Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Mushroom at the End of the World

I just worked my way through half of Anna Tsing's <b> The Mushroom at the End of the World </b> and it is fantastic. It is a wonderful exploration of the edges of capitalism viewed through the lens of the matsutake mushroom and the economies/ecologies it fosters. There's a lot to chew on in the book, but one of the sections stood out to me in particular as a tabletop player.

Mushroom foraging is an acapitalistic endeavor. While capital exchanges hands (foragers trade mushrooms to buyers for cash, buyers exchange the mushrooms for cash from more centralized buyers who eventually trade mushrooms for cash from consumers), the foragers and buyers do not reinvest the cash into the business - they do not consolidate capital. Foragers are independent, loyal to no particular buyer and no part of the Oregonian mountains - they traipse into and out of public and private land, sometimes with and often without foraging licenses administered by the usually-absent state government and National Park Service. Buyers attempt to groom loyal foragers through bribes of drinks and treats and appeals to ethnic unity (ethnicity, of course, being a construct of conflict and thus highly socially-mediated), a ploy that often falls flat given the range of people and backgrounds who seek fungal gold. A buyer's chief goal is to drive the other buyers out of business. To that end, they compete for the highest prices - the higher the price, the more the highest-bidder will have to spend to buy the mushrooms such a price attracts. Thus, competition increases cost, rather than the opposite.

Matsutake mushrooms grow in forests devastated by human exploitation - they thrive on trees kept artificially alive through human intervention (fire protection) that cannot compete with hereditary giants and thus spring up in the wake of deforestation and the destruction of the natural environment. They cannot be farmed - Japan invests millions of dollars each year seeking a way to cultivate the matsutake, to no avail - they can only be stumbled upon in the woods, often buried in holes where only clever animals (humans and nonhumans alike) smell them out. Matsutake take on the characteristics of the trees on which they grow - the smell of a matsutake (already a pungent mushroom) on a piss-fir is exquisitely awful, and skilled buyers can determine the growing conditions of a mushroom from touch and smell alone (there are also insect parasites that can infest the mushrooms and spoil whole batches shipped to Japan - experienced buyers detect these only with a touch, while novices have to cut into the matsutake's white flesh).

The parallels to parties extracting goods from ruins, themselves the remains of human-led destruction, are obvious. There is a potential for our games to straddle the line between capitalistic and anticapitalistic endeavors, and I wonder if our love of fixed-price commodities, of easily-quantifiable treasure, is the reason that anticapitalistic potential is so rarely realized.

I both adore and hate the idea of the megadungeon. I have one in my world and not a single party I've run has ever expressed any interest in spending a prolonged period of time in there, plumbing the depths - while the cash is good, it is too lethal a place. Logistically, a meaningful megadungeon is almost an oxymoron. Yet, while I cannot imagine my players excited about seeking mushrooms in the Oregonian mountains (something great for video games and not so great for tabletops), I know that players do get excited about dungeon delves, and the resulting dungeon-market economy would function exactly as Tsing describes the matsutake buyers market. But to create such an environment, I have to do away with goods with easily-discernable value: no coins, no antiquated paintings, no clockwork mechanisms.

One of my design goals is to present an example of postcolonial D&D, building a game that does not reify structural racism and other exploitative structures. If that shit isn't OK in my other media, why should it be OK in my game? Tsing's matsutake economy recontextualizes one of the most common forms of labors in D&D into a mode of being in between capitalism and anticapitalism. Tsing writes that the true "good" exchanged between the buyers and foragers is the exercise of freedom. The money is secondary to the ability to live in refugee-style camps in the Cascades, outside the oppressive systems of contemporary life, which describes many of our players to a T.

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