Albert Spencer is a philosopher working in the field of American pragmatism– a philosophical school which believes that the meaning of things can be found in their practical relation to people– and assistant professor at PSU, originally from eastern Kentucky. I found Albert while browsing a course catalog, where I saw a class he’s currently teaching titled, The Philosophy of Role Playing Games. Researching his work, and pragmatist philosophy in general, I started to think about the similarities between pragmatism and social practice, specifically the ways in which they challenge the structures and ideas of the fields they’re compared to (traditional philosophy and studio art, respectively.)
My socially engaged practice often uses tools of performance and fantasy, and I’ve always wanted to learn more about role playing games. When Albert agreed to meet me via zoom in early February, I couldn’t wait to talk to him.
Nadine Hanson: How is your term going so far?
Albert Spencer: You know, it’s been really great. I’ve not felt overwhelmed. I’ve just had some kind of exhausting weeks. But it’s been good— exhausting because I’m doing this new course on the philosophy of role playing games, and it’s really exciting. This has kind of become my specialization now. Since setting up this interview, I’ve officially got a contract from a publisher to publish the first book on the philosophy of role playing games. So that’s what it’s actually going to be called. Philosophers are kind of late to the party, so that’s what I’m sort of hoping to do.
Nadine: Do you have any thoughts on why that might be, philosophers are sort of late to the game in investigating role playing as it relates to philosophy?
Albert: That’s a good question. You know, one interesting thing I’ve found in my work is, throughout the history of philosophy, philosophers are always using games as an analogy for their different ideas. So, like, Wittgenstein talks about language games, the political philosopher John Rawls talked about that when we’re creating a constitution or a system of justice, we should think of it as though we’re creating rules for a game; and we want that game to be fair, we don’t know what our starting position will be in the game. So we kind of agree on these rules for a system of justice, and then we play the game, so to speak.
Nadine: When you say we don’t know what our roles will be in the game, does that mean, like we don’t know what our positionality will be in the systems we are born into?
Albert: Yeah, and a lot of people have critiqued Rawls, because of some of those assumptions that may be baked in, but he still kind of remains the major player of political philosophy of the 20th century. So, you either agree with him or disagree with him, so to speak. But yeah, that is what he’s talking about. He’s got a good point that a just system doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will have a good outcome. In the sense that if we play a game, there’s going to be winners and losers, we have certain rules and people make decisions, and those decisions have consequences. At the same time, he does say a fair game isn’t unequally stacked against one group for the benefit of another group, so he is part of what we call “the liberal tradition.” He does have an equality principle that, if we ever, in the course of justice, realize that one group is benefiting at the expense of the others, we have the right to change the rules of the game.
It shows the way that philosophers have always responded with and used games to explain ideas, but an actual philosophy of games didn’t really start until maybe the mid 20th century. There’s a scholar named Johan Huizinga, who wrote a book called Homo Ludens, and his thesis was that one of the things that makes us human is that we play games– reemphasizing the importance of play. I mean, we take things too seriously, we feel like philosophy should be work and should be about serious subjects but we’re all kind of working for the weekend. Even if we do have important social justice causes we’re working towards or serious work and people depend on us, we still should have some recreational time.
Nadine: I think that what you’re doing within the field of philosophy is really interesting. It seems like through this specialization of pragmatism you are giving people an entry point into this field that can maybe feel impenetrable or intimidating, making philosophy a little bit more accessible. Is that a goal of yours?
Albert: Oh, yeah, it’s definitely a goal. American pragmatism has kind of that American spirit— that philosophy should be accessible and usable to the person on the street.
Nadine: And based on lived experience, right?
Albert: Exactly right, lived experience and for dealing with concrete social problems. So that’s always been my point of departure about what philosophy should be. It’s worth saying that in terms of professional philosophers, most are not pragmatists. In fact, pragmatism sometimes gets looked down on as not doing philosophy because we’re not focused as much on definitions or sort of certain perennial problems. We’re wanting to come at it from the ground up rather than the top down.
Nadine: There’s a misconception about the field of social practice art, that it’s always “useful” or aims to “do good,” and these things aren’t true. But I see a connection between social practice art and pragmatist philosophy in their accessibility (or desire to be accessible) as well as the way they show up in ordinary environments. Social practice art often happens outside typical “white cube” art spaces, which is potentially looked down upon by some in a similar way to pragmatism, as you’ve described.
Albert: Even while there’s this big social justice focus of solving concrete problems, the pragmatists have always been really fixated on aesthetics, and the aesthetics of existence. I mean, if you look at William James, one of his most famous books is the variety of religious experience. And that’s a pretty big classic of philosophy, because he really wants to talk about these peak experiences that human beings have, that they see as transformative in many ways. This carries on through John Dewey, who wrote a book Art As Experience that talks about how the function of art is to change our consciousness, and to give us an experience that brings us out of the ordinary, and then we can go back into it. But the ordinary is transformed, it’s reconstructive. He didn’t really believe in art for art’s sake, even thought at that level, artists are sort of solving theoretical problems amongst themselves. So, even at the level of the highest art, so to speak, it’s still pragmatic in that sense. You’re experimenting with the different elements of art to see what can be done. Even if you don’t have any political motivation. So, there’s just all that richness of aesthetics.
I actually have some other colleagues who are going to be on a panel with me at the 50th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in Denver, CO. One is Susan Haarmon, she’s a doctoral student at Loyola University Chicago, and she’s got some really incredible work on the way we could look at role playing games from a Deweyan perspective, how it could help us to create community organization that we can then use to do philanthropic work when we’re not playing the game. My colleague, Terry McMullen, has talked a lot about the value of public games, in that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can show up— it becomes a liminal space where you make these connections with people. He’s also working on how RPGs can be used to teach philosophy to children. Richard Bilsker from Southern Maryland College will be delivering a paper on character creation and how it relates to the theories of identity formation by George Mead, W.E.B. DuBois, and Gloria Anzaldua. Finally, I will be delivering an essay on how the transformative RPGs of the Nordic Larp scene foster mystical experiences as described by William James.
Nadine: Can you share a little bit about how you ended up teaching this course on the philosophy of role playing games at PSU?
Albert: Throughout my career at PSU, I’ve ended up doing a lot of applied ethics classes, and creating new ones. So, things like environmental ethics, philosophy of sex and love, military ethics, philosophy of sports. For about 10 years I’ve been finding these really important, popular subjects and showing how philosophy relates to them; this course just kind of became a natural extension. Role playing games have been my personal passion my whole life, and I feel like they, really, were a part of me becoming a philosopher, because of thinking about identity and quests and challenges and moral dilemmas and all these things, you know, it had that sort of synergistic effect. So it’s really nice to finally be bringing those two together. And I have to say, it’s the silver lining of the pandemic that really did it. I mean, I was starting to get back into playing Dungeons and Dragons in particular, which I’ve played off and on with friends back home for over 20 years.
So then the pandemic happened, right, and what was typically an in person kind of performative art-type game suddenly went online. Suddenly, nobody had to go to work, and everybody wanted an escape, and manageable problems they could deal with, rather than this huge pandemic that we really couldn’t do anything about. So, the number of people who wanted to play and games I ran just kind of exploded. But I kind of knew that would happen, and this is the value of a liberal arts education; my history professor back in undergrad had us read Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is an anthology of stories set during the Black Plague. A bunch of nobles rent a manor out in the country to avoid the plague, and to pass time, they just start telling stories to one another. So, although it might sound a little grandiose, I was definitely, deliberately trying to be a part of that. And we need stories now more than ever, you know, we need imagination, we need to escape.The pandemic’s coming up on its three year anniversary and I’ve just been playing nonstop. That led to doing more and more academic work, then the class, now the book. It’s been a really fun time.
Nadine: You use the word escape. Thinking about American pragmatism being a philosophy based on lived experience, I was wondering if you could share some of your thoughts around if those experiences have to happen in “reality?” Can those experiences happen to us in a fictionalized context? And if they do, do you think that they still “count?”
Albert: Regarding your questions of fantasy and reality, that’s the classic philosophical, metaphysical question: what is real? And is there really a difference between what we experience in our mind and what we experience in the real world? Neuroscience says there’s not that much of a difference.
Nadine: It brings to mind something I learned about in my research for this interview— the term immersion, which is a word used to describe the deep level of engagement that can be experienced in a game. Media scholar Janet Murray says, “We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality… that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus… In a participatory medium, immersion implies learning to swim, to do the things that the new environment makes possible.” Sarah Lynne Bowman, in her essay Immersion and Shared Imagination in Role-Playing Games (2018) writes, “Immersion is often conflated with the concept of flow, a term which also arose from this water metaphor; Mihályi Csíkszentmihályi’s participants often compared the experience of engagement in a task to a water current carrying them along a certain course. This aquatic imagery is far older, however; the Buddhist and Taoist concept of wei-wu-wei– a paradoxical state of action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort– is also compared to water, as liquid has a yielding nature and ability to change shape, yet overcome things that are hard and strong. In this regard, immersion is not simply the sense of being surrounded by an all-consuming environment, but also relates to active engagement and agency within that experience.”
