Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This is not a game

The Coral Coral website yesterday (27 April 02009)

I haven't been posting lately due to intensive work on Coral Cross (described in the previous post). Also, the last week has been one of the strangest of my life. A little background...

Back in October 02007, Jake Dunagan and I ran a project called FoundFutures: Chinatown, wherein we created a series of alternative futures for this historic Honolulu neighbourhood, and with a little help from our friends, manifested these possible future Chinatowns in tangible form during a multi-part 'exstallation' in the area. One of the stories concerned a flu epidemic that took place in (a version of) the year 02016, and this caught the attention of some folks in the Communications department of the State Department of Health (DOH).

Wearing our Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies hats, we started talking about doing some kind of project for DOH using this distinctive "experiential futures" approach, and they applied for a federal U.S. grant to pursue the idea. That was early in 02008.

By September that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that Hawaii's grant application for a demonstration public engagement project about influenza preparedness had been successful. We at HRCFS then pitched an alternate reality game (ARG) that would build both on our experiential scenarios for FoundFutures and Hawaii 2050, as well as on the success of 'serious ARGs' such as World Without Oil (02007) and Superstruct (then soon to launch) in addressing near-future challenges.

A particular aim was to help people provide input for the state about who ought to be vaccinated first, once a vaccine were to become available, a life-and-death question laden with ethical, political, and cultural implications. To answer it, however, required enabling folks to grasp some important, and frequently misunderstood, background facts: pandemic flu is different from seasonal flu; vaccine is different from antivirals; and vaccine specific to a pandemic flu strain -- since by definition such strains are immunologically unfamiliar -- would take months to formulate, produce and distribute.

We considered that an accessible, immersive storytelling effort should help people to take the premise seriously -- a challenging proposition since the last pandemic was in 01968, and out of sight generally means out of mind. For months, then, the HRCFS team has been working intensively on creating the architecture and content for an experience that would enable people to project themselves undergoing the experience of a flu pandemic. The scenario was set in 02012, partly to avoid a War of the Worlds-esque confusion on the part of our audience. In order to tell the story authoritatively from within the 'alternate reality' scenario, but without pretending to the mantle of a real organisation like DOH or CDC, we created an entity called the Coral Cross. This was a grassroots network, a product of Obama-era public service and web savvy, which in our story emerged in September 02011 after a category 5 Hurricane Cyrus devastated the island of Oahu.

However, after months of design and research, and just a few weeks prior to the scheduled launch, an extraordinary coincidence has occurred. Just before the world's first pandemic flu-themed alternate reality game was to begin -- and following pregame media coverage by ARG websites and local news -- an actual outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, quickly spreading to other locations, has made the fictional premise redundant.

The flu crisis is now real.

And now, so is Coral Cross; transforming, seemingly with its own alternate-reality momentum, as our design team works at full speed to adapt an 'alternate reality game' to a 'reality game' supporting real-time futures exploration as this story unfolds.

As I said, the last week has been one of the strangest of my life.

For me, the swine flu news, which at first I found curious but in no way alarming, came via the CDCemergency twitter feed -- which, bizarrely, I happened to start following last Wednesday (22 April) before any of this was in the headlines, and the most recent message was the first hint of a story soon to erupt:

It has been truly eerie to see this once-in-a-blue-moon scenario occurring just on the verge of hypothetically staging just such a scenario. Last Thursday afternoon, as I was setting up to shoot a Coral Cross press conference set in 02012 -- announcing the onset of a pandemic -- as part of our pre-launch storytelling effort, our lead designer Matt Jensen sent this email:

Subject: Oink


Do we have a contingency plan if a pandemic strikes before our game launches?

We did complete the shoot, incidentally, but in view of events since then, won't be using the footage anytime soon.

Part of me of course finds it hard to say goodbye to the carefully crafted alternate reality premise and extensive in-world storytelling we had undertaken. It is weird -- a mixture of vindication, disappointment, and deep concern -- to see scenaric details, carefully imagined and crafted by our team, being supplanted by reports in the same newspapers and press conferences whose style and conventions we'd been drawing on to tell our story. But the strangest thing is seeing our advocacy for preparation and forethought so swiftly outrun by the flux of events themselves. I can't help but relish the irony that we have spent months strategising the incursion of a hypothetical future into the present, when in a matter of days, we’ve seen instead the incursion of reality into our hypothetical future.

"Any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous."
~Jim Dator

Embracing that change as best we can is, ultimately, the only option that makes sense. Will the 'swine flu' develop into a full-blown pandemic, or prove to be a false alarm; or rather, something between those extremes? No one can say. But the only sensible way to complete the project we have begun, while accommodating the genuine and pervasive uncertainty that attends these unfolding events, is to make that very uncertainty the subject of our exploration. This is the option that we recommended over the weekend to the Department of Health, and that, as of last night, they confirmed.

