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Gaming Futures Literacy: The Thing From The Future

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The collection "Transforming the Future", edited by Riel Miller, presents the results of significant research undertaken by UNESCO, with its partners, to define the theory and practice of anticipation around the world today, using the core concept of Futures Literacy. This chapter "Gaming Futures Literacy" explores the award-winning imagination game "The Thing From The Future" co-created by Stuart Candy and Jeff Watson. Used by learners, leaders and creatives worldwide, it was designed to help take strategic foresight and futures literacy from difficult and rare to easier and more common.
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Transforming the Future
Anticipation in the 21st Century
Edited by Riel Miller
First published 2018
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6 Gaming Futures Literacy
The Thing from the Future
Stuart Candy
Amid pervasive uncertainty and accelerating change, one of our great challenges,
and opportunities, is to make high quality engagement with the yet-to-be more
widespread.
Futures Literacy (Miller, 2007) is lacking from most people’s experience, even
in core social institutions where we might hope to find it well established, such
as education, politics, and the media. So the foresight field finds itself with much
room for improving public uptake towards the fulfilment of what I consider to be
its most important promise: the development of a distributed, society-wide capac-
ity for anticipation.
Richard Slaughter has described such a collective capacity as ‘foresight cul-
ture’ or ‘social foresight’ (Slaughter, 1996, 2002), echoing Alvin Toffler’s outline
of ‘social futurism’ and ‘anticipatory democracy’ a generation earlier (Toffler,
1970), and amplifying an argument made decades before that by none other than
H. G. Wells, calling for professors, and indeed a profession, of foresight: “All
these new things, these new inventions and new powers, come crowding along;
every one is fraught with consequences, and yet it is only after something has hit
us hard that we set about dealing with it” (Wells, 1989, pp. 3–4).
The stakes could hardly be higher. Without adequate means to visualise and
apprehend the large-scale and long-term systems where the spectres of peak oil,
climate change, and economic collapse reside, the civilisation-scale, existential
risks humanity has to face are mounting, underimagined and under-addressed
(Dator, 2009b; Candy, 2010, p. 70).
On the other hand, as Riel Miller observes (p. 9) in introducing this volume,
“changing the way the future is used holds out a promise of changing the future”.
To echo Stewart Brand (1999, p. 2), how then may we take strategic foresight
from difficult and rare to automatic and common?
This question confronts a tension between introducing ways of thought and
perception that are unfamiliar – and that can therefore be quite challenging at
first – and the hope of increasing popular accessibility.
The good news is that our repertoire of uses of the future, the set of avail-
able ways to map and manifest possible paths or waypoints ahead, is far from
exhausted. Exciting vistas have recently opened up with foresight’s ‘experiential
234 Stuart Candy
turn’ towards fuller exploration of design, media and games (Candy, 2010;
Li, 2013; Haldenby and Candy, 2014; Selin, 2015; Candy and Dunagan, 2017). Such
exploration may help us reconfigure the playing field – or reshuffle the deck – to
make it easier to engage people in the relatively novel modes of thought that increas-
ing Futures Literacy entails.
This chapter presents a case study of an experiential futures card game
called The Thing from the Future (Candy and Watson, 2014; Situation Lab,
2015b), reflecting on it as a method for popularising and demystifying futures,
and explaining the design mechanisms that make it tick. While undoubtedly
a limited tool (like all tools), its potential significance as part of a wave of
efforts to spread Futures Literacy which are actually enjoyable to use may give
heart to those in search of new ways towards distributed anticipation and social
foresight.
Let us briefly situate the project in relation to currents in games
and futures
Surveying a rapidly changing field, game designer and educator Traci
Fullerton observes: “There has been an explosion in new platforms of play
and an emergence of exciting new markets and genres of games. . . Game
design is everywhere” (Fullerton, 2008, p. xv). Increasingly ubiquitous, it
seems, and in some quarters increasingly aspirational. Games scholar Mary
Flanagan wonders:
What if some games, and the more general concept of ‘play’ not only provide
outlets for entertainment but also function as means for creative expression,
as instruments for conceptual thinking, or as tools to help examine or work
through social issues?
(Flanagan, 2009, p. 1)
Meanwhile designer and futurist Jane McGonigal asks: “What if we decided to
use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality?”
(McGonigal, 2011, p. 7). Not merely rhetorical questions, these represent far-
reaching agendas for research and creation, as well as key entryways into a rich,
fast developing bibliography – and ludography – that takes games seriously as a
way to accomplish real change.
And, just as games are venturing into serious territory, the at times over-
whelmingly serious practice of futures has been learning to be more playful.
Games have of course long been used for foresight-related purposes, in the
context of military strategy for example: at the U.S. Naval War College, war
games have been played since 1866 (Bell, 2017, p. 287). The past decade
or so however, has seen a surge of experimentation in participatory games,
using the web’s recently possible ‘massively multiplayer’ gameplay envi-
ronment. Some key projects in the futures domain have included World
Gaming Futures Literacy 235
Without Oil: “the first massively scaled effort to engage ordinary individuals
in creating an immersive forecast of the future” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 303),
Superstruct (McGonigal, 2011, p. 317), the U.S. federal CDC-funded ‘emer-
gent reality game’ Coral Cross (Pescovitz, 2009) and the Foresight Engine
(Dunagan, 2012).
This game design strand represents one important part of a broader pattern.
I began working in and writing regularly about the intersections of futures with
design and media in 2006, eventually completing a doctoral dissertation on the
topic (Candy, 2010). Through a combination of theory and extensive collabora-
tive practice, ‘experiential futures’ emerged as an overarching frame to denote
“the gamut of approaches involving the design of situations and stuff from the
future to catalyse insight and change” (Candy, 2015), a literally vast design space
of foresight activity encompassing
all manner of other things that one might create in order to manifest, evoke
and make available thoughts, feelings and insights about the whole gamut
of possible futures . . . Tangible, immersive, interactive, live, and playable
modes are all in scope.
(Candy and Dunagan, 2017)
Here we will comprehensively survey neither the fast-moving arena of games
designed for futures purposes, nor the wider territory of experiential futures, but
we can explore one particular project which happens to exemplify both currents,
and which points up their potential for contributing to advancement of Futures
Literacy and, beyond that, social foresight. Our focus will be on how the game
provides a structure of participation (Jeremijenko, 2002) for helping people imag-
ine, probe, and therefore navigate change more effectively.
The Thing from the Future is a foresight tool and imagination exercise in
the form of a deck of cards. Part scenario generator, part design method, and
part party game it invites players to collaborate and compete in describing,
telling stories about, and sketching or physically prototyping artefacts that
could exist in alternative futures. Co-designed by the author, a futurist and
design professor at Carnegie Mellon University, with Jeff Watson, a games
professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts,
the first edition was published in early 2014 by a research unit we jointly run,
Situation Lab.
To date it has been played by thousands of people around the world, in settings
ranging from the United Nations Development Programme’s annual strategy
gathering in New York to Nesta’s Futurefest in London; academic programmes
from Stanford d.School to MIT Media Lab and the National University of
Singapore; and countless conferences, workshops and loungerooms. It has been
an Official Selection of the international games festival IndieCade, and winner
of a Most Significant Futures Work award from the Association of Professional
Futurists. It has received international media coverage and been translated
236 Stuart Candy
into other languages; a Portuguese/English edition produced for the Museum
of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, and a French/English edition for delegates at
UNESCO’s Youth Forum in Paris. For a perspective on where The Thing from
the Future fits into the design community’s recently flourishing interest in spec-
ulative and futures-oriented practice, see Lupton (2017, pp. 50–51).
Gameplay is simple. In a small group, usually three to five people, players co-
create a prompt and are each challenged to describe an artefact from the future
which meets the parameters. Any prompt offers the necessary constraints for one
to describe a specific cultural fragment from a possible future. In competitive
mode, it is the ‘best’ response (which could mean the funniest, or most thought-
provoking, disturbing, resonant, etc.), as determined by those at the table, that
wins the round.
In the original design, the deck of cards contains four suits or categories
of card to kindle and guide imaginations. Arc is the applicable time horizon
and type of future, building on Jim Dator’s four generic futures (sometimes
also called archetypes) framework (Dator, 2009a). Terrain is the context for
the object, either a physical location or a domain of human activity. The
Object is the category of hypothetical ‘future thing’ for which players will
generate a description (not always a physical artefact), ranging from Device,
to Headline, to Monument. Finally, Mood says how it feels to interact with
that thing, lending an ‘interior’ inflection to the other three more ‘external’
elements.1
A creative prompt comprises any set of four cards, one from each suit (ATOM).
For example see Figure 6.1.
This combination challenges us to describe an artefact from just a few years
into the future; a beverage relating somehow to a zoo, that evokes a continued
growth trajectory in the wider society, and that imparts a sense of disgust. In
response one player proposed a product called ZooShooters, a hypothetical prod-
uct from animal rights activist group PETA. This drink, when imbibed, gives one
the experience of the suffering of a caged animal.
For another example see Figure 6.2. And a sort of vignette in response: “With
mobile devices increasingly distracting from religious leaders’ sermons, to enter
Figure 6.1 An example prompt (no. 1) from The Thing from the Future’s original four-
card design: Arc, Terrain, Object, and Mood (first edition, revised 2015).
Image courtesy of Situation Lab
Gaming Futures Literacy 237
Figure 6.2 An example prompt (no. 2) from The Thing from the Future’s original four-
card design. Image courtesy of Situation Lab
a place of faith one must wear a mask that prevents interaction with mobile elec-
tronic devices, allowing only polarised light from the speaker’s podium.”2
There’s often a humorous or eccentric quality to players’ creations, which is due
in part to the playful tone which the medium of the card game invites, but which
also seems typical of a randomising combinatorial structure (see also Weidinger,
2014). The design question becomes: how to make a structure more reliably gen-
erative of useful outcomes? For recent thinking in this area see Compton (2016).
A later iteration of the design, first released in August 2017 at the Singularity
Summit in San Francisco, uses a simplified structure with just three suits: Future,
Thing and Theme (Candy and Watson, 2017; 2018). Also included is a ‘phrasal tem-
plate’ on the cards themselves, to make clear to players at a glance how to sequence,
understand and synthesise the three elements. This design element emerged from
Situation Lab projects developed between the original and revised editions of The
Thing from the Future: Rilao (Watson, 2015) and Futureschool (Stein, Watson and
Candy, 2015).
Some example prompts from the three-suit deck design can be seen in Figures
6.3–6.5:3
Figure 6.3 An example prompt (no. 1) from The Thing from the Future’s simplified
three-card design: Future, Thing, and Theme (Singularity University edition,
2017). Image courtesy of Situation Lab
238 Stuart Candy
Figure 6.4 An example prompt (no. 2) from The Thing from the Future’s three-card
design. Image courtesy of Situation Lab
Figure 6.5 An example prompt (no. 3) from The Thing from the Future’s three-card
design. Image courtesy of Situation Lab
While recognisably the same game, it should be readily apparent how these
design changes (the reduced cognitive load of three elements instead of five,4 one
idea per card instead of two, and the syntactic ‘connective tissue’ of the phrasal
template) make it more playable.
Watson has described The Thing from the Future as a “combinatorial creative
prompting system” (personal communication; see also Watson, 2012 for discus-
sion of a “card-based procedural creative prompting system” devised to help
aspiring filmmakers create more diverse student films). Indeed, its possibilities
are practically inexhaustible: the several dozen options in each of the suits multi-
ply out to yield close to 40,000 unique permutations in the redux edition (and over
3.7 million in the more complex, multivariate earlier version), any of which could
in principle give rise to innumerable artefact ideas.
