“Cooperative games don’t have to be cooperative just amongst players around a table, that cooperation can be the solidarity players feel (and act on) for workers.”
By Ed Simon
Today, only 12% of Americans are members of a union (I’m gratefully a dues-payer in SEIU-500 myself), but in 1954 when labor was at its post-New Deal peak, some 35% of workers in the country were protected by membership in a union. Despite actual membership now being at an all-time low, support among workers – and voters – is the highest it’s been since 1965 according to a recent Gallup poll. An astounding 71% of women and men in the United States say they support unions, up from the second highest year on record – which was last year. This inverse relationship between membership and support makes total sense – people are as enthusiastic about labor solidarity as they are because after the 2008 financial collapse, ever increasing student loan debt, static wages and the rise in inflation, the possibility of bankruptcy because of illness, the lack of universal healthcare, and the obscenity of the ever-widening gulf between regular people and the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world, there is some vestigial memory of how unions once supplied good wages, benefits, and security. Last month’s Congressional and Presidential union busting of the rail workers’ strike – workers agitating simply for a humane sick-leave policy – can be discouraging, but as friend of Belt Magazine Kim Kelly writes in her brilliant book Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, this is a “constant work of progress and revolution… constant pushing forward, farther, and farther still… the unfinished business of centuries of fighters and thinkers and dreamers.”
An important point, because so often the labor movement is reduced to the admittedly romantic legacy which its history and aesthetics leaves behind, all of those social realist posters and Pete Seeger songs. Yet part of the continual revolution of the movement involves evolving and shifting with the times, and as much as current labor activists have to learn from the noble accounts which precede us, it’s telling that much of the excitement today comes from unionization at places like Amazon, Google, and Starbucks. When the media says the phrase “working class union member” they expect it to connote a particular image of gruff, middle-aged white men in hard hats. And of course many working class union members do look like that, but the category also includes the adjunct instructor teaching at several campuses, the woman in a Hawaiian shirt bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s, and the green-aproned barista who has eighty-six second to make a Frappuccino. The beauty of solidarity is the knowledge that the worker in Dickie’s coveralls and the barista in her green apron have more in common than not. Speaking about this new labor movement – which though often underreported is growing and popular – and the University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis told NPR in 2021 that “people are being pretty creative right now…. there’s a lot of creative thinkers around this right now.”
One of those creative thinkers is Chicago-based game designer Pearse Anderson. When people think of traditional union activities, they might envision strikers on the picket line with UAW banners or USW flags – and they should! But Anderson brings a Millennial idiosyncrasy to his own contribution to the labor movement, specifically in helping to fund the cause of Starbuck’s unionization in his native city as well as raising money to help support pro-labor local politicians. He does this through the surprising world of tabletop role-playing games. Cosmic Latte combines a science fiction premise with labor politics to both educate players about unionization and to raise actual money for the Starbucks Workers Solidarity Fund. Designed with humor and joy, Cosmic Latte asks its players to try and craft descriptions of interstellar planets in no more than 87 seconds, the average amount of time in which a barista must make a Frappuccino. The rules become increasingly complex as players are asked to make ever more complex planetary concoctions, but everyone also works together to organize their interstellar workplace with the role of a die, and to thus make the rules fairer as play progresses. Idiosyncratic, eccentric, most of all fun. There’s a celebratory aspect to Anderson’s game, and if it seems unconventional that’s precisely the point. An Oberlin graduate who is widely published about food in addition to being a game designer, and Anderson talked to me about Cosmic Latte through email this November.
So, as just the most straightforward of possible questions, could you let us know what Cosmic Latte is, how the game is actually played? I was particularly struck by the imperative to design an entirely new planet in 87 second, the average time it takes a barista to make a Frappuccino.
Cosmic Latte is a tabletop roleplaying game, which is a type of analog game that uses improvisation and roleplay rather than many hardwired mechanics — all you need to play Cosmic Latte is a few things around the house. You set a timer for 87 seconds, and in that time you have to write about a totally new planet, usually conforming to more restrictive and restrictive rules throughout the game. You might start out playing Cosmic Latte as a writing exercise to get your brain flowing, but by the end, your in-game bosses, great celestial gods, have turned the game into an intense writing race. They might have banned you from using the letter E, or long sentences, or might force you to praise their corporations. That’s why you’re also trying to unionize your planet-spawning workplace, so that you can world build in peace. I wish you could win more games by unionizing in them.
You’ve written on your website how the profits from your game will be donated to both the Starbucks Workers Solidarity Fund, as well as Nick Ward who is running for Chicago Alderman in the 48th District. Could you speak a little bit about how you got involved with both the fund and with Ward? When did you realize that Cosmic Latte could be used as a tool for organizing?
I developed Cosmic Latte in just a few days, so during that process I reached out to a Starbucks Workers United representative to see what I could do to help as a customer, beyond signing the No Contract, No Coffee pledge. Since there was no direct fund for my local unionizing workers, the general Solidarity Fund seemed like the best place to donate profits of my game. The game itself is an act of solidarity, but money always helps—and can help with long-term union campaigns if my Nick Ward is elected to the 48th Ward. Nick was a restaurant worker here in Chicago for 17 years and has joined local Starbuck picket lines many times since I met him last year, with both of us involved in local organizing. If he’s in City Council, he wants to introduce a One Fair Wage ordinance to help food workers, and I’m sure he’ll fight for local laborers, whether that’s beside the bargaining table or back on the picket lines.
What’s your own experience been like in actually playing the game so far? What’s the relationship between being a designer of games and ap layer of games?
I’ve only played Cosmic Latte three times—I wanted to get the game out as fast as possible! But in the same vein, each time has been a rush, a race, sometimes a pyrrhic labor victory and other times an abject failure of my imagination. My friend Eliza Lambert helped playtest, which definitely helped the game. TTRPGs are unique, because most of the material is stored in rulebooks, which can be read for pleasure rather than interaction, like the way you might read a tourism guide for a place you’ll never visit. Seeing someone use a book rather than just read it is integral to the design process. You might have made a game that’s great to read, but awful to perform.
Cosmic Latte put me in mind of Lizzie Magie’s 1903 classic boardgame Monopoly, because the later was also designed to educate people about the dangers of market excess, albeit most people are unaware of the original intention of that game. Could you speak to the relationship that role-playing games and tabletop games have to the radical imagination, the role that they can play in workers solidarity and organizing?
I never thought to compare Cosmic Latte to Monopoly, but it’s a really apt comparison! I’m sure entire books have been (or should be!) written about tabletop roleplaying’s role in building community and solidarity, because it’s quite the world to explore. There’s the mechanics of TTRPGs to discuss: like how most games are played in cooperative campaigns where a party of adventurers bond during long quests, learning to love and trust with one another. The flexibility of improvisation storytelling also lets players imagine creative solutions to problems, rather than railroading them into violence. We saw this with post-9/11 TTRPGs, where that flexibility to act peacefully and empathetically was leaned into. I’ve heard that playing D&D in prison has taught incarcerated gamers stronger skills than any workshop or program, whether that’s through teambuilding or radical optimism. Because TTRPGs are primarily improvised dialogue, it also dramatically lowers the cost of creating fantastical worlds. You can explore how your local labor movement changes with the introduction of zombies in Red Markets, an anticapitalist zombie TTRPG, faster than waiting for a Walking Dead spinoff to get to your area. You can jump into a one-session game about strikebreakers in flyover country without any prep, unlike most theater, and still have a theatrical night.
A lot about the game reminds me of Dungeons and Dragons, in terms of collaborative world-building and so on. How influenced were you by that tradition of gaming?
D&D is the most popular tabletop game by far, but its monopolizing force doesn’t mean it’s the best or even in my top five — it’s the Coca-Cola of TTRPGs. There are much better drinks, from Green River sodas to, well, cosmic lattes. I purposefully like to steer away from D&D, and was influenced by other games that let players build worlds without violence: Viditya Voleti’s Space Between Stars uses a deck of cards to generate space whales and such, while Microscope has players building a constantly expanding timeline of events, like a tabletop Wikipedia edit session.
To that end, your game also makes me think about the strong radical tradition in speculative fiction, writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel Delany, and Octavia Butler who used the genre as a means to conceive of utopian possibilities. You’ve written science fiction for publications like Dark Matter Magazine and Fusion Fragment. How do you connect your politics to your fiction?
I think most political organizing is science fiction: political action is propelled by storytelling of a better tomorrow. We saw this in the midterms a lot: we can win a Midwest with safe and legal abortion, our kids will inherit a climate resilient community rather than a poisoned one. These futures are often conjured in a few sentences and destroyed in the next paragraph of a speech or attack ad from a candidate, so I see my job as a sci-fi writer as a longer-term conjurer. I can help show people, in short stories and with more detailed characters, the various routes we can take and what long-term policies can do to Earth. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but it’s often radically optimistic, and that’s political in itself.
So often we think of games as the epitome of a certain capitalist individuality, the need to win above all else. How does Cosmic Latte embody principles of cooperation and solidarity in contrast?
Win conditions of games never have to uphold individualism—take a look at the past centuries of three-legged potato sack races all the way to 2017’s anticolonial cooperative game Spirit Island. It’s a shame games where only one player can win have become the norm, because it’s also restricted what kinds of people even want to start games! Although Cosmic Latte was initially designed to be a one-player game (so therefore only one person can win), you can play as a group, and, either way, hopefully leave the table thinking not of your individual win, but of all real-life unionization campaigns that have been targets of malfeasance or union-busting. Cooperative games don’t have to be cooperative just amongst players around a table, that cooperation can be the solidarity players feel (and act on) for workers.
There’s a lot of humor in Cosmic Latte. It puts me in mind of Emma Goldman’s contention that a revolution without dancing isn’t a revolution worth having. What’s the role of humor in organizing, of joyfulness in solidarity?
Activist media that’s not engaging will primarily be consumed by those already dedicated to the Cause and who know that they’re dedicated to the Cause. Humor is the foot in the door that stops someone from slamming the door in your face, or just gives them the minute to realize that they’re on your side. Humor is the lightness that gets people inching towards your table to see what the glow is. Humor also is, in an awfully utilitarian view, often the currency of going viral, which can just help. Okay, turning my utilitarian brain off, I also just like funny media. Jane Wickline TikToks, Matt Farley songs, dumbass road signs. A world without dancing isn’t worth having either.
Often when the media talks about the labor movement, they revert to easy-made cliches and stereotypes. There’s a visual idiom of what blue collar means, what working class means. How does this growing labor movement in places like Starbucks or Trader Joe’s subvert those expectations?
Yeah, with Apartheid Clyde’s purchase of Twitter, we’re seeing capitalists try to divide American workers by describing Twitter employees as existing in some kind of “laptop class.” C’mon! Whether you’re making pickle jars in Moundsville, Frappuccino’s in Chicago, or anti-genocide safety tools in Silicon Valley, you’re a worker who deserves better compensation and rights. Thanks to the labeling of food service staff as essential workers earlier in the pandemic, and growing labor struggles in those spaces, we’re seeing more class consciousness of all workers as one unified group. Workers, united, will never be defeated. I think I should read more about Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony to better put this into words.
You’ve written for sites like Food & Wine and Epicurious, and as a student at Oberlin your work was often on the political implications of food and dining. We so often categorize something like enjoying a meal as an extra-political activity, but how is what we eat intimately related to something like unionization?
What really hammers home the political nature of food is how consistent it is: we’re supposed to have a few square meals a day, which means eight billion daily political choices or non-choices, from shopping outside your milkshed to tipping your barista. When you look under the hood of food culture, you can easily look at water rights and usage, plant breeding and its relationship to land-grant universities, global peasant solidarity projects, bolstered anti-wage-theft legislation, climate resilience funding for farms, or the standardization of dairy cultures through UN development and neoliberal trade policies, as I did for my Oberlin thesis. That’s just a peek into the political machine behind enjoying a meal. Other systems that operate at this scale—workplaces and transportation—aren’t as frequently treated as extra-political, and I’m not sure why.
What’s the reaction been to Cosmic Latte so far?
The game has been welcomed by both the TTRPG community and the cafe community: it’s being translated into French to reach wider audience, gamers are making TikToks about it and the midterms, and it’s being added to people’s electronic collections (I don’t know if players know I can see how they’re labeling it!). I know the game is being introduced to at least one Chicago cafe that’s discussing unionization, hopefully it’s entering more secretly. I’ll be playing Cosmic Latte with a Illinois tenant union this holiday season, and if you play it with a group, do show me, I’d love to see what frantic unionization gameplay can look like!
Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.