Friday, June 23, 2006

Gaming alternative futures (anything but text)

Last night I caught up with Jerry Paffendorf at an Irish pub in San Francisco. We first met in August 02005 at the World Futures Studies Federation conference in Budapest.

Jerry, who's as articulate, fastidious, and tall (my guess, 6' 5") as anyone I've met in the futures business, has been associated with the LA-based Acceleration Studies Foundation, and sweet-talked Jake Dunagan and me into starting a Futures Salon in Honolulu last year. However, these days he spends most of his time with The Electric Sheep Company (content creators for Second Life) as their futurist-in-residence. The virtual worlds scene is his bailiwick. He was in town for Supernova, a conference concerned with "how decentralization and pervasive connectivity are changing our world". Yes.

So, we discussed the future of scenario planning and agreed that basically, anything is preferable to the composition and transmission of alternative futures in a text-only format. What a shockingly low bandwidth way to try to have people experience genuinely different realities. With so many other communicative options out there, text seems to lack dimensionality.

With this in mind, the stark contrast of the immersive properties and potentials of virtual worlds really appear to come into their own. A user co-designed environment (like the forthcoming game Spore -- check out designer Will Wright's exceptionally informative talk on this) seems to be begging to be integrated with rigorous, realistic models of complex systems used by visualisation-based planning tool providers like MetroQuest. What would such a hybrid look, feel, and behave like?

I don't know. But you can bet it'd be a sight more interactive, compelling and just plain cool than a flat little verbal description. In immersive virtual environments, divergent scenarios can be gamed out by users, who would effectively run vivid social experiments tapping real human intentionality, but in a virtual lab, and evolving (up to) much faster than real time. The social-experiment recursion loop becomes a lot tighter; and a properly analytically informed, yet broad-based in participation, foresightful political process becomes viable for the first time ever.

What better way to breathe life into scenarios than to place life inside them? And what better way to explore and stretch our personal and collective capacity for coping with change than through games?

The rapid development and increasing sophistication of virtual worlds can be discerned in many indicators, if one cares to look; but one of my favourites is Jerry's report that the Salvador Dalí museum recently contacted Electric Sheep, expressing concern about digital versions of the late painter's images being offered in exchange for virtual currency at, a Second Life marketplace. Surely Dalí, a lifetime rebel against the confines of consensus reality, would have loved it -- the irony, I mean, of the legality of electronic versions of his mind-bending surrealist art being patrolled within an entirely virtual meeting place, that is also probably the freest collective visioning space ever known. Surreal, no?

The freedom to engage in social experimentation and expression is surely the single most precious, fragile, and yet unrealised element of our democratic political mythos. Gaming the future, insofar as it implies the possibility of actually doing what we have for centuries only told ourselves we do, could be revolutionary.

(NB The irony of me writing about the sensory impoverishment of text does not escape me; but nor can I escape it, for the time being. Hell, as a conoisseur of irony, sometimes it's nice to be able to give a little back.)

No comments: