Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Thing From The Future

The Thing From The Future is an imagination game that helps players generate countless ideas for artifacts from the future; to amuse, delight, explore, and provoke.

Designed for play by individuals or groups, this hybrid party game and creativity tool has been compared to Cards Against Humanity and Oblique Strategies. It's easy to hack and customise, so can be used for exploration in specific domains, or in random-access mode as a gym for the imagination.

The game has been played in all sorts of contexts including:
- classes at Johns Hopkins, MIT Media Lab, and Parsons Mumbai;
- gatherings such as the World Future Society annual conference in San Francisco, 5D's transmedia "Science of Fiction" shindig in LA, and the United Nations Development Programme's annual strategy meeting in New York;
- festivals including IndieCade (LA), FutureFest (London), Hot Docs and Maker Festival (Toronto), Amplify (Sydney), and the Berlin Film Festival;
- design jams resulting in popup artifact exhibitions at OCAD University, NYU, and Stanford d.School;
as well as at any number of parties and kitchen tables, and inside countless organisations from community arts groups to Fortune 500 companies.

Co-designer Jeff Watson and I published The Thing From The Future through Situation Lab in March 02014, and we have been refining it continually since. A revised edition, containing four times as many permutations as the original, was released last October.

The project was recognised this year by the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) with a Most Significant Futures Work award.

I wrote an article about the game for the APF periodical Compass in April, and then revised that piece for an anthology on Methods which came out this month. The text looks under the hood at how the card deck's four-suit structure scaffolds players' imaginations.

Here it is:

To reiterate a key point made there: The Thing From The Future comes against a backdrop of increasing interest over the past five years in hybrid design/futures practices such as design fiction and experiential futures. The game takes a certain kind of intellectual and creative operation (viz. quickly moving from vague notions about alternative futures, to ideas and stories revolving around specific artifacts) that has so far been relatively specialised and unusual, and renders it accessible and fun, thereby in a modest way helping to demystify and democratise futures.

As the game becomes more widely known, the novelty of the "artifact from the future" premise will wear off. This is a good thing. People ought to be less apt to be impressed by that concept in itself, clearing the way for a more futures-literate interest to develop around the substance of the ideas themselves. It would be good for the field and its underlying goals if more of us were able to be curious, critical and demanding about what makes certain future narratives, and their experiential manifestations, worthy of attention.

Thus the practice shifts to its next level of maturity. A larger corpus means a proportionately larger number of projects with something to say. Meanwhile, the game provides a fun entry point, without requiring anyone to engage explicitly with such state-of-the-union practitioner concerns.

This post is prompted by two things that have happened in the past week or so.

First, we at Situation Lab have just launched a free, downloadable, print-and-play edition in Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) that anyone in the world with a computer, web access and a printer can now use. The INK Conference in Mumbai provided an excellent platform from which to announce this news and bring the project to a wider and more international player base.

Second, we have put out two special online shufflers to support participants in the United States Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) national grassroots campaign #DareToImagine, described here.

(Update 3 Nov 2015: A special bilingual edition of The Thing From The Future has been distributed to delegates at the biennial UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris.)

To download the inaugural Print and Play edition, including Playsheets, go here.

The revised edition of the game deck, containing over 3.7 million possible prompts, is still available for purchase here.

Finally, check out what's happening in the gameplay community via the hashtag #FutureThing on social media. Or better yet, why not play a round right now? :)

> 1-888-FUTURES
Build your own Time Machine
Designing futures


Anonymous said...

I played this game about 4 years ago and it was so brilliant. I jumped online just now hoping to buy it and the link is down. Is there anyway I can get my hands on a deck? I'd really love to share this game with people.

Stuart Candy said...

Thank you! :) While the card decks are not currently for sale, the special Print-and-play version of the game's first edition (the one with four suits - Arc, Terrain, Object, and Mood) is still freely available online [pdf] for download. Happy future-thinging!

Anonymous said...

Cool, thanks Stuart

Unknown said...

