Thinkering Tomorrows -Playing the Future

Previously on this blog, I critiqued Science Fiction Prototyping, and talked about how role-playing games work. Today, I’d like to bring those two themes together to talk the design of my scenario planning role-playing game, Thinkering Tomorrow.  The goal here, in the words of Brian David Johnson, is to help people change the future by changing the stories they tell about the future.

To summarize the older posts, Science Fiction Prototyping is problematic because writing is surprisingly hard, and gets even harder if you want to achieve both scientific accuracy and literary quality. Additionally, the “gentle art of reperceiving” in an institutional context, which is at the heart of scenario planning/foresight methodologies, is diametrically opposed to the individual task of finishing a story. Role-playing games (RPGs) serve as a method for a group to successfully negotiate a common outcome, both by determining who speaks at a given time, and providing some way to foreclose debate over contentious issues. I thought that the strengths of role-playing games could compensate for the weaknesses in Science Fiction Prototyping.

The main concept behind Thinkering Tomorrows is a basic set of rules and pieces to help a group use their narrative imaginations and intrinsic understanding of ‘good reasons’ on the future.  To do this, the group first generates a set of random elements chosen from a list using a deck of playing cards, figures out in some loose way how all the elements work together, and then plays through a story about the future in 16 or so brief scenes. It’s inspired by the award-winning Fiasco, but different enough that I feel safe in saying that it is its own thing.

The Set-Up, laying out the disparate elements and figuring out how they fit together, is a game in and of itself. It is synthetic, in that is about challenging and exercising the players’ collective ability to generate meaning out of chaos. The items on the list are meant to be provocative and inspirational. A game that simply repeats culturally embedded stories about technology, like Frankenstein, Icarus, Telsa, etc. is not particularly successful. At minimum, the elements mean that everybody is working with the same pieces, and that the group can get over the terror of the blank page.

In most RPGs, characters are defined by a series of numbers that represent a kind of ‘imaginary physics’; bodily statistics, skills, equipment. Thinkering Tomorrows instead defines characters by their social roles, their relationships with the characters to their left and right. These relationships might be something like Family: Parent and Child, and Social: Shared Subculture. This system elegantly produces internal tensions for each character; they will have two roles to play, and multiple goals that may not align. Characters in the game will almost certainly be inspired by the experiences of the players, but hopefully will be different enough to inspire empathy and speculation. The space between “what would I do?” and “what would this other person do given who they are?” is a very productive one.

The Gizmo and the System Failure are the most important elements for the shape of the game. The Gizmo is a technology, composed of a Mechanism, Interface, Infrastructure, and Output. An earlier version of the game focused on lists of technologies that you might find in futurological forecasts, but playtests revealed that not all technologies were created equally, and that the technology was ignored for most of the story. Some of the Gizmos are ordinary, and some are quite fantastic, but all are detailed enough to help provoke design fiction style speculation about the daily use and purpose of technology.

The System Failure is what sets the plot of the game in motion. It is only realistic to say that technology rarely works right, and almost never does exactly what it was specified to do and only that. A technology might be misused, or it might have negative externalities, or it simply might break down unexpectedly. Dealing with the consequences of this failure; trying either to put it right or take advantage of the chaos, kicks the drama into high gear.

Objects and Locations help define the setting of the game, providing a few concrete places for the players to hang around in and McGuffins to fight over. They’re not supposed to be the only locations used, but rather serve as Chekov’s Guns which force the story towards some kind of conclusion. The Values serve to say in the broadest sense what the game is about: Democracy vs Authoritarianism, Transformation vs Tradition, or Independence vs Integration. Values are designed so that a reasonable person could support either side of an issue, but conflict is inevitable.

As I mentioned earlier, the game plays out in brief scenes of 3-5 minutes, rotating through the group so that everybody has equal ability to participate and shape the story. While some players will have better ideas and be more forceful in arguing them, there’s no single authority in Thinkering Tomorrows.  At most, someone might serve to facilitate play. In the first half of the game, players declare which elements on the table they want to use, and gain tokens if they successfully incorporate those elements into their scene. If they fail, the tokens go to a communal Crisis pool, to represent the situation getting worse.

The second half of the game takes on elements of a collective action problem, as players can choose to allocate their hard earned tokens to Fixes, Values which shape the big picture, or their own personal well-being. Depending on how the game plays out, there could be agreement on what is to be done and an efficient and easy implementation, or a bloody struggle that leaves the problem triumphant, and all the characters exhausted in pursuit of their ideologies.

Now, Thinkering Tomorrows needs more playtesting, and I won’t claim that it is the be-all-end-all of foresight exercises. The plot of problem-crisis-solutions-outcomes is a little stereotypical. The game’s ability to provoke interesting discussions is highly contingent on the group, how much they know about the future, and how well they work together. And finally, there’s no formal mechanism for players to introduce analytic components, to make the game “about” some technology or issue of specific interest, although that could be modified easily enough. But I do think that it’s an unique way to rapidly prototype science fiction stories in the span of an evening, rather than weeks or months.

If you’d like a copy of Thinkering Tomorrows, please contact me.


Hipster Churchillism and Operation Pillar of Defense

When I flipped open my news websites on Thursday and saw that Israel had taken out a Hamas commander and posted the video on YouTube, my reaction could be best summed up as “Oh god, not again.” Shocking as it might be to people who know me; I actually don’t like war. I study it because things that kill people matter; because I’m a citizen of a country that enthusiastically turns to the military to enforce its view of the world; and (okay, I’ll admit it) because military technology is awesome.

The story as I understand it is that after an escalating barrage of rockets through October and early November, Israel launched a very public campaign of “precision” strikes against Hamas leaders and rocket launching sites. Hamas responded with a massive barrage of missiles, including long-range Iranian Fajr-5 missiles targeted at Tel Aviv and Hamas. Israel has called up the reserves (75,000, compared to 10,000 in Operation Cast Lead), and well, you can fill in the depressing rest.

I can’t speak to the justice or morality of the conflict; that’s simply too big.  But one thing that I firmly believe from the lessons of Robert McNamara, is that when you go to war you must have a good idea of why.

The base level explanation from official Israeli sources is that “Israel has the right to self-defense, and they shot first.” A higher level explanation is that this is all about reminding the Arab world to take Israeli deterrence seriously. Above that is the theory that this is about reminding Hamas of its obligations to control Gaza. And in the realm of the conspiracy theory is that Netanyahu is doing this to solidify his re-election chances or prepare for a strike on Iran.

Hamas’s objectives, in a similar order, are to destroy Israel via rocket bombardment, do something with its military arsenal before it is destroyed by Israel, and demonstrate leadership to the Palestinian people and the Arab world.

Notice any asymmetries in these objectives? Not the military “wipe Israel off the map/destroy Hamas’ rocket capability” ones, because those aren’t happening, but the political objectives. The best that Israel has a realistic chance of achieving is the status quo, plus a few years respite from rockets.  Hamas could actually win by credibly providing emergency services, by working with influential figures in Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, and by demonstrating itself as the foremost Palestinian political party. Now, I might be wrong, and Hamas could have miscalculated, but I don’t see much hope for long term Israeli interests, let alone a two-state peace.

This battle is playing out in the media as much as it is in the air, with real-time flames between @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade. A friend of mine is working in an Israeli media ops command center, presumably grinding his way towards IDFBlog badges, and reminding people that Hamas can use geotagging on twitter posts to aim its rockets. Now, my usual military and foreign policy blogs are talking about this, as is the New York Times and other major newspapers, but in social media terms this feels like a dud. The only thing that I’ve seen personally gain any traction in my (very liberal, fairly Jewish) social circle is a 2006 quote from Benjamin Netanyahu, “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.” Otherwise, most people still care more about l’affair de Petraeus and cat pictures than this conflict.

Ironically, the very efficiency of Israeli’s Iron Dome anti-missile system may have deprived it of the media trump card; pictures of dead babies. While the Israeli military is more media savvy than it was in 2008, their Hipster Churchillism is, well, profoundly weird and far less sympathetic than the images coming out of Gaza, Pallywood staging or not.

So what’s the end? Well, I expect that some number of people will die, more of them Palestinian than Israeli, that billions of dollars will be spent in an effort to blow up various parts of the Middle East, that Israeli’s reputation will be further tarnished, and that we’ll do it all again in another four years, but worse.

After all, this land is mine.

(from Nina Paley)


Book Reviews: The Submerged State and the Righteous Mind

by Suzanne Mettler


by Jonathan Haidt

It doesn't take a pundit to know that American politics are screwed up beyond measure. Congress is stuck in gridlock, the economy is stalled, elections are decided by culture war attack ads, and politics itself is derided as a pursuit for liars and hustlers. Suzanne Mettler explains why we’ve become disenchanted with political solutions to our problems, while Jonathan Haidt looks at the deeper moral differences between liberals and conservatives.

