The Future is Fiction: Playful Future-Thinking About Climate Change with FutureCoast
Sometime in the near future(s), something will go awry with the voicemail system sending messages spiraling back through time, a phenomenon that is being referred to as “chronofall.” These messages take the form of small, elegant crystalline structures referred to as “chronofacts” that can be decoded to reveal a taste of life in the future. But these chronofacts aren’t just coming from “the” future: chronofacts carry voicemails from the cloud of all possible futures: happy futures, bleak futures, unimaginable futures. A new project called FutureCoast and its “Coaster” enthusiasts seek to collect as many chronofacts as possible, with the goal of cataloging and organizing them into coherent glimpses of the possible futures awaiting us. And when the next big chronofall happens in February, they’re going to need your help.
FutureCoast, set to launch on February 5th, 2014, is the latest project by veteran game designer Ken Eklund. Like its predecessors World Without Oil and Ed Zed Omega, FutureCoast aims to open the doors wide to a new kind of conversation about the world we live in. This time, the subject is one of the most polarizing topics, the kind of thing you don’t usually want to bring up in mixed political company: climate change and one of its key indicators, rising sea levels.
Climate change, its effect on polar ice, and rising sea levels are topics that spawn impassioned opinions and difficult discussions from many different scientific and political angles. The heart of the FutureCoast design seeks to create a playful, inclusive common ground where information and idea sharing happens, where everyone’s thoughts about the future have a place, and where a meaningful dialog and a common ground can be created to replace the animosity that these topics can evoke.
The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Columbia University’s Polar Partnership. Eklund dates the idea of FutureCoast back to a conversation with Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, Professor of Environmental Science at Columbia, in 2009. Dr. Pfirman, interested in the idea of World Without Oil, wondered what a climate change game look like, and Eklund began working on prospective ideas for a WWO-like game that would encourage conversation about climate change and rising sea levels. FutureCoast was accepted into the NSF grant, and work on the project began in earnest in 2011.
FutureCoast‘s structure is almost “retro” in its conception, elegant in its simplicity yet with the potential for powerful collaborative storytelling to take place. The premise of the overarching story hinges on voicemails that filter to our present from the near or distant future(s) that can be decoded, collected, and shared. FutureCoast invites its audience to pluck their personal vision from among all the possible futures and share it in a voicemail. The audience will also be able to create playlists – mix tapes, Eklund playfully calls them, and officially named “Timestreams” – by choosing amongst the voicemails and piecing them together into a kind of narrative of the future. Through FutureCoast, players have the ability to both create the future and to curate it in meaningful ways.
Sara Thacher, producer on FutureCoast and one of the creators of San Francisco’s interactive experience The Jejune Institute, explains the narrative focus on voicemail messages,
What excited me was…doing this kind of collaborative storytelling but narrowing how you contribute, lowering the bar as much as possible so that you could contribute in a really specific way. That’s an easy step to take. You know what a voicemail sounds like, you know how to use a phone, and the act of calling on the phone sets you up in the mode to record a voicemail, so it’s an automatic getting into character.
To anchor the FutureCoast narrative in the real world, Eklund and Thacher came up with the idea of chronofacts, physical representations of the future voicemails leaking into our present. They teamed up artist Debbie Palmer with designer and artificer Haley Moore to create the chronofacts. The result of their work is a beautiful object of elegant curves, delicate etchings and crystalline transparency that encapsulates visually the idea of the ethereal cloud of possible futures into which FutureCoast taps.
“I think the chronofacts do a great job of saying, ‘Hey, it’s the future calling.’ Visually, they are very intriguing,” says Eklund.
Recently, chronofacts have been recovered by FutureCoast characters (Coasters) such as Sam Robertson, played by Ed Zed Omega veteran Tara Borman. Sam, a college student doing an independent study project, has made several videos about tracking and recovering chronofacts during the chronofalls. When the February chronofall arrives, the FutureCoast audience will have an opportunity to recover chronofacts as well. Players will be able to locate chronofacts through geocaching.
“We do have an ambitious plan regarding the geocaching of the chronofacts and the recovery thereof,” Eklund says.
Other characters have been making appearances as the February 5th launch day nears. Several characters such as Billy Dan, a Coaster from Texas, and Alex, who runs the FutureCoast Tumblr, have posted videos to the FutureCoast YouTube channel. Coaster Shelly keeps up the FutureCoast blog. Coaster Finch has a podcast about the project that is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and through the RSS feed.
With the grant coming from the National Science Foundation, science education has a prominent place in FutureCoast. Involving high school and college students is a goal, and the team has developed a lesson plan for high school teachers to use, even making the geocaching element of FutureCoast part of a classroom activity.
Once a chronofact has been recovered from its geocache, it can be decoded through the serial number etched onto it. Coasters who find a chronofact can upload a picture of it, and the FutureCoast team will decode it and publish the voicemails attached to it. But not all the voicemails will come from chronofacts. Players are encouraged to create their own voicemails and post them by calling the FutureCoast hotline: 1-321-7FCOAST (1-321-732-6278).
Players can leave these voicemails as their future selves, or they can create a character who exists in their idea of the future. This narrative mechanism is interesting in that through their voicemails, players create two characters in one action: the person who speaks in the voicemail, and the listener on the other end of the line for whom they are leaving the voicemail. Combining the imaginative power of audio and the creativity of a future-thinking audience could potentially result in moments of potent short-form storytelling. Many compelling voicemails from different futures have already been posted to the website. The voicemails will also be available for listening at Soundcloud.
The voicemails received from players are moderated only to ensure that they are appropriate for a general audience and to add visual cues and titles and make them browsable by theme or time period. Players can also assist in adding tags to their voicemails. The hotline is active, and people can leave voicemails right now. Once the latest version of the website becomes active on February 5th, players will be able to choose to receive a text message that will alert them when their voicemail has been moderated and posted to the website.
In addition to creating voicemails, players will be able to create Timestreams – playlists of voicemails that they believe fit together in the same theme, or the same future, or whatever criteria makes sense to the individual.
How are these mysterious chronofalls detected, and how do we know where the chronofacts will appear? Once the early Coasters figured out what the chronofacts represented, they tapped into the voicemail system of North America so that they could detect when the chronofalls happened by looking at the pattern of broken cell phone calls that result during a chronofall. They can also zero in on the coordinates of the chronofacts using this detection method. Although most of the chronofacts have been discovered in the U.S. and Canada, recently a chronofact was recovered in Beirut, decoding to a voicemail from the year 2045, which reveals an ominous conversation about war in Sudan and water investments that could result in “tens of millions” for the caller and his friend. It’s possible that chronofact recoveries may also happen in the UK at some point.
Underpinning the playful design of FutureCoast is Eklund’s concept of authentic fiction. Authentic fiction, he says, has to do with the relationship between the gamemaster and the player, what powers of narration granted to the player, and the question of what the gamemaster and the player are trying to create together.
“You’re trying to create this world together that is, indeed, authentic – that has this ring of authenticity to it, even though it might be wildly fictional,” Eklund says. “The fiction part is kind of a term for a playful world that you’re creating together, and a playful process.”
“Especially with the medium of voicemails,” Thacher says, “making a voicemail that sounds authentic – you’re not reporting at the thousand-mile view. You’re in a very personal space, speaking from what’s nearby. The personal nature of what the possibilities of climate change mean – this is an opportunity for those to really come out.”
The beauty of FutureCoast is that no possible future is excluded. Whether a player is skeptical about the current scientific findings of climate change or whether they adhere stringently to theories of global warming, their personal story of the future will find its place in FutureCoast. It is a safe space for discussions and ideas where players can engage in collaborative worldbuilding. This collaborative space, Eklund maintains, is where a compelling authenticity can be created.
“We saw in World Without Oil, there’s this additive process where people would go, ‘You know, you’re right, that would happen in an oil crisis,’” Eklund said, speaking of the way that the sharing of ideas about the future could result in a meaningful discussion of future possibilities. He described it as an “organic exploration” of ideas. “We’re looking for black swans. We’re looking for people who have an insight about the future. We want to have a place where they can, without fear of being laughed at or scorned, playfully present that idea.”
“FutureCoast is really saying, in a world where there are many different views on climate change from both a political and a science basis, it’s a hard topic to have a meaningful conversation about, especially with someone who has a different view on the subject,” Thacher adds. “By saying, ‘These [voicemails] are from the cloud of possible futures,’ everybody gets a voice, the future is not certain. It’s saying both ‘science is important’ but also ‘we don’t know’. Science gives us a way to peer into the future, but there are still many possibilities.”
Further, Thacher maintains, science doesn’t really address what will happen to people on a personal level through the future changes that it projects. FutureCoast brings climate change into each player’s personal narrative, asking, as World Without Oil asked, “How will this future affect you, personally?” Unlike World Without Oil, where the initial narrative described one future for players to respond to, FutureCoast provides a structure where the uncertain future – that cloud of all possible futures – can become a vessel for a player’s personal expression, their story, their ideas of what the future will be like.
In August of 2013, Eklund participated in a ScienceOnline discussion about Climate Communication, where he concluded, “A personal story is much more compelling than any amount of data [...] – someone who is actually acting upon the data.”
“I think FutureCoast is going to take climate change out of the silo where we think about it as being the sort of weather that we live in, and its going to integrate it into the things our lives are made out of,” Eklund speculates. “Voicemails aren’t about weather. They’re about the weather and cars, houses, eco-systems. There’s an influence that climate has on these things: food, water, migrations of people.”
“I think that there are a lot of people who want to have an invitation to say something about climate change,” Eklund says. “And I think this is the opportunity. It is this sort of creative challenge – you say it, but you say it in your future voice.”
A lot of the polarization about climate change, Eklund believes, comes from an idea that there is only one future, and that the argument is over who is right and who is wrong about what that future is going to look like. “Philosophically speaking, there is not one future,” he says. “There is a cloud of possible futures, and the decisions that we make will influence the future we actually live in.”
Storytelling, narrative, and gameplay can help us develop better future-thinking abilities. “Life is not getting any easier in terms of seeing where the future is going to take us,” Eklund says. “There’s this idea that we’re running into these problems that we could have foreseen if only we had better sorts of future-thinking. The aspect of “future-thinking” in FutureCoast is really an experiment: is there a playful and fun way that we can develop better future-thinking muscles in our brain?”
He goes on to say, “The future is fiction. Scientists can see trends happening, but they do not know. Nobody knows. And there’s a role that narrative can play in our ability to think successfully about the future. There’s a role games can play in being a place where people can come together and not be polarized.”
Where the conversation about climate change can quickly fall into a holding pattern, Eklund proposes that it is important to change the dialog. “One of the changes we’re making is that we’re trying to get the dialog away from being a discussion that other people are having to a discussion that you are a part of. This is a way for you to raise your voice and to say something based upon the way you see tings. What is the future that you see?”
Quick Facts and Links:
What: FutureCoast, a game about climate change, rising seas, and the cloud of possible futures.
When: February 5th, 2014
How: Call the FutureCoast hotline, 1-321-7FCOAST (1-321-732-6278), to leave a voicemail from your future, or visit the FutureCoast website to listen to voicemails from the future(s) and create your own playlist of voicemails to share with others.