in order to survive.

“Parable of the Sower” is much darker than some of the other climate stories I’ve mentioned here but through it all, the main character finds joy and purpose in building a community and fighting for their collective survival.

I believe in the power of stories to inspire change and revolution. Instead of telling stories like those found in D&D, we can create and share stories to disrupt power structures, to center and celebrate local and indigenous knowledge, and to imagine a world where we live in a positive, reciprocal relationship with the Earth and all its inhabitants.

Monya Relles is an educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment with a passion for environmental justice. In their free time they can be found hiking, dancing, or playing off-key ukulele at the Connecticut River, much to the mortification of people who pass by. To see references for the games and stories mentioned here, visit the Hitchcock Center’s website, hitchcockcenter.org, click on this article’s title, then scroll down to the end and click on References.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 13 years. Amid the pandemic, the Hitchcock Center adapted its programming and has a sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center during this difficult time, consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.