Foresight & Futures

Games for Futures

How do we paint a picture of the future? In most cases, it happens inside our heads. We imagine worlds, people, stories and actions. When we put them all together in our heads, it all make sense. However, if we try to communicate these imaginary worlds to the people around us, all the details suddenly become harder to describe. It’s like trying to carry water across town using only your hands. Explaining the logic and sequence of how the elements and stories came together is even harder.

When we use formal tools of futures studies (e.g., scenario matrix, futures wheel, three horizons, etc.), it is arguably easier to demonstrate various paths to alternative futures. These methods provide us a better structure to develop futures and communicate them. But even with these formal tools, reconstructing the sequence of events and communicating them effectively is still challenging.

What if we could use a different medium to both create and communicate futures? What if we created a future by playing a game. In July 2015, the World Future Society held its annual conference in San Francisco, CA. I had the pleasure of teaching a master class with John Sweeney, a futurist and game designer, and Zhan Li, a futurist and narrative theorist, on the topic of using games in futures. The master class was based on the Scenario Exploration System (SES), a game framework developed by John Sweeney and his partners at Horizon Labs. John Sweeny used this game in the context of international aid and development, working with various agencies of the United Nations across the world. Our goal was to show the participants how SES can help us think about more complex sequences of events using gameplay and how the output might lead to a better understanding of potential futures.

At the core of the SES design, is a traditional 2×2 scenario matrix, which constitutes a playing field with each quadrant representing a potential future world. Participants play in teams representing groups with the most agency in that world. For example, if we are exploring the future of driverless cars, these groups might be the consumers, the local government, automobile manufacturers and technology companies. The groups are determined in advance, as part of the game’s customized development process. Players start at the center of the quadrant and make “moves” outwardly, towards longer time horizons (5+, 10+, 15+ years.) Each move represents an action that a group might take to create its most preferred future. The next group either responds to that action or creates a new action. This sequence of play eventually leads to a long-term future, which can be explained both in terms of the actions that lead to it, but also the relationships and values that each group represented. Most importantly, this process of play reveals hidden assumptions and tensions between the groups and how much influence they have in that world. After players complete one quadrant of the playing field, they repeat the process in other quadrants.

Here is how one quadrant of the game field might look like after one round. Each hexagon color represents a particular group. Each token represents the level of the group’s commitment to that move (dedicated resources, political power, etc.). The Black Swan, Black Jelly Fish and Black Elephant are different kind of disruptors that can be introduced at any point in the game.

Futures image

Image Credit: John Sweeney CC 3.0

You can find more information about SES here. We’re constantly looking for new ways to engage our clients and community to think about futures and create more interesting and preferable ones. SES and other games such as The Thing From The Future by Situation Lab expand the range of possible interactions futurists can have with their audience and ultimately help them be more active in building preferred futures today.

Contributor: Sandjar Kozubaev, Senior Manager – Futures, Innovation & Strategy

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