Gaming Futures Literacy 239
Duly scaffolded into thinking and feeling out a particular corner of this rich
possibility space, players often generate thoughts genuinely new to them. The
Indian cultural commentator and sometime futurist Ashis Nandy has proposed
that the futures field is “basically a game of dissenting visions” (Nandy, 1996);
The Thing from the Future is at its core literally that. If Dator’s ‘Second law of the
future’ – any useful statement about the future should at first appear to be ridicu-
lous (Dator, 1995) – is true, then the cards demonstrate high potential for yielding
useful ideas. A corresponding downside is of course that playful thinking is not
always valued, especially in more conservative organisational settings.
Still, a game format or framing can be helpful in and of itself for the futurist
facilitator seeking to trigger a hypothetical, exploratory mindset, affording players
not only permission to think along heterodox lines, but offering the specific mate-
rials of imagination with which to do so. The cultural norm associated with card
games of literally ‘playing the hand you are dealt’, rather than rejecting the terms
of the hypothetical – a common problem when working with future scenarios in
more prosaic formats – also may help players grant permission to themselves to
range into previously uncharted imaginative territory.5
There is flexibility in the game’s uses – from group icebreaker to imagina-
tion gym, tool for structured exploration of a design space6 or, more ambitiously,
ideation engine for tangible outcomes. Several design jams have been held by
Situation Lab, where players turned their game-enabled artefact ideas into popup
design fiction shows (see The Extrapolation Factory, 2014 and Situation Lab,
2017 for more details).7
This process of artefact-idea generation could be thought of as a sort of ‘reverse
archaeology’. Whereas from a found artefact, an archaeologist infers the world
that produced it, here one creatively devises a specific artefact based on a skeletal
description of ‘the world’ (Candy, 2013). Just as history leaves behind innumer-
able traces – in attics, museums, and other treasure troves – and these can speak
volumes about what has happened in the past, the card deck is intended to help
players to imagine evidence from the countless scenarios that could happen.
The game’s ‘artefact from the future’ premise dates back at least as far as Wired
magazine’s long-running back-page feature Found (Wired, 2002–2013), but also
finds counterparts in work by Jason Tester and colleagues (Institute for the Future,
2017); in Dunagan and Candy’s ‘guerrilla futures’ collaboration, FoundFutures
(Candy and Dunagan, 2007); and not least, in the rapid, recent spread of popular
futures-inflected design practices such as design fiction (Bleecker, 2009; Sterling,
2009, 2013) and speculative design (DiSalvo and Lukens, 2009; Auger, 2012;
Dunne and Raby, 2013).
Naturally there are also numerous antecedents, ancient and modern, to the gen-
erative card deck, ranging from tarot and playing cards to a parade of more recent
creations with similar procreative intent, including IDEO’s Method Cards (IDEO,
2003), ArtCenter College of Design’s Mobility VIP (Walker et al., 2008) and
Near Future Laboratory’s Design Fiction Kit (Near Future Laboratory, 2014).
Still, what The Thing from the Future tackles is something that has previously
tended to be a specialist activity of futurists and designers – taking relatively
240 Stuart Candy
abstract ideas about future narratives and distilling concrete ideas for future
artefacts – and it makes that task easier.8
The typology or structure underpinning each prompt splits the attributes of a
future thing into three complementary levels of abstraction, which offers players
disparate elements to synthesise: the macro (type of scenario; Future, formerly
Arc), meso (geographic or thematic area of interest; Theme; formerly Terrain),
and micro (the unit of cultural output, and focal point of the description you cre-
ate; Thing; formerly Object). The original design (Candy and Watson, 2014) used
a separate card to bring an interior state (Mood) into play, while the three-card
second edition (Candy and Watson, 2017; 2018) seeks to integrate these key emo-
tional cues into the Future suit. Either way, this emotional spin on the prompt
integrates a dimension often neglected in the cognition-heavy thought experimen-
tation that is standard in foresight practice. In this sense, as pointed out in a recent
overview of experiential futures, this move lets us enact some of the vital interior-
exterior bridging work suggested by Integral Futures literature, rather than mainly
talking about how valuable it would be to do so (Candy and Dunagan, 2017).
Each round of gameplay asks the player to scale a sort of ‘ladder of abstraction’
(Hayakawa, 1947) – a notion we have elsewhere used to develop a design tool for
experiential futures projects called the Experiential Futures Ladder (Candy and
Dunagan, 2017). While formal scenarios can take an enormous amount of time
and effort to prepare, here is a rapid descent from abstract, high-level descriptors
of possible future worlds whether Grow or Discipline (original); Feminist or
Disturbing (second edition) to numerous ground-level ideas for artefacts that
evoke this larger narrative premise.9
This power to generate coherent prompts in large numbers, ‘automatically’ as
it were, and also the key to helping players pull off responses, lies in the relation-
ship between the suits. There is a built-in typological complementarity such that
all members of each card category are logically compatible with all the others. A
pioneering project in this combinatorial cards-for-future-imagining design space,
Mobility VIP, has eleven categories per prompt; see Walker et al. (2008).10 Put
another way, The Thing from the Future provides an approach to exploring a
combinatorial possibility space that is structurally similar to morphological analy-
sis (Ritchey, 2009) one of the richest approaches to scenario generation, but
perhaps also, in its usual form, most intimidating, and therefore not often used.
Happily, a player need not know or worry about such details at all in order
to play The Thing from the Future, much as one need not understand precisely
how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car safely to any
number of destinations. The playful interface of a card game renders a certain
complexity as simple and approachable, which is a large part of why it works.
What The Thing from the Future offers as a futures method might be said to
consist in the way its design and storytelling engine operates mostly unseen
‘under the hood’, with the effect that without great effort, players can engage
in a quite sophisticated form of integrative, imaginative thinking, embedding
abstract future-narrative notions in particular concepts for future things, all while
actually enjoying themselves.
Gaming Futures Literacy 241
None of this is to suggest that the game replaces proper scenario generation
processes, but it might be a way to make some of the distinctive modes of thinking
involved less intimidating and therefore more common.
What ‘distinctive modes of thinking’ do I have in mind? It seems to me to be,
for starters, a matter of thinking divergently (in terms of multiple alternatives) as
well as concretely (as opposed to vaguely or abstractly) about possible futures.
We could call these dimensions respectively diversity (or breadth) and depth
(Candy, 2010, p. 17). We might also hypothesise that the game makes the future
psychologically less remote to players (see Candy, 2010, p. 83). It renders not
only the particular ideas that one generates while playing, but in a sense the whole
futures possibility space, and the endless array of situations and stuff that make it
up, available to be explored, thought and felt, by anyone so inclined.
To highlight the flexibility of the method encoded in this simple deck of cards
is not to imply some kind of universal applicability: the selection, adaptation, and
skilled deployment of appropriate foresight tools in context looks set to remain
among the futurist’s dark arts for a while yet. But with this addition the toolkit
expands, becoming incrementally more flexible, participatory and diversified.
It has shown a way to tie the high-level abstractions of scenario types (Arc/
Future) to the specifics that those futures might disclose, leaving but a short
step to countless design fictions and other experiential futures creations. And
bringing futures closer, mediating people’s relationship to them so they become
more playfully open and less opaque, seems a useful step on the road to more
widespread foresight literacy.
Experience so far shows that it does not take long for players and facilitators
to understand how the game’s suits work, from which point it is straightforward
to augment or adjust the contents, leading exploration into specific sub-territories
in the future’s vast cone of possibilities. When using the original edition in work-
shops we would sometimes provide blank Terrain or Object cards to let players
customise the constraints to workshop themes. The new edition, we hope enabled
by its more self-explanatory structure, includes several blanks of each category in
every deck. Ultimately a grasp of the underlying structure amounts to an infinitely
extensible, customisable, layered way of using the imagination, with or without
cards in hand.
Let us be clear that this systematic use of limitations or guidelines to elicit
imaginative engagement with possibility is not new. Arguably it is a core to any
kind of useful foresight or anticipatory thought. The Dutch sociologist Fred Polak,
pioneer of the concept of “images of the future”, observed:
The domain of the future, however, is without boundaries. Yet it is only by
drawing boundaries in the thought-realm that man can produce a problem
that can be grasped and worked with, and it is only by redrawing the bounda-
ries of the unknown that man can increase his knowledge. No problem so per-
sistently defies our skill at drawing boundaries as the problem of the future,
and no problem presses quite so hard on our intellectual horizons.
