Credits + Gratitude:
2020 Interviewee: Rabbi Menachem Cohen
2050 Interviewee: Ursula Delany, Pathfinder, played by Hunter Harris.
Host/"The Narrator" (2020/2050): H Kapp-Klote
Mixing, Engineering: Jonathan Groubert
Audio support: Katie In
Moral Support, Story Strategy: Lawrence Barrier and the Center for Story Based Strategy Class
Story Editing: Zoe Schein
Notes: This episode is a test run -- my hope is to get feedback from others on what they like, dislike, and make Working 2050 even better for the next 5 planned episodes (and beyond).
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, feedback, and more.
To learn more about Rabbi Menachem's work check out: http://whatmakesyoucomealive.net/
To learn about his project adapting a spiritual version of Dreamchaser, check out: https://www.imagininggames.com/
Pathfinder is a real (and very popular) game from Dungeons and Dragons. The 2050 career as a whole is likely a direct descendant of RPG games like played with this system. However, this template is unlikely to be the basis for Ursula Delany's game The Demon Within.
H: This is Working 2050, a speculative oral history about workers of the future.
We talk to people about what they do all day and how they feel about it. Then we write science fiction about what the future might look like in 2050.
My name is H + I’ve always been confused about what the word work means.
One of my first memories is my mom spending hours at our kitchen table, preparing for a teachers union negotiation. She, along with other teachers, were demanding more time to prepare their classrooms in the summer. I didn’t get it.
“So... you’re asking to do more work?” I remember asking.
That was how I first learned the word “work” means a lot of different things.
H: Some people, including my mom, would tell you the story of work like this: work is labor. It’s what you spend to get a paycheck.
Some people profit from your work.
The owner, the upper class, the 1%, They use your work, their profit, to fund racist police. Or put it in offshore bank accounts.
And capitalism, white supremacy, misogyny makes it so millions of people, most of the world, HAVE to work. They have to work so hard just to survive.
That story of work— is true.
But it’s not the whole story.
H: The global pandemic means more people than ever have to work so hard to survive.
But since the pandemic began, many people’s work has changed drastically.
Whether they’ve been laid off, or started organizing with their neighbors, or now face incredible danger going to work every morning, People work differently now.
And the story of work as only what we do to survive can’t explain that change on its own.
Studs Terkel’s 1973 oral history called Working iis a collection of interviews with people about their work, is subtitled what people do all day, and how they feel about it.
When you think about the story of work as the story of what people do all day and how they feel about it -- you get a better sense of what the word “work” can mean in 2020.
— this story of work gets at why we work.
Why people pour hours into starting a tenants union, or check their email before they go to sleep and as soon as they wake up, or rehearse and record an anthem for a baseball team that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter what kind of work: if it’s paid, unpaid, useful, useless, chaotic, dull.
Sometimes we work to survive.
But sometimes we work because of how it makes us feel.
So: What do people do all day?
How do they feel about it?
H: Here’s an example: When I burned out at my job, I felt miserable doing what I did all day— which was, supporting community organizers in telling stories about their work. Funny, right?
I started doing that work to change the future.
Because boy, do we need to change the future. Mass extinction, eco-fascism, continued pandemic horror is coming. Systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, regular fascism, is already here.
But not all change is good. And instead of changing the future, I changed, feeling more and more hopeless everyday.
And that, at the heart of it, was why I felt miserable doing what I did all day: I stopped believing in my ability to change the future.
That’s when I started reading a lot of science fiction.
Menachem: My first character was a rogue. I don’t know if I knew too much about what that really meant.
H: That’s Rabbi Menchaem Cohen. They are a spiritual director, rabbi, and Table Top Role Playing Game designer.
Dungeons and Dragons, roleplaying games. Games have been part of his life for decades. But for 13 years, what they did all day was outreach, working with LGBTQI and or homeless youth.
Menachem: And I loved it, and as I was approaching 50, I’m 51 now, I started asking myself what I really wanted my life to be about. And what I wanted to be doing when I was 50, and this was several years ago, I asked the question what really makes me come alive?]
There’s a great Howard Thurman quote, don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive. And for all on that journey, in the expression of our true selves and our souls, we will naturally not want to hurt each other. We want to help each other. Our only purpose in life is to be our true selves.
