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 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 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


Justin Pickard said...

Sounds brilliant! Best of luck. :-)

Stuart Candy said...

Thanks, Justin! We're very excited about it. Stay tuned for more...