(Polak, 1973, p. 4)
242 Stuart Candy
From this perspective any story or scenario about a future, and indeed, the next
level of abstraction up, any technique for scenario generation (and there are
dozens; see for example Bishop, Hines and Collins, 2007), can be thought of as
simply a different way of ‘drawing boundaries in the thought-realm’ in order to
make futures psychologically tractable.
In a sense, what The Thing from the Future attempts is to make a kind of genera-
tive ‘source code’ for boundary-drawing in futures available to more people. Each
prompt is a different set of “enabling constraints” (Hayles, 2001), and the limits that
confine and challenge the imagination in each round of gameplay present a pathway
disclosing potentially brand-new vistas unimaginable until one ventures along it.
As the game’s co-designer has observed, “Limitations don’t just inspire crea-
tive solutions to problems: rather, they are necessary to them” (Watson, 2012,
p. 54). To recognise the importance of limitations on creativity and imagination,
and deliberately crafted prompts for them, helps move our inquiry forward. This
chapter began with the question of how to take strategic foresight from being rare
and difficult to being easier and more common. It seems this is one way: to invite
gameplay with the boundaries and parameters (assumptions, causal chains, nar-
rative premises, themes, etc.) that frame particular conceptions of times to come.
As a recent overview and case study of experiential futures suggested:
[P]erhaps the central challenge for the next generation of foresight practi-
tioners will have less to do with generating and broadcasting ideas about the
future, than it will have to do with designing circumstances or situations in
which the collective intelligence and imagination of a community can come
forth. To design and stage an experience of the future is one class of activity.
To attend to the design of processes whereby such experiences are designed –
making structures of participation – is another.
(Candy and Dunagan, 2017, emphasis in original)
This peek at the inner workings of a futures card game highlights the potential of
continuing to develop structures of participation for manifesting futures in story,
materiality, and performance (see Situation Lab, 2015a),11 in turn to enrich our
collective vocabulary of anticipation (see Meadows, 2009).12
This project is necessarily a work in progress. Designing playful systems is
or should be iterative, so they improve over time as lessons are learned via
encounters with different player populations (Situation Lab, 2017). And wherever
it might go from here, the larger possibility to which it points, the promotion of
distributed anticipation or social foresight, continues to inspire and beckon.
It has been observed that humans’ native, everyday foresight capacity serves as
the basis, duly ramified and amplified, for the professional and pedagogical activ-
ity of futurists (Slaughter, 1996; Hayward, 2003). The development of a social
capacity for foresight is perhaps the ultimate promise of a futures practice that
does not hoard or guard its insights and tools as the preserve of a class of experts,
but one that closes the circle by handing user-friendly tools back to a wider popu-
lation. I suggest that experiential futures generally, and games especially, can help
make good on this democratic promise.
Gaming Futures Literacy 243
A little further along that path, now, we are beginning to make out a not too
distant future in which futures thinking enjoys far greater currency and impact, by
becoming not only more accessible – but also more fun.
Notes
1 The introduction of the Mood card in the first edition of the game owes some inspira-
tion to the Systems Mythology Toolkit created by Dylan Hendricks from the Institute
for the Future (IFTF).
2 These examples both come from gameplay with a class in ‘Science Fiction-Inspired
Prototyping’ at MIT Media Lab. My thanks to Dan Novy and Joost Bonsen, and to their
students.
3 In this later version, two most concrete elements of the original four-card prompt have
been retained; the artefact or Thing, and a context for it or Theme (corresponding to
the original edition’s Object and Terrain suits). However, the Arc and Mood cards have
been unified under a single macro-category, the Future suit, describing the kind of
world or scenario in which a player’s imagination is invited to roam. In the later edi-
tion, instead of focusing on a small set of four primary Arcs that all describe an external
shift in the state of the system (Grow, Collapse, Discipline, Transform), the Future card
provides a larger container for possibilities with various inflections; towards externally
observable conditions (including variations on the generic futures; Exponential, Slow,
Regimented, Transformational, Spiritual), or more specific external states (Digital,
Postnational, Handmade), or aesthetic conditions (Steampunk, Poetic, Grotesque) or
feelings (Dark, Funny, Thrilling) more closely resembling the role of the Mood card.
