How can I make a future scenario feel as immersive and explorable as a videogame? That was the question I asked myself when I first started creating future scenarios for Institute for the Future (IFTF), more than 15 years ago.
In 2007, I was fresh out of a Ph.D. program at University of California, Berkeley, where I studied the real-life social and psychological impacts of new forms of mobile and online gaming. I joined IFTF as a researcher, and I wanted to use my background in game design and game psychology to make hypothetical future scenarios feel as vivid, realistic, immersive, and explorable as the most popular videogame worlds.
It’s natural to feel confident, powerful, and creative when we play games. Every move we make, every action we take — whether in a card game, sport, board game, or videogame — clearly impacts the state of the game. But when we think about the future, it’s harder for most people to feel the same kind of agency. We aren’t as confident that we can personally take actions or make decisions that truly help determine what happens next, especially when it comes to the bigger futures that we all share: society’s future, the planet’s future. So, I’ve tried to bring these two approaches to creating imaginary worlds — using what I know about the positive psychology of games and the art of designing immersive virtual experiences, to help people feel that same kind of gameful creative agency when they face the future.
As both a game designer and a futurist, I view my job as transporting people to imaginary worlds where we can try new things and to worlds that look and feel and work very differently from our ordinary reality, where we can become different versions of ourselves and join societies that operate by different rules. My goals are to ensure that people can fully immerse themselves in these alternatives to ordinary life. And when they leave these imagined worlds, they feel more creative, more optimistic, and more confident in their own ability to transform those worlds, better able to take actions and make decisions that change the shape of that reality.
The biggest “aha” moment I’ve had in my work trying to bring futures thinking and game design closer together was that I needed to drop people into the written future as dramatically as booting up a new videogame. I needed to describe it in a way that made it feel like the future was happening specifically and excitingly to them. I didn’t want to write abstract scenarios that people would struggle to see themselves in. I wouldn’t use the traditional “once upon a time”-style framing so familiar to professional futurists: “This is a world in which….” followed by a list of new technologies, practices, or norms that described a far-away future happening to someone else. Instead, I wanted to create future scenarios that felt like my favorite videogame, Portal, in which you wake up in a strange room unsure of how you got there — and you simply have to get up, start exploring, and figure out for yourself: What is this weird world I’m in? What are the rules? What are the risks and threats here? What are the opportunities? Who am I here to help? How do I set myself up for success?
This is how I came to prefer working in a format I call “the first-person future,” a term I borrow from the game industry. In gaming, “first-person” describes a visual style in which instead of seeing yourself as a character on the screen (think Super Mario), you explore the virtual world as if you were seeing it with your own eyes, moving through it with your own body, and interacting with it with your own hands (think Minecraft or Fortnite).
“The Road to Zerophoria” video is a prime example of this form of scenario development. It describes a future specifically happening to you, which you know right away by the opening words:
They took your garbage can away today.
Your recycling bin too. All that’s left is the compost bin.
Neighbors are standing at the curb watching the trucks drive off, looking a bit in shock.
It sounded impossible when the federal government first announced it last year. But now it’s really happening.
It’s the end of garbage as we know it.
This is a distinct storytelling voice that I use in all of my scenarios now. It takes inspiration from early text-adventure computer games and the gameful Choose Your Own Adventure books. These influential games and books always speak in direct address to the reader-player. In a classic computer game like Zork (originally released in 1977), for example, the player reads an opening text like this: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.” The story text is always designed to suggest possible actions the player might take — in this case, to head west toward the boarded-up house and look for a way in, or perhaps to open the nearby mailbox and discover what might be inside. Indeed, a blinking cursor typing prompt allows the player to interact with this written scenario by responding with actions like “Go west” or “Open mailbox.”
Similarly, in Choose Your Own Adventure books like Underground Kingdom, originally published in 1983, the reader-player is addressed in the same voice — and always has choices. “If you want to follow the stranger into the magic shop, go to page 37. If you want to go home and try the magic potion on your own, go to page 41.”
You’ll notice similarly explicit choices presented to the viewer at the end of “The Road to Zerophoria” scenario video:
It’s a new world. You’re going to have to change your habits. You could think up new ways to help others adapt to a post-trash society. Or you could rise up, join the resistance, and try to make the new system fail. Or you could be a reformer and propose ways to make the rules fairer and easier to follow. That’s up to you.
This is what I call the “moment of choice” for first-person scenarios. I always end my scenarios with this kind of a clear call-to-action, a personal decision to make. By giving my own reader-players the opportunity to say, “This is what I would do…,” the scenario guarantees at least one moment of agency in the hypothetical future. “The moment of choice” emphasizes that we will always have the ability to make decisions guided by our own hopes, fears, and values. This is another technique I borrow from the game industry. It’s a widely accepted best practice to always give the player a choice to make within the first 30 seconds of playing, whether it’s which team to join (Pokemon Go), which area of the map to explore first (Minecraft), or even something as simple as which color hair your avatar will have. This emphasis on “You have a choice” is what creates such a feeling of personal agency in games, and it’s why I always end a scenario with a first choice to make.
Let me share one other “behind-the-scenario” fun fact, one more gameful inspiration you’ll find in “The Road to Zerophoria” scenario. In this future, there’s a purposeful emphasis on new kinds of positive emotion. That’s no accident — game designers are obsessed with the widest possible spectrum of positive emotion! During the design and development process, we often identify one or two positive emotions as the “north star” for our projects. How do we want players to feel when they play? We might make a game with the intention of cultivating feelings of curiosity and excitement, awe and belonging, or creativity and surprise. Likewise, whenever I craft a new future scenario, I always try to imagine what new forms of happiness, satisfaction, hope, love, and other positive emotions might show up in that future. Even if I’m forecasting a difficult change, a new crisis, or a challenging transformation, I try to embed at least one or two resilient ways people might find to lead meaningful lives and experience joy and connection:
Zero waste is the new normal, and it feels good. So good, in fact, that psychologists have invented a new word, “zerophoria,” to describe the positive emotion that defines life in a zero-waste society. Zerophoria is a combination of joy, pride, and resourcefulness. It’s a lightness of being that comes from wasting nothing and leaving no trace behind. This new feeling is a healing balm for the days of climate change anxiety.
My advice and encouragement to you:
- If you’re creating a future scenario, try writing a draft in an immersive, first-person future voice. Instead of describing the future world abstractly, center the reader-player in your storytelling style. “You wake up to discover…” “Today is the first day you are…” “You have been invited to join…” What do you have to change in your scenario to make it personal, relatable, and accessible?
- Try adding a “moment of choice” to the end of your scenario, to help your reader-player explore opportunities for action and agency. This makes it much easier for people to immediately start discussing a scenario in a workshop or learning environment.
- Challenge yourself to invent a new positive emotion, joyful ritual, or way of connecting with others in your scenario. Even if you’re describing a crisis, a risky future, or a difficult transformation, make space for the resilient human capacity for diverse kinds of happiness and meaning-making.
If you enjoyed watching “The Road to Zerophoria” and learning about this style of first-person future scenario, I invite you to join me in IFTF’s public membership program Urgent Optimists, where we host a monthly scenario club… like a book club, except each month we play with a different first-person future scenario!
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