The core design team on Coral Cross consists of visual designer Matthew Jensen, interaction designer Nathan Verrill, creative consultant Jake Dunagan, and me as the project lead. I consider myself highly fortunate to be working with such adaptive and ingenious people that we can even consider spontaneously turning a simulation into a real-time futures exploration. But that's what's needed. And we applaud the Hawaii's DOH for recognising and acting so swiftly on the need to (as we've half-jokingly been saying internally) 'turn the Titanic'.

All this raises some big questions which are still only dimly defined in my mind (and which I don't have time to articulate and address properly right now) about the usefulness of emergency preparation, and the relationship between such preparations and the realities to which they ostensibly refer. (Emergency: an interesting word.) But I trust there will be time enough for all that in due course. For now, we're trying to rapidly reinvent the game to support real-life contingencies, exploration and decision-making; an interesting and difficult but necessary -- and perhaps unprecedented -- task.

Our sincere hope is that this event will prove not to be the pandemic that, at this moment in time, it could yet become. Still, whatever happens, Coral Cross will be there to help. All interested are encouraged to register at coralcross.org.

"History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again."
~Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick

The Coral Cross website today (28 April 02009)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Coral Cross is coming

By the end of May, the world will be six months into a deadly influenza pandemic that will take the lives of millions, wreak havoc with economies, and strain the social fabric, irrevocably transforming life as we know it.

Perhaps I should clarify that.

In May, web users everywhere will have an opportunity to take part in a bold experiment, an immersive and participatory "playable scenario" that tells the story of a hypothetical near future in which a flu pandemic takes place.

The project Coral Cross is named for a network of volunteers established in 02011 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu; a grass-roots organisation which in this scenario steps forward to aid islanders as they prepare to weather the crisis.

Coral Cross is being produced by the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, for the state Department of Health, and I'm leading the game development team, an incredibly talented lineup of designers and futures thinkers.

A Honolulu Advertiser article last weekend announced the state's federally-funded pandemic preparedness project, of which Coral Cross is just one part, but we're now able to share a bit more about this piece of the effort. Michael Andersen of ARGNet (Alternate Reality Gaming Network) recently contacted me about the project to ask a few questions. The resulting report, which drew on the responses provided, appeared yesterday, but for the interest of other futurists, game designers, and pandemic flu watchers who may wish to know more, our email Q&A is reproduced in full below:

Michael Andersen: What made you and your team consider using ARGs to facilitate discussion?

SC: "Coral Cross" is a playable scenario about the first six months of a global flu pandemic, but with the focus on Hawaii.

The ARG-inspired format for this project grew out of two things.

First, for several years, the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies has been innovating in the design of objects and experiences that help people consider alternative future scenarios in a deeper way. We call this area of practice "experiential futures". In 02006, my colleague Jake Dunagan (until recently at HRCFS, now at Institute for the Future) and I staged a set of immersive scenarios to kick off a statewide project called "Hawaii 2050". Hundreds of people experienced four different versions of the year 02050 that we had created for them, to provide a wider context for discussing long-term sustainability in the islands. This approach worked so well that we independently founded a collaborative, public art collective, called "FoundFutures", dedicated to making futures experientially available to people in the midst of their everyday lives. Through FoundFutures we have produced several projects, most notably a series of guerrilla futures "exstallations" for Honolulu's Chinatown -- artifacts and images embodying alternative futures, strategically placed in public spaces. This unique futures-infused form of public art and provocation is an ongoing strand of work.

The second factor is that back when "World Without Oil" launched, we were becoming increasingly aware of the potential benefits of situating these future experiences in a gamelike structure. Subsequent discussions with WWO designers Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal confirmed that our efforts to date had independently led us to many of the same conclusions as ARG designers about what makes for effective engagement with a scenario. Then, last year, as a Game Master on IFTF's "massively multiplayer forecasting game", Superstruct, I had an opportunity to consider more closely the similarities and differences between what we had been attempting to do as futurists, on the one hand, and what certain publicly-oriented ARGs aimed to do, on the other. Due in part to the example of FoundFutures Chinatown, an opportunity arose for us to create an experiential scenario about pandemic flu for the Hawaii Department of Health. At that point, the two strands clicked, and we knew we'd be doing something more explicitly ARGlike than we had tried before.

MA: What kinds of audiences are you hoping to attract with this game?

SC: Although we have approached the design in such a way that people can participate from anywhere, we will judge our own success mainly by the degree of engagement we can achieve in Hawaii, and especially on Oahu, the most populated island. In other words, anyone can play, but our core audience is here. A key limitation comes from the fact that fewer than one million people live here, because unlike national or international games, we're not drawing our core player base from a distributed pool of many millions of possible players. However, it also has two upsides. First, we can make use of the limited geography -- a captive audience, if you like -- by using more real-life elements to augment the storytelling. Second, as a member of our design team observed, the fact that we're tackling a global topic, pandemic flu, with a local tilt, not only gives it an interesting flavour, but it also helps focus the scenario. Instead of trying to evoke every last thing about how the world could transform as a result of a deadly disease sweeping across it, the island acts is a sort of microcosm in which, no matter where they're from, people will be able to see what's at stake more clearly and concretely, in how particular lives and communities are affected.

To render an abstract possible future concrete, and to have people participate in and be affected by this future, is perhaps the key principle behind "experiential futures". The last several years of work have been a very rich period of work in this area, and we're excited to see what Coral Cross can add.

MA: Can you give any hints as to what media you will be utilizing and how you will elicit interaction out of the participants?

SC: It is a cross-media effort, and I can't say too much more at this point, but the golden thread of the experience will be online, so anyone interested should go to coralcross.org and sign up.

MA: What is the timeline for the game? Approximately when can we expect to see a launch, and how long do you anticipate it to run?

SC: Coral Cross will run in the second half of May, an "event" which happens on a specific, shared timeline -- like pandemic flu itself. The story we're telling is on a scale of months, but the experience in real time will be short, on a scale of a week or two: one month per day. Once we're underway, it's really important for players to check back every day. Changes will happen very quickly!

MA: How do you see this project fitting in with your work at HRCFS?

This project is part of our effort to make foresight relevant and actionable to the public. Our mission is to inform and prepare the leaders and citizens of the State, the region, and the world, for possible changes on the horizon, such that better decisions will guide us away from negative outcomes, and toward preferred futures. ARGs are becoming a key tool in public futures practice and communication, and we need to experiment with this tool and learn how best to use it.

Let me know if I can clarify or elaborate on anything for you.

MA: Thank you for your time, and good luck on the project. Please let me know when it goes live, as I'm very interested in following the game's progress.

SC: Anyone can now submit their email at coralcross.org and they will be notified in May when things start to happen.

Folks, our next big experiential futures project is underway -- and you're invited to participate.

Many thanks to Michael Andersen and ARGNet for taking an interest in this effort.

Related posts:
> "Hawaii 2050" kicks off
> Experiential scenarios on video
> FoundFutures (series of posts)
> Humans have 23 years to go
> Gaming the end of oil

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Made in Sweden

sinewave pollinator

After bees became extinct in 2012 (the end of the Mayan Calendar), the future of flora has become uncertain. Many species have since become extinct, but other persist in labs through carefully monitored conditions and specialized nutrient diets.

Sinewaves of a very specific wavelength have been found to be an incredible pollinating alternative, but their effect on humans continues to be tested before the method receives approval.

Somehow some of these devices fell in our lap before approval. Be careful!

The Umeå Institute of Design, a top Swedish design school, recently held its Spring Summit 02009 on the theme Sensing And Sensuality. Students in the Interaction Design (IxD) graduate program there created some charming artifacts from the future as souvenirs for Summit speakers, which included such luminaries as Matt Jones and Adam Greenfield.

Kluged together from what look like pieces of decommissioned VCRs and other electronics, the wittily improbable stories accompanying these objects may tend to push them past design fiction, and towards what at first I mistook for design fantasy...

delayed molecular paralyzer (unboxed)

OLRs (Organic Living Robots) need maintenance too, but you well know they don’t like it.

Use a DMP to tranquilize them and stunt all cellular respiration momentarily so you can perform maintenance on them without being inflicted harm upon.

The Paralysis starts 3 minutes after exposure and lasts exactly 57 minutes. A more potent dosage unit is in the works.

blue interval skipper

The proliferation of Blue-Ray DVDs led to the Blue Ray Catastrophe of 2015. How amazing that we humans hadn’t figured out that blue light causes retinal cancer!

The blue light leaks that led to that event were a wakeup call. You think you are safe now with blue light filters in all public and private environments.

Surely if you are reading this, you are an explorer of outlying territories. For that you will need this device if you treasure your vision.

This batch comes from a commando of new-era Brazilian territory surveyors.

neutral gender propagator

Laboratory reproduction has rendered gender an unnecessary disturbance.

It’s well-known that gender-positive humans still roam the earth. Gender Neutralizers are to be used on their nature-induced newborns after capture and during incubation.

Not to be used on infants over 7 months of age.

But rather than design fantasy, or even critical design, for me these artifacts instead present as design parody.  Calling to mind the late science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", these pieces joke about the mysterious, near-dysfunctional lack of legibility in advanced industrial design.

Being pieced together from found components, they also seem to deploy a 3d version of future-framing, because it's not their design per se that's at the heart of these objects, but the new mini-stories which accompany them. It's the refurbished backstory, the newly futurised context, the soul transplant via narrative, that brings them to life.

Related posts:
> Future-framing images
> The MacGuffin Library

(Thanks Jake!)