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:
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."
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)