H: The name of Rabbi Menachem’s practice is WHAT MAKES YOU COME ALIVE.
What makes Menachem come alive?
Menachem: In the 90s I was playing a dungeons and dragons character that talked his way out of everything. And I was like, “eh, that’s not me, that’s my character.” and then one day it clicked: “Oh wait! That IS me! I am the one saying the words that get me, my character out of all sorts of sticky sticky situations and fighting.”
And I realized I was learning something about myself and developing new skills.
H: Using games as a path to guide people on their spiritual journeys. To find their purpose. Menachem sees the stories in games as the key to understanding why we do what do all day, and how we how we feel about it.
Menachem: There’s a biblical story about King David. He’s on his roof and he sees Bathsheba bathing a couple of roofs over and he wants her. So he sends her husband to the front lines of the current fight with orders to leave him alone so he’s killed.
And so that happens and he has Bethsheba brought to his house.
After a month or whatever they get married and it falls on Nathan, the prophet, to come tell David he’s a schmuck.
And he can’t do it directly, right, because he might lose his head.
So he goes to King David and he says “Your highness, may tell you a story?”
Well, of course.
“There was a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had lots of goats and the poor man had one goat. And he loved that goat like a child — he would go in and make cheese and milk. It was, it was a love affair. And the one day the poor man went away, and he asked the rich man to watch his goat. So he did and while he was away the rich man had a traveler stop by and the tradition was to feed the traveler, so he had the poor man’s goat slaughtered.
David’s irate at this point: that man should be punished!”
And Nathan, trying not to smile, I imagine, says “you are the man.”
And King David understood what he had done.
H: Stories reflect our lives. They help us change.
H: When I was burned out at work , I read a lot of science fiction.
The stories I read wouldn’t let me escape. These stories -- by Adrienne Maree Brown, NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin -- reflected my feelings, the experiences I was trying to escape, back at me.
Stories about our day to day -- our own, and in fiction -- reflected back at us like Nathan’s goat eating rich man — they’re the key to changing what we do all day and how we feel about it.
And that’s the only way to change the future.
So that’s why I asked Menchaem about their story of work -- what they do all day and how they felt about it. What you just heard - that’s what they told me.
Then I wrote a science fiction story, about what someone in the future does all day, and how they feel about it.
Some of this story is a reflection of what Menachem feels about work, and some of it is reflection of how I feel about work.
Both of those reflections contain so many other stories we all tell abt work.
That’s what you're going to hear now.
And when we imagine what the future could feel like -- how people will feel about what they do all day -- we get a little closer to changing that future for the better.
Welcome to Working 2050.
(2050 INTRO -- Ursula Delany Interview)
Narrator: Welcome to Working 2050– a centennial celebration of Studs Terkel’s oral history.
We are preserving the audio medium through interviews about what people do all day and how they feel about it today, in 2050.
This episode was brought to you with funding from the IWW streaming network. Our first episode is called Pathfinder.
Narrator: Pathfinders are flamboyant, touchy, secretive, and in demand.
But I had to talk to one for this series on modern day work and purpose. It's the defining work of our generation.
Pathfinders are flamboyant, touchy, secretive, and in demand.
That’s the whole point of a pathfinder: to transcend everyday interactions and help you find the meaning of life for you.
But that also means Pathfinders do not want to talk to me.
Getting in touch with one usually requires solving an elaborate riddle.
The 2 Pathfinders in the world with publicly listed pins? They were in the remains of the Amazon, and the wreckage of the Titanic. I was not going to reach either of them before my deadline.
Increasingly desperate, I asked my Michael to look up Pathfinders around me. There was one hit. Ursula Delany.
Yeah, THAT Ursula Delany.
Ursula Delaney has won 12 Nebulas, countless psychiatry awards, and at least three set design fellowships.
Like all Pathfinders, her gameplay is dramatic — her persona is part of that experience. There are no publicly available photos, videos or physical recordings of her. She doesn’t do interviews. or real time streaming.
And somehow, completely unbeknownst to me
Ursula Delany has lived in my cooperative.
The game Ursula Delany is best known for is called the Demon Within. It’s played in a grain elevator in rural Nebraska. Players say the game changed them, gave them an almost religious sense of purpose.
And , that’s why Ursula Delaney is so acclaimed — the mystery.