The key issue is not the government we see, but the government we don't, the vast tangle of tax breaks, public-private partnerships, and incentives that Mettler deems 'the submerged state'. The size of the submerged state is astounding, 8% of the GDP, and fully half the size of the visible state: Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, defense, servicing the debt, and the relatively minuscule discretionary funding that covers everything else the government does, from welfare to transportation to education to NASA and foreign aid.

Mettler deploys economic and social statistics to show that for all its expense, the submerged state is a failure on every level. Whatever your politics, there is something to despise about the submerged state. It represents a transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, when most Americans abstractly support reducing inequality. It is a distortionary government influence on the workings of the free market, without the relativity clarity of direct provision of services or regulations. It fails to accomplish its stated policy goals of improving access to education, healthcare, and housing. It leads to civic disengagement, as those who benefit fail to see how the government has helped them, or how they can meaningfully impact politics through voting. And above all, it institutionalizes corruption, as broad public participation is replaced by the lobbying of narrowly constituted interests groups.

This book is not perfect. Mettler is a political scientist, and she has the biases of her profession: that conservatives are responsible for much of what's gone wrong with America over the past 30 years (disclosure: I agree), and that citizens would vote 'better' if they were just better informed. This book doesn't fatally harpoon the submerged state, but Mettler has marked the target for future scholars and politicians. The submerged state is a powerful lens for seeing many divergent policies as part of a broad trend towards political disengagement, and government that is not smaller, but rather inflexible and unresponsive.

In a just and sensible world, the 2012 Presidential race would be decided by the candidate’s aggressiveness in tackling the submerged state. Unfortunately, last I checked, we’re still on Earth. Democracy isn't just about the boring but necessary business of deciding who keeps the sewers running and collects the taxes, but is also about the type of society that we wish to live in. Voters don’t vote on “rational” economic grounds, but rather on the basis of shared values and aspirations.

Jonathan Haidt draws broadly from research in psychology, anthropology, and biology to develop a six-factor basis for morality (Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation), and show that moral judgment is an innate intuitive ability accompanied by post-hoc justifications. He argues that morality serves to bind non-related groups together, and moral skills have been favored by biological and social evolutionary mechanisms over human history.

In practical political terms, the Enlightenment morality embodied by Liberalism draws from only the first three moral factors while Conservatism draws from all six. This explains both the differences between liberal and conservative values, and why conservatives beat the stuffing out of liberals at the polls. Drawing on more complex moral framework, they are able to make more convincing arguments in favor of their preferred policies.

However, Haidt is unwilling to follow his theory to its ultimate question: Can a democratic political system that privileges the rights of minorities sustain decision-making based on all six moral factors? Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, and Fairness/Cheating are universal factors; everybody uses them, and aside philosophical paradoxes like the famous Trolley Problem, we agree on when they are upheld or violated. Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation are provincial factors; they're different for every culture and every individual.

A moral order for a pluralistic society which takes the latter three factors seriously must either force people to uphold a morality they do not believe in, or segregate people based on their different interpretations of morality. Perhaps I'm sensitive to such concerns because of my secular Jewish culture, but forcing people to profess beliefs not their own, or requiring them to live in communities of only like-minded individuals is profoundly unjust, and practically impossible.

Conservatism struggles with the reality that we no longer live in separated communities. We have one global economy, one atmosphere, one water cycle, one planetary oil supply, one nuclear Armageddon, etc. Haidt faults liberalism for damaging American moral capital in the 60s and 70s, but he doesn't explain how conservative politics can govern effectively without infringing on liberty, or coalescing to gridlock.

Imagine trying to get conservatives in America, China, and the Middle East to reach an agreement about freedom of speech, the role of religion in the public sphere, or the proper authority of the state. Value conflicts would impede the necessary daily work of trade and treaties, peace and prosperity, and a shared and sustainable future. It might be a more moral world, but it would not be a better a one.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must hang together; else, we shall most assuredly hang separately." Liberals across the world may disagree on the details, but can broadly agree on the framework for approaching continental-scale and international policy problems. We all have the right to vote according to our values, but we should take responsibility in recognizing the limited power of law to enforce those values in others.