4 Arc cards also included a time horizon, which represents a fifth piece of information
for players to incorporate – on top of the generic future type, plus the other three cards.
Reducing cognitive load for players was one of the design aims of The Thing from the
Future second edition.
5 Thanks to Riel Miller for sharing this insight.
6 For example, holding a certain parameter steady, say a particular Theme/Terrain, while
pivoting other variables around it to challenge and reframe how that domain could evolve.
7 One design jam that we ran with the game as an ideation engine resulted in a collection of
street vendor merchandise from the future, produced on campus at New York University,
then put on sale at the corner of Canal St and Broadway in Manhattan. Another generated
an exhibition about future live music performances, created by Stanford d.School students
and mounted at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Another yielded a series
of short films from the future, created by young filmmakers at Hot Docs International
Documentary Film Festival in Toronto. Note that generating ideas for physical things is by
no means the only way to use the deck. In the very first edition, the Object suit had focused
on small-scale, tangible items, such as Wallet, Postcard, and Toy, reflecting the game’s ori-
gins as an ideation engine for the first Futurematic design jam, where participants filled a
vending machine with future artefacts produced in a single day. Subsequent revisions have
incorporated more diverse cultural outputs in the Object/Thing category, including intan-
gible, performative or larger-scale fragments such as Headline, Festival, and Building.
8 Having been involved in these hybrid design/futures practices for some years before design
fiction (and then speculative design, a more recently popular term) caught on, one hope
that I have for this game is that it may help accelerate the process of people getting over the
flimsy novelty value of artworks, exhibits and various other ‘things from the future’, so that
these practices can proceed sooner to higher-value questions around discerning what makes
particular ideas and works of this kind more or less effective, interesting and worthwhile.
9 This is not to suggest that every single combination yielded by the deck is as valuable or
evocative as any other. The question I find interesting goes to the results yielded by play-
ers as a result of design choices made at the structure level: some are more consistently or
fruitfully generative than others. The importance of typological complementarity across
244 Stuart Candy
the suits (a design dimension that appears often to be overlooked) was highlighted after
several creators let us know about having made their own combinatorial card sets inspired
by The Thing from the Future. When categories jostle at the same level of abstraction
(e.g. at a meso-level, ‘user’, ‘location’, ‘theme’) they seem apt to lead to more eccentric
or simply confusingly contradictory prompts. Of course, there is a certain potential cre-
ative generativity in almost any prompt. As co-designer Jeff Watson has pointed out in
personal communication during our design process, even reading names out of the phone
book is mildly generative.
10 There are challenges of working with such complexity; a mix of cognitive load on
players and typological complementarity among suits in the deck, I would think. So
even one of the lead examples of excellent, ingenious responses in the project Gallery
de-emphasises (greys out) three of the eleven. Similarly, in the original version of The
Thing from the Future, players would regularly forget about one or other of the prompt
elements, which was part of the reason we simplified the second edition. A deeper
investigation of ‘generativity’, looking more closely at design choices in the structure
(e.g. number and framing of categories or ‘suits’) and content (e.g. cards included in
each category), and what kinds of results these yield from players encountering them,
awaits another time.
11 In 2015, Situation Lab created a specifically performance-oriented adaptation of The
Thing from the Future for arts/activist group US Department of Arts and Culture, popu-
lating the Object/Thing suit with a set of future scenes or interaction types (instead of
artefacts), such as Interview, Reunion, and Announcement.
12 Environmental scientist Donella Meadows, lead author of the seminal Limits to Growth
report to the Club of Rome, once proposed a hierarchical list of ‘places to intervene in
a system’, which we might use to pose two key questions relating to the generativity
and potency of a framework for foresight literacy (whether in game form or not): where
does it intervene, and how does it orient and enable participants within the system?
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