Just ran this with a group of first year futures studies masters students here in Finland, we had great fun! It was most interesting that we could then reflect back on the lenses that we were tending towards in our debriefing session, with Dark Humour, Superficial Realism and Touching Abstraction being among our storyline tendencies. It was a blast!

On a completely unrelated note, I am seeing a whole lot of masters thesis using Three Horizons coming out of OCAD, why is it so popular there? have you considered gamifying it?

Stuart Candy said...

Thanks for stopping by! I think the chance to observe the imagination-in-action in this way, and see what kinds of aesthetic reflexes tend to recur, is one of the key pedagogical affordances of gameplay, for both individuals and groups here. Incidentally were you using the first edition (four suits) or the second (three suits)? (The tone of the prompt is massaged/managed a bit differently between the two versions.)

To your question about OCAD, I haven't worked there for a few years so I'm not entirely current on what folks are up to, but I'm guessing Three Horizons is being embraced because it can offer a useful nexus between scenarios and strategies, which would fit with the practical (often intrapreneurial) roles or aspirations of a lot of MDes students. It was used a bit when I was there, but if there's more now another factor could be people picking up on each other's research strategies; perhaps a certain amount of "hmm, that looks good, I might try that myself" in the mix too.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your response to my previous post.

We were using a copy of the first edition (the one without alternatives for the item and mood cards). I appreciate that there is a significant increase in the possible combinations between the two versions, but perhaps you are alluding to another difference?

I will be running it again in the coming weeks with another pool of players, I will make use of the pdf second version for that, I am excited to explore the new possible combinations. The students were keen to apply a hacked version of the deck to populate their UNFCCC scenarios.

I had an interesting conversation with a games designer from Design Friction at Anticipation2019, who spoke of the development of their game Flaws of the Smart City combinatorial game parallel to TftF. They make use of Issue/Place/Actions as well as dispositions to create a particular atmosphere and player experience. I appreciate the differences between the games but cannot help but marvel at the simultaneous emergence of games with such similar mechanics in our field.

I am keen to explore the games coming out of the intersection of design and futures, thank you for your work and attention in this area.

Stuart Candy said...

Hi again! Thanks for the additional info.

So the first edition of The Thing From The Future, which we were producing from 2014 to 2017, has four suits: Arc, Terrain, Object and Mood. We released a few different versions: the initial one-up (single-option) card layout that it sounds like you were using with the first year masters students; then some variants with a two-up layout (two options for the Terrain, Object and Mood suits; which meant many more combinations per deck); and then also the Print-and-Play pdf version that's still available to download.

The second edition was created, after years of gameplay and lots of feedback from all of the above, to have a simpler, more self-explanatory structure and layout, with not four suits but three: Future, Thing and Theme. It came out in 2018 (although was prototyped in a special edition that we created for the Singularity Summit in 2017). So far, unfortunately, availability of the second edition has been limited mostly to live workshops and events that Situation Lab has run over the past couple of years, although we are working on making second edition decks more readily available. Hopefully soon!

The difference I was asking about and the issue I thought might be relevant to your original point is that the three-suit edition foregrounds the aesthetic or mood dimension of the prompt by integrating it into the 'Future' card, replacing the relatively neutral 'Arc' descriptor. While still very much open to players' interpretations and creative stylings, the Future card leverages aesthetics and emotional qualities more prominently as a core ideation element; a design change spurred by our realisation that this important piece would frequently figure as a kind of afterthought with the 'Mood' element of the four-suit prompt (or was sometimes overlooked altogether because of the challenge for players of successfully synthesising so many variables into one coherent idea).

We contributed a chapter to Riel Miller's edited collection on futures literacy that came out last year, about the evolution of the deck's design, its rationale, and so on: Gaming Futures Literacy: The Thing From the Future. I need to post about the second edition here on the blog, too, perhaps once those decks are properly available. :)

Anyway, I hope this is useful, and look forward to hearing more of your explorations –– please encourage folks to tweet their favourite ideas and use the #FutureThing hashtag!