Joshua A. C. Newman
A transhuman, genderless ideal of human contact criticized Star Trek, and led to warring LEGO Mechs
Joshua A. C. Newman believes in equality. He grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, down the street from a Quaker meeting house. He’s Jewish, and his family taught him growing up that it was important he “figure out God for himself.” His religious background also means he learned to bless just about everything growing up, and to recognize the gifts and pleasures in his life as distinct and meaningful.
Newman has taken these life lessons and applied them to game design. His most recent creation is a tabletop war game focused on aliens vs. humans in Mech battles, where the machines of war are built from LEGO.
Newman told me he was fascinated with complexity theory in college, which could be summarized thusly: “If you have enough simple phenomena interacting, you get enormously complex phenomena that can emerge from it as long as there are enough interactions going on,” Newman explained. Or, to phrase things more simply, Newman told me, “If you have two people you have friends, if you have three people you have a love triangle, if you have four people you have politics.”
Social connections and inter-personal networks played a large role in one of Newman’s previous games, Shock: Social Science Fiction. Shock is a tabletop RPG but, instead of fighting goblins, orcs, and undead, players face down prejudice and negative attitudes toward people. It used gender neutral pronouns in its text, referring to player characters as “zie” instead of “he” or “she,” specifically to provoke a level of discomfort within players and give them a taste of the culture shock their characters would experience.
Shock eventually expanded with Shock: Human Contact, which introduced new mechanics and context for the game. Newman described it as a loving critique of Star Trek. “In Human Contact, I said, ‘What would society be like if the things Star Trek trivializes, like learning each others’ languages and culture, and traveling around from place to place, what if they weren’t trivial?’” he asked.
The analogue to Star Trek‘s Federation is The Academy, a collection of transhuman individuals who seek to explore new worlds and boldly go… well, you know the rest. But where Star Trek – despite its fantastical setting, strange characters, and larger-than-life plots – has given us conventionally attractive Captains and Zoe Saldana in a miniskirt, Newman said The Academy is more… flexible.
I asked for an example. “Things like gender are very fluid in The Academy,” he told me. “It’s not trivial to switch, it’s interesting to switch sex. Switching gender is a matter of following your heart, switching sex is a matter of going through a process that takes months to years.”
Imagine if the crew of the Enterprise had a transgender crewmember on-board when they met a new species. Would explaining homo sapiens’ sexual dimorphism, or the concept of gender, which is separate from biological sex, become more difficult? These are the questions Newman wants his games to ask.
“If there’s a hallmark in my creations, it’s figuring out how people interact with societies and things like economies, how societies interact with each other,” Newman said. “Ultimately, everything from the most personal, sexual, familial relationship is… I consider them to be a microcosm for social to inter-social, to cultural, to inter-cultural contact.”
The politics of LEGO
So how does this all fit into a game where players make war on each other with laser rifle-wielding, walking tanks of LEGO doom? Newman told the Report it’s all about how Mobile Frame Zero characterizes its factions, and the details in the game’s setting.
Newman calls himself “politically pragmatic,” meaning he sees everything as a network of influences. Likewise, he sees conflicts and war for the motivations that drive them, not as a two-sided battle of good guys vs. bad guys or ethnic group A vs. ethnic group B.
“Let’s say we have a bunch of humans in our setting, and we say, ‘How do we keep this from being men vs. women?’ Your first response is, ‘Wait, what?’ That’s just… of course that’s not how human conflict has divided up history,” Newman said. “You find the differences that are relevant to the particular conflict over resources that you’re having.”
“What drives conflict the most is worrying that your children are going to starve. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jew, or Arab, or German, or Turkish, or English, or American, or Japanese, that is the primary motivation that people have.”
This is why Mobile Frame Zero features two races, but three factions, and a war centered around resources, not conquering or defeating foes. If it were divided amongst racial, ethnic, or species lines, that would make both sides villains, and Newman doesn’t want that to be a part of his game.
Although the game is published under a creative commons license – meaning anyone can contribute and create within the Mobile Frame Zero universe – one of the few restrictions is that a created faction or company cannot symbolize pro-fascist philosophy. The game license specifically calls out a restriction on anything Nazi-related.
“Naziism has this particular place in our history, and it’s not like it’s gone,” Newman told me. “The last major fascist European power didn’t fall in the ‘40s, in the time of our grandparents, it fell when I was a child, in Spain.”
“These are really real things that are still happening, and people might think it’s sort of fun to say, ‘What if the world was really so bad that these bad guys were really the good guys, wouldn’t that be extreme and edgy?’ No, it’s not. It’s saying something really really horrible, and I just don’t want my name on that shit.”
“I don’t care if a faction has a racist, feudalist background. That’s alright, but that faction’s actually wrong, just like they are in the real world,” Newman said.
To think of the things you can learn by making LEGO armies fight.