On Transhumanism in RPGs

From time to time, various RPGs present themselves that are billed as being transhumanist in nature. As a transhumanist myself for more than a decade, I find myself both disappointed and annoyed by the vast majority of such outings, as they clearly do not understand what transhumanism actually is.

My own bona fides; I’ve been a transhumanist for more than a decade, served on the board of directors of the World Transhumanist Association for two years (now HumanityPlus), have given lectures on transhumanism, and wrote the WTA’s pamphlet on human cloning. I think I know whereof I speak.

One of the greatest misunderstandings about transhumanism is that it is merely high-tech, technophilia, genetic engineering, bionics, cyberpunk, virtual reality, a technological Singularity, or a combination thereof. It is not.

Simply put, transhumanism is the process of consciously improving oneself, or a group of people, beyond the limitations of “baseline” humanity, and thereby create a new, post-human species. Without that conscious desire to exceed humanity, one is neither a transhumanist nor a transhuman. One can be a technophile, or a cyborg, or genetically enhanced, but unless that is coupled with the goal of moving beyond “humanity”, it is not transhumanism. There is a reason that a common transhumanist symbol in the early days was >H.

Now, transhumanism certainly can involve all those things I mentioned above. Space exploration, nanotechnology and post-scarcity economies, cybernetics, virtual realities, cryonics, artificial intelligence; all these things and more are staples of transhumanist interests and projections. But they do not, in and of themselves, make something transhumanist. For that, one must have the desire to create (or become) a new, post-human species.

In game terms, as well as in fiction, the ripest field for exploring this theme is the conflict between baseline humans and the transhumans (and/or posthumans). Conflicts between different transhuman factions are also possible, maybe based on their attitudes towards the baseline humans. (And yes, there are definitely “factions” among contemporary transhumanists along such lines, as well as how transhumanist-potential technologies should be distributed or made accessible.)

So when I see a game, or read a novel, that makes the assumption that having a bionic arm or having a virtual reality world is de facto evidence of someone being a transhuman or posthuman, I get irked. On the one hand, I’m happy that transhumanism is gaining more mainstream acknowledgement, but on the other hand I’m bothered by the fact that it’s being misunderstood, watered down, and made “safe” for the corporate, mainstream world (which is a phenomenon certainly not limited to RPGs).

Sort of like punk music. The punk label got noticed by the mainstream, and once that happened, it started getting applied to all sorts of things that were anything but punk:



Also, please don’t forget the Adventures Dark and Deep Bestiary Kickstarter ends at midnight (ET) Saturday! 900 monsters, suitable for most OSR-type games, all under one cover. Can you help get us to having an illustration for each and every one?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

3 thoughts on “On Transhumanism in RPGs

  1. "On the one hand, I'm happy that transhumanism is gaining more mainstream acknowledgement, but on the other hand I'm bothered by the fact that it's being misunderstood, watered down, and made "safe" for the corporate, mainstream world (which is a phenomenon certainly not limited to RPGs)."

    But isn’t that true for any new thing? The new subject/thing/hotness gets watered down and most people don’t bother to check out the original source.

    I posted a video about Transhuman as a genera. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NP-wEFiFMg4

    Now in the video I was just mentioning a discussion I had about the origins of transhumanity, the concept origin, and nothing else.

    I gave the simplest example of what transhuman means in video. But it seems that by simplifying it, I made the definition too narrow.

  2. It is the usual conflict. If a concept stays unknown it isn't much good. However when it gets popular you get the people who hear about it, or bits of it, without context and use bits of it without understanding. You also get the mainstream outlets who just grab the terms and use them for their own purposes. Only thing you can do is try your best to educate the ignorant so they can fully enjoy the concept and ignore the rest of people who simply don't care.

    I've been interested in more fantasy based transhumanism in my games lately. As opposed to the technology-heavy kind that has popped up a lot. What kind of magic can be used to improve the human condition, the long-term effects of beneficial magic. How constantly using a Haste spell might affect the brain, or drinking a healing potion every day until your body adapts to it, that sort of thing.

    Best recent fiction exploration of transhumanism was the book The Quantum Thief.

  3. Mark McGwire proved that performance enhancement made him a success. It turns out McGwire took his baseline ability and enhanced to a baseline+. So brain doctors are toying with brain performance enhancements, but can they define a baseline human brain? Call it Brain Industry, or call it Transhumanism, Human+, elevating the human condition; it will make no difference because we don't know yet what to enhance, and predator humans will continue to develop even stranger methods using the seven deadly sins to control outcomes.

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