Why she was listed as living in my cooperative was another mystery. I had my Michael send her a message, and she responded immediately.
“Sure. I’m retired though, just so you know. I live here with my brother and my nephew. chat whenever.”
After lot of deep breathing, I gave her a call.
(URSULA answers in a kind of workroom space. She’s dressed normally for a 30ish 2050 cooperative person, earth tone athleisure. While our narrator is fidgety, talks fast, URSULA is a slow talker, thinks before she speaks, and doesn’t move her body much while she’s talking. It’s awkward.)
Ursula: ...oh. Sorry. Go ahead.
Narrator: No, you can go.
Narrator: So… I was surprised you live in this cooperative.
Ursula:Yeah! I don’t go to a lot of meals in the cafeteria so that’s probably why we haven’t seen each other.
Narrator: Oh… No I meant... you know... you’re Ursula Delany... so why do you live here?
Ursula: Haha. Trying to shake things up.
So yeah. Working 2050 is an oral history of how people spend their time day to day today, and how they feel about it. It’s a riff on a bunch of interviews from 1950-1970, which is why I’m just recording the audio not video or the physical sensations and yeah so what was it like to be a pathfinder in the day to day?
Ursula: Well… That’s part of the reason I moved to this cooperative, actually. I wanted to be closer to my brother and his son. but it was also to explore a new type of pathfinding. I run classic games here, mostly with youth. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s been kind of fun to play with character sheets. And look, die.
(Narrator is clearly not impressed. Once again, it’s awkward.)
Narrator: Cool. So what made you want to leave… real pathfinding behind?
Ursula: I had a really intense career and I just... burned out.
Narrator: Well, uh, how did you decide to be a pathfinder? When you started?
Ursula: I wanted to be a pathfinder since I was a kid. My dad was so into it, he was the one who inspired me.
He was the classic post-Horrors guy, you know what I mean? He was so into purpose and meaning and breathwork and... group crying in saunas.
Narrator: Oh yeah. I mean… That’s like every middle-aged man in this cooperative.
(They both laugh. It’s slightly less awkward).
Ursula: Yeah. So you know the type.
Ursula: OK so, yeah.
My dad had this transformational session in his 30s, when pathfinding was still kind of this out there thing.
He played this Rogue Dragonslayer character as a man, and until then he identified as a woman.
Playing as this character helped him realize so much about his gender— and himself.
So he was a true believer in pathfinding.
He was such a passionate guy — so I was really passionate about it too. We played so many pathfinder type games growing up.
For me and my brother, it meant we could set boundaries and explore who we were and also have a really awesome time fighting dragons. -- maybe because we had such an awesome time fighting dragons.
I knew I wanted to design that kind of transformative experience.
So… I took a bunch of religion courses, psychology, narrative design, construction. I got a loan from the Nebraskan affiliate of the AU. And eventually I set up the beginning of what would come to be Demon Within.
Narrator: Here’s what we know about the gameplay of the Demon Within. For the 3 people in the world who don’t follow Pathfinder Games.
Once you find the game, which only 5% of potential players have been able to do, you find yourself at a giant grain elevator.
In the middle of a field. The door to the elevator only opens at night. Once you walk in, the door is locked.
That’s when the game begins.
Unlike other Pathfinder games, which have side arcs, or the others in the room, in The Demon Within, it’s just you and the grain elevator.
And the top of the grain elevator? It’s collapsing. slowly but surely.
It grates against the walls as it drops.
Every hour, it gets closer. and closer.
The rest of the details of the game are subject to endless dispute.
Is there really a manifestation of your worst self taunting you as you try to climb out?
If so is it because of psychedelics or is it an extremely advanced AI projection?
And , Nebraska has pretty lax ARG safety laws — does the top of the grain elevator actually… you know... STOP if you can’t solve the puzzle?
All the players have signed a nondisclosure agreement about the specifics of gameplay.
They can’t tell us how it ends.
At least, that’s the only reason we know for sure why no one can tell us how it ends.
Narrator: Demon Within is a pretty intense game. that’s what set it apart. What did your day to day look like in putting it together?
Ursula: When I was building it then running it, most of the time I was holed up in my shed, about 500 feet from the grain elevator. That was probably one of the hardest pieces of design I had to do. Pathfinder gamers are into EVERYTHING. I had to make something that was so boring even the most obsessive player wouldn’t look at it, they’d just walk straight into the grain elevator.
