Games for better futures & futures for better games: building a movement

Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Foresight and Anticipatory Governance at Utrecht University. His work connects imagined futures, games, and politics, policy and action. He leads the Anticiplay project, evaluation work on the H2020 CreaTures project, and the CCAFS Scenarios Project.

The first in-person Games for Better Futures meeting on November 1st.

A while back, we in the Anticiplay project announced that we would be starting a community of practice together with our sister project CreaTures, which focuses on creative practices for sustainability transformations. We want to grow an international community of people interested in exploring the following question: how can games and play contribute to more imaginative, sustainable societies in times of rapid and transformative change?

We firmly believe that the massive and diverse world of games is an excellent space for people to engage with the complexities of bringing about change in an uncertain world. We believe that this is not only a matter of ‘mobilizing’ games for societal engagement — but that the questions like ‘what future do we want to live in’ and ‘how do we imagine living through difficult changes’ can actually make for better, more interesting, deeper games.

We are finding that this transformative agenda is something many people are interested in, including game developers, game journalists, funders, publishers, players, researchers and policy makers. A whole bunch of people like the IGDA Climate SIG and Playing for the Planet are already exploring how to weave sustainability themes into commercial games. The Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program has asked us to discuss the future of climate games. In these communities there is already an interest in our specific focus as well — opening up spaces in games for the exploration of transformative futures. Moreover, we’ve already encountered many people who hadn’t necessarily thought about games in this way before, but who have expressed strong interest in working with us — both within and outside of the game industry.

All of this has given us a strong desire to help develop a community of people around this notion of ‘games for better futures’. Together with CreaTures, we are organizing meetings twice a month — one online, and one on location in the Netherlands, where we are based. We wanted to make this community organization special, and clearly valuable for all the different types of people who might join us — not just a ‘normal meeting’. In this blog, we’ll be reporting on some of the amazing experiences and findings from the first two Games for Better Futures meetings.

Worldbuilding — futures for better games

We wanted to infuse our encounters with imagination and a sense that new things are possible. The main way in which we are doