Exploring “first person futures” through games

Through my work at IFTF (and beyond) I’ve created a handful of foresight games as tools for individuals and groups to explore our relationship to the future. As my colleague Jane McGonigal has written, our brains are not well-wired to imagine the future. To overcome this cognitive limitation, we can create immersive scenarios that “cast” the player in a role within a particular imagined future. Acting and reacting to these immersive scenarios in real time taps into the aspects of our brains that are well-developed.

Source: Ben Gansky

IFTF led one such futures game during the second annual "Night of Ideas" on February 1, 2020 at the San Francisco Public Library.

Foresight games can provide a sense that one is living “in the future” and create a different kind of relationship to the future. The action of playing a game always takes place in the present tense, regardless of when the game is narratively set; the immediacy of playing can lead to more lasting memories and associations with a particular subject. Foresight games make the abstract future personal.

There are many, many ways one could design a game to explore the future and build foresight capacity and insights. My own observations here refer to the kinds of games that I’ve (so far) designed to accomplish these aims. The stories that unfold in these games start in the present moment and progress step by step into the future - a future that is shaped by the actions and decisions undertaken by the players. This step-by-step rhythm allows me to unfold a forecast in a cadence that is easily absorbed and responsive to the players’ actions.

With colleagues and collaborators, I’ve run foresight games at bars, public libraries, IFTF’s annual conference, arts festivals, and senior centers, among other locations. The participants have varied accordingly. The games described here have all been run “live”; that is to say, with participants interacting in the same physical space.

Without suggesting that these design patterns are either essential or intrinsic to foresight games, I have certainly found the following to be key tools towards effective foresight through play: axes of possibility, role-playing, dilemmas with binary choices, and subject-verb alignment.

Axes of possibility

When beginning game development, I look for axes of possibility whose polar extremes will have a strong influence on the future I’m exploring. Let’s take the future of journalism as an example. One end of an axis of possibility could be, “society trusts journalists,” and the other its opposite: “society distrusts journalists.” A second axis could be “journalism is a public good” versus “journalism is a private good.” What makes an ideal axis? You should be able to find signals of change in support of each pole respectively, but if either group of signals were to be scaled up/made dominant, they would minimize or eliminate the possibility of the other group also scaling/dominating. In other words, the poles should be both equally plausible and mutually exclusive.

Now we can set up a 2 x 2 matrix; this is a familiar technique of scenario planning.

With this matrix in mind, I can create four forecasts, one for each quadrant (one forecast imagines a world in which journalists are trusted and their work is a public good, one where journalists are trusted but their work is a private commodity, etc). These four quadrants are the four different possible “endings” for my game’s narrative future.


Now we need to situate the players within the narrative of the game. They should have a clearly defined role to play that puts them at the center of the action. Let’s say that in this example the players are told that they are the staff of a local newspaper; this newspaper happens to be collectively owned by its workers, so that decisions about the newspaper as a business are up to the staff (ie the players).

Binary dilemmas

The action of the foresight games consists of successive rounds in which players are presented with a dilemma arising from tensions within the particular subject area: for instance, the newspaper is in financial trouble. Should they accept a buyout bid from a private equity firm, or should they become a nonprofit and solicit donations from their reader base? While this is clearly a false binary (these are not the only two options available to a newspaper in financial straits), the conceit of the forced choice engenders debate. Ideally each of the options has qualities to recommend it and to disqualify it.

Crucially, each dilemma is constructed so that either choice will move the game’s narrative in a particular direction along one or both of the axes of possibility. The players debate on which action to take (more on this step later) and they vote; then the game “jumps” forward in time. The game’s narrator explains what the situation is now, as a cumulative result of all of the decisions made by the players to that point. (Under the hood, the game’s narrative is hewing closer and closer to one of the four forecasts, depending on how the players’ choices have propelled them along the two axes of possibility.) The players are then presented with a new dilemma, and the cycle repeats until the game ends with a forecast “epilogue.”

Subject-verb alignment

I’ve mentioned my use of axes of possibility, role-playing, and dilemmas with binary choices. What exactly is subject-verb alignment, then? The idea stems from another bit of game design jargon, called ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance is the conflict between a game's narrative told through the story, and the narrative told through the action of gameplay. The subject of the game (let’s say, the importance of human connection and friendship) could be in conflict with the action verbs offered to players (let’s say, shooting and jumping). By bringing the subject and the verbs into alignment, however, the game can function as a model, or rehearsal, for behavior in the real world (and we avoid ludonarrative dissonance). The subject of this journalism game we’ve been using as an example might be “the role of journalism in a healthy society.” The verbs that I referred to earlier in my gameplay description were “to debate” and “to vote.” If the players of the game were actually the staff of a unionized newspaper, debating and voting might well be the behaviors they actually could engage in to change the future of their field, or at least their part in it.

Why foresight games?

I believe the role of foresight practitioners is not just to outline provocative, plausible futures, but to suggest concrete ways by which individuals and groups can act to guide themselves and society towards optimal outcomes. Demonstrating how actions might result in long-term effects within a particular domain is one way to articulate that people (and their choices) matter a great deal. Having experienced in simulation the disappointment of a dystopian future or the elation of an ideal one, I believe that people are more likely to invest their energy towards realizing the latter and forestalling the former. Games can do more than change peoples’ minds: they can change people.