Albert: Even though our conscious mind can distinguish between fantasy and reality, if we have a really immersive experience, to our brain, it is as though we have experienced it, and this power is present in all kinds of art forms.
So, what’s really incredible about role playing games is, anytime you talk to someone who has played, they will usually refer to their past experiences in the first person. So they won’t say, One time my character did this. They’ll usually say, Well, one time we were in the Dragon’s Lair and this strange salamander appeared, and it almost killed my friend! It’s pretty incredible. When people have been playing for a long time, it’s as though we’ve experienced those games. This is an ancient philosophical notion going back to Hinduism: is life but a dream, and we’re just playing different roles (but we’re really all just the divine, perceiving itself)?
Nadine: Do you think there’s ever a time we’re not playing a role in our lives?
Albert: That is a fundamental question. And this would be an example of why most professional philosophers do not like pragmatists. I’m almost willing to say that the whole world is a role playing game, and it’s live action role playing games all the way down.
Nadine: Right, like the Shakspeare quote, “All the world’s a stage,” and we change roles depending on the stage, maybe the stage is home or work or the grocery store, whatever. I don’t necessarily see those environments as any less stage-like than a theater stage or a film set.
There’s an Argentinian playwright, Lola Arias, whose work is a huge inspiration to me. She uses re-enactment a lot in her work, and I read an interview where she said, “I didn’t want to write dialogues for characters, but rather invent encounters between people for them to talk to one another in the context of art.” And I feel like you could just kind of just sub out “art” for “game” here. Role playing games seem like they just sort of set up this context for characters to have these encounters and work through things.
It’s interesting to think of the things that “bleed” through [the term bleed was coined by Emily Care Boss in 2007, and has since been generally accepted to describe when emotions “bleed over” from character to player and vice versa] when we do that work.
Albert: This bleed can go one of two directions: either you bring real life stuff into the game, or stuff in the game comes out into the real world. So the first one would be an example of like, you’ve had a bad day at work and in the game, you know, your character’s acting impatient or rude or something like that. And then the opposite would be like, you experience something in the game— it could be a loss, like maybe your character dies— and so you have a bit of a grief response in your actual life for a while. That’s not uncommon— you’ve created a fantastical avatar of yourself and then spent hours playing. That really is an actual loss, right? But when it starts to get interesting is the ways in which you can sometimes have these really peak experiences where you have moments of insight, and it can be transformative.
Nadine: I’m fascinated by the different types of bleeds that can occur; the one I found most compelling was emancipatory bleed, which I read defined by Jonaya Kemper as “the idea that bleed can be steered and used for emancipatory purposes by players who live with complex marginalizations.”
Albert: The particular piece you’re talking about, yes, is talking about “playing for bleed” in a certain way, and trying to sort of deconstruct internalized norms that you’ve brought in from the various prejudices of our world. Despite its origins, the game has always had a strong queer community and following— plenty of players throughout the years have used it as a way to rehearse their gender or sexual identity, before debuting that, because, you know, you’re amongst a group of supportive friends who have practice in affirming you performing a version of yourself that you aren’t actually in real life.
Nadine: That’s very moving.
Albert: Oh, yeah, there’s all kinds of stories about this. One of the best on this is a scholar named Josephine Baird; she has some incredible work, and even a game designed for the exploration of sexual and gender identity, called Euphoria. She’s trying to use her experiences to create something more deliberate for people who are wanting to have those experiences. But the beauty of role playing games is it can be anything— it starts out in this Tolkienesque fantasy, but you can have games at any time or place, you know, the Wild West, outer space. One of my games tonight is Vampire: Dark Ages. So, after I’m done with this, I’m actually going to be running that game. It’s all about politics and intrigue and supernatural stuff in Transylvania actually, and what’s neat about that was we accidentally kind of stumbled into a lot of West versus East conflict. Transylvania is on the border of Ukraine, so there’s been a few times in playing that game, where strangely, real life and the game kind of have that bleed, and we get to explore and think about some of those historical conflicts that still relate to present day conflicts in a more thorough way. So I mean, these are all examples of different types of transformative bleed that can occur. But the term itself, role playing games, is a term from psychology. It was originally proposed that through, like, reenactment and whatnot, it would have therapeutic effects. There are a lot of psychologists who provide workshops on how to run therapeutic games for children and for others, to help us with social skills, self esteem, and even to process trauma.
Nadine: The benefits are so vast, I had no idea. I feel as though role playing games— or I guess more specifically role playing gamers— seem to be sometimes misunderstood or even stigmatized. The more I learn about how it functions, I feel like it fits very comfortably within performance art and socially engaged theater.
I suppose I’ll share why I’m interested in this and how it relates to my art practice. I’ve worked in the service industry for 15 years, and those sorts of jobs, to me, have always felt like roles. I have a costume, I’m on this set, my coworkers have always felt like collaborators or castmates, and customers have always felt like audience-participants. I’m currently working as a waitress, and starting to contextualize that work within my art practice has been exciting. Anyways, I had a conversation with my professor Harrell in my first month of the program where we talked about what it might be like if I claimed all the serving jobs I’ve ever had as performance pieces. (There’s a term called claiming, which just means claiming something as an art piece that wasn’t viewed that way before. If that event has happened in the past it would be considered retroactive claiming.) So, I’m like, okay, I’m down to claim these previous jobs as performances but I don’t have any documentation of that. So he goes, “Well, you could re-enact them and document the re-enactments.” I loved the suggestion and really hope to re-enact these job performances during my time in the program.
I wanted to get your thoughts— if you have any— on what you think about reenactments; reenactments of everyday life, not necessarily historical periods, or wars or anything like that, but like, reenactments of more everyday events, like a work shift, or a walk? Do you think that there’s space for reality, or I guess maybe more specifically the ordinary, in role playing games?
Albert: I had never thought about that, but that’s absolutely brilliant. The Scandinavians take role playing games very seriously and have for a long time, best work comes out of there, through the Nordic LARP society.
They have some ones that are pretty intense. For example, Hello In There by Kjell Hedgard Hugaas requires role playing your spouse dying from cancer, and saying goodbye.
[Albert reacts to a change in my expression]
Now, I can see the air go out of the room.
Nadine: No, no. Actually the total opposite. A couple weeks ago, I was sort of doing an acting exercise like this with myself alone in my apartment— have you ever seen the show Six Feet Under?
Albert: Oh, yes. It’s been like, over 10 years. But I want to watch it again. That’s a transformative experience right there.
Nadine: I just watched the series for the first time, I became totally obsessed. It had me thinking about death and grief more than I usually do– which is a lot— and I felt like I had to like, purge all the emotions and fear it was bringing up. So, I took a video of myself on my computer with my webcam doing this acting exercise where I tried to put myself into this imaginary world in which my twin brother died. The story I created was that I got a call from his boxing coach that he’d gotten hit in the temple sparring, and was killed instantly. I narrated my thoughts out loud, sort of just like stream of consciousness, but my consciousness as I experienced it in this alternate reality— so I enacted that and I recorded it. I actually had to stop because it became too painful. I’m glad I have it on tape though.
So, this Nordic LARPing stuff you’re telling me about, like acting out your lifelong partner dying, that kind of performance really excites me.
Albert: Yeah, well, I mean, you know, in fairness, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I teach and read a lot of existentialism so I ruminate on that a lot myself in, I think, a mostly healthy way. I mean, hey, you know, like Heidegger says, if we are always in denial of death, we’re actually estranged from our being, from our own life. So, you know, it’s important to kind of face the reality of our own mortality and the mortality of the ones we love, right? We never want to think about it, but any relationship we get into is going to come to some sort of end eventually, maybe, yet we never really want to think about or rehearse, or prep, or plan, because we have this fear that by doing that, it’ll somehow bring it closer or something. But why wouldn’t we take the time to, you know, engage in those activities that can be very therapeutic?
Nadine: I had no idea that there was live action role playing that dove into relationships and grief so intentionally and deeply.
I think that if fantasy can create a space for healing that reality can’t, there’s potentially a lot to gain from leaning into it, using it as a tool.
Albert: I also want to provide one word of caution and navigate back to consent. As Sarah Lynn Bowman, who you’ve mentioned, said in a conference, when I asked her a question, she said, “You know, when we play role playing games, we’re playing with fire, and there’s always the chance that bleed can be negative.” So that’s an important thing to be conscientious of.
Nadine: Right, like there’s good bleed and bad bleed; there might be healing bleed and painful bleed.
