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.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, it's exciting to see your ideas develop. I also hereby claim my credit in helping craft the name!