The following is an excerpt from Jane McGonigal’s Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything, Even Things that Seem Impossible Today (Spiegel & Grau, March 22, 2022)
I’m a professional futurist and I’m a game designer. It’s not a common combination of career paths— as far as I know, I’m the only one in the world. But it’s a career combination that makes a lot of sense. As both a game designer and a futurist, I see my job as transporting people to imaginary worlds, to worlds that don’t exist—either because they’re virtual or because they’re future worlds that haven’t happened yet and may never happen. My goal is to make sure that when people leave these imagined worlds, they feel more creative, more optimistic, and more confident in their own ability to transform those worlds, to take actions and make decisions that change the shape of that reality.
It’s easy to feel powerful and creative when we play games. Every move we make, every action we take—whether in a card game, sport, board game, or video game—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 personally can 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—designing games and writing future forecasts—closer together. I’ve spent the past fifteen years as the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future. At the Institute, my job is to invent games that teach players futures-thinking habits and skills, the same kind used by researchers at the Institute. I specialize in creating large-scale social simulations of the future with thousands of participants.
There are no mathematical computations involved in our simulations. Instead, we simply ask people to predict how they personally would feel and what they would do in their own lives during a possible future crisis or disruption, like a mass climate migration event, a successful cyberattack on the power grid that leads to months without Internet, or a new kind of pandemic – one that is tickborne rather than viral. How would they feel? What actions would they take? How would they change their daily habits? What kinds of support and resources would they need? How would they try to help others? our simulations are low on algorithms but high on social and emotional intelligence. Our participants tell thousands of stories that helps us explore the surprising consequences of future change, from massively many points of view.
These simulations do more than stretch individuals’ imaginations. They build actionable collective intelligence, by revealing otherwise hard-to-predict phenomena and ripple effects. As we say at the institute, “It’s better to be surprised by a simulation than blindsided by reality.” In fact, one way we measure the success of a simulation is by how surprising the results of the game are to experts in the field.
Over the past fifteen years at the institute, I’ve developed custom future forecasts, trainings, and simulations for plenty of experts and leaders—including clients at Google, IBM, Cisco, Intel, Disney, GSK, the Rockefeller Foundation, the US Department of Defense, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Economic Forum. But my favorite kind of work is bringing futures thinking directly to the public, whether through simulations or teaching. I love watching people move from feeling anxious and insecure about the future to feeling confident, hopeful, and energized. It’s my mission to give as many people as possible the skills not just to change the outcome of a game but to change the outcome of our future.