Albert: I’m a philosopher— I mean, I’m sure there’s parts of my shadow that I’m in denial about. I’m a human being, denial is a river we all swim in, as they say. So, I’m pretty introspective and aware of what lurks there, but for a person who might not be, they could really easily stumble on this one thing that they don’t even know that they’ve got going on, and that can be really tough. I’ve had moments where that’s happened, where I just stumbled onto something, and it can have some consequences, can strain friendships… So, this is where really understanding consent and studying safety tools and how to be aware of what your boundaries are and where other people’s boundaries are. If we want to go back to pragmatics, and creating community and social values, we just live in a culture that’s really terrible about talking about and understanding consent. So, even when you’re really well intentioned, you can still have negative experiences that need to be worked through. So it’s also an opportunity to really practice a lot of these good psychological safety tools. It teaches you how to be a better friend. But I don’t want to just gloss over the potentially messy stuff and share only the positive; if it’s powerful enough to heal people it can be powerful enough to harm people as well. So you gotta learn how to use it responsibly.
Nadine: Of all the roles you play in your life, which role are you having the most fun with right now?
Albert: Oh, wow. Well, you know, I mean, being a teacher, this is just a really exciting time. I’m just engaged in a lot of projects like this one. I have always loved being a teacher so much. I mean, I joke and say I get paid to talk about the things I love with really intelligent and interesting people. I can’t really imagine a much better or rewarding job than that. At least for me. But you know, I’m also a husband and a dad and those are important roles. My daughter is a teenager getting ready to go into high school, so there’s a shifting of roles and that sort of thing now, yeah— which is, you know, wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
Nadine: Does your daughter play any RPGs?
Albert: You know, it’s really interesting because we are both performers, but she’s a dancer, and she really likes being on the stage and the body movement. She had some fun experiences with D&D when we kind of got into it, but it’s just not her medium. And I’m a little sad, I’m hoping someday she’ll come back to it and give it another try. But, you know, this circles back to something I wanted to talk about before, which is that, you know, we’re just not really given a lot of license to play in our lives. And we’re certainly not given a lot of license to engage in pretend to play as adults. And this isn’t necessarily what’s going on with her, but you know, it really starts when we’re in those middle school and then teenage years and starting to become more conscious of our peers, that that part of ourselves goes into some kind of dormancy or retreat. So I think everybody should try it. And at the same time understand that it’s not for everybody.
Nadine: For sure. The most fun I ever had acting was in this very campy horror-comedy indie picture about a zombie deer, because it was just so far out. I remember a scene where I had to run for my life from this evil zombie deer that was trying to attack me. There was a specific feeling, a sort of nostalgic embodied feeling, of using every physical resource available in my body to its absolute limit, in the realm of fantasy, that was completely euphoric. And that state of pretend is something I hadn’t accessed since I was a kid.
And so like, I think what you’re saying is really true, whether it’s D&D or something else, I do think it’s important for adults to find ways to have pretend play as a part of their life practice, because we lose it.
Albert: That ends up being kind of the beauty of this— you end up realizing how mutable and malleable these roles and social institutions and other constructions are. I mean, at the same time, people take them very seriously. They’re not totally arbitrary, there’s a certain power. I’m thinking of like, the Wizard of Oz, you know, seeing behind the curtain and sort of understanding how things are really set up. So many of us get attached to a specific identity and role and we’re just kind of rigid in that. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, you know, we all need that little bit of flexibility of silliness, of liminal spaces, times when we can engage in a bit of misrule, where the roles aren’t the same anymore, these are big parts of our culture. The technical term in role playing game studies is alibi, when we’re given the alibi to not be who we’re expected to be. The best example of this in our culture is Halloween, that’s the one time in the year that an adult can dress up and act, for the most part, however they want. There’s still norms they have to obey, but nevertheless, it’s about the only time that we really experience it. I mean, like Mardi Gras, or Carnival, or other festivals; every culture has something like this. But it’s an important part of the human experience. Storytelling is an important part of our experience.
Albert “Randy” Spencer (he/him) is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University where he regularly teaches courses on American Pragmatism, Indigenous Philosophy, The Philosophy of Sports, and The Philosophy of Sex & Love. His recent book is American Pragmatism: An Introduction (Polity Press 2020) which presents a new story of the origins and development of pragmatism through its ongoing engagement with the tragic legacies of colonialism and the consequences of U.S. hegemony.
Nadine Hanson (she/her) is an artist from Wisconsin, now based in NYC. She prefers to work collaboratively and likes using performance, experimental documentary, and writing. nadinehanson.com
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