I ended up disguising my shed from the player as a pile of gravel.
The game itself is pretty simple to GM. Pulley, force, counterforce. The collapsing ceiling runs on one of those old stage pulley systems so. I just turned the crank every hour or so.
I could’ve set up some fancy system to turn the crank, but the jerky movement that happens when a human does it -- details like that make the experience transformative.
Narrator: What about the demons?
Ursula: The demons… Sorry, that’s an industry secret.
Narrator: What happened once you set the game up?
Ursula: I posted about it anonymously on a forum. The first guy solved the location puzzle and showed up a couple day later… he ran crying out of the elevator when he finished, it took him three days.
And, the rest I mean… You know. people liked it.
When the camping started, that’s when I knew I had made something that was really helping people. They would wait for it.
Narrator: That’s incredible.
Ursula: Testimonials from people who had played the game meant the most to me. people in the forum said that playing had given them the courage to quit opioids, or leave their bad triad, or really deal with things that happened to them during the Horrors.
Narrator: So, what did you do in between running the gameplay?
Ursula: Mostly sat around..waiting for players, doing safety tests, QA, repairs, tweaking the location puzzle. I was constantly checking the forums.
Narrator: Turning the crank.
Ursula: Yeah, that too. Haha.
Narrator: That sounds rough.
Ursula: It wasn’t rough... it was.. smooth (she laughs). Too easy. Not enough friction.
Narrator: So you were starting to question being a Pathfinder?
Ursula: Not consciously. If anyone had asked me, I would have said I was fine.
But I know I wasn’t fine because of what happened next.
Ursula: It’s gonna sound.... I don’t know that you want it on your radio show. It’s kind of...fringe.
Narrator: No.... I DEFINITELY want that on my radio show.
I started to get kind of obsessed with the game, or maybe more obsessed with it: I didn’t take breaks. I stopped sleeping. My brother had a commitment ceremony with his partner, they had a kid, they moved to a new cooperative. I didn’t show up for any of it. he kept inviting me for holidays, but I always found an excuse to stay here.
Then my dad died, a couple of years ago.
I watched the funeral stream then went back to work. Watching the players. Turning the crank. At the time, I would’ve told you it was a blessing to have something to do. and purpose after a painful experience, which can facilitate real transformation. (laughs) Straight from Pathfinding 101.
One night, a player shows up, gets locked in the elevator. I turn the crank, the ceiling starts to lower. Typical night.
So I relax, check the forums, go make some nootropic tea, it’s been like a half hour.
Then I realize I didn’t do any of those things: I’m still turning the crank.
Narrator: Oh my God.
Ursula: The ceiling is maybe 50, 60 feet over her head at that point.
So I turned the crank got the ceiling up to where it should be at this point in the game . It takes a while, that thing is heavy. And I checked the video, the player’s freaked but her heart rate’s not at a scary level or anything.
So, I figure maybe this is a sign: it’s time to experiment with the gameplay.
Maybe the collapsing ceiling should drive up and down at random intervals, so I can see what happens to the player’s heart rate, emotions.
Narrator: That’s…. Not what I would guess that was a sign of.
Ursula: Yeah. I was pretty obsessed.
So I start playing around with that, and then I realize, I can hear this player screaming. And it was too early in the game for her to be screaming, She’s screaming HEY THERE’S SOMETHING UP WITH THE GAME OH MY GOD OH MY GOD.
Then I also realize I haven’t done any of the things. I’m still standing at the crank, turning it.
Ursula: Yeah. I hit the safety - the game is retro but always up to code. The ceiling flies up and the player runs out screaming. A couple of weeks later I check the forums and she’s convinced it was part of the gameplay. She says the experience helped her leave her high pressure job in Municipal Sanitation.
So after that I do some breathing, make some more tea, try to chill out.
Then I realize I haven’t done any of that. I switched off the safety.
I’m still turning the crank.
I’m SLAMMING the compactor ceiling into the floor of the elevator over and over again.
I must have done it for an hour before I noticed my arms are EXHAUSTED, but still turning.
So this time I try to pull the safety, I can’t get my arms to move.
I try to grab both my arms in a giant bear hug, to stop turning it.
It didn’t work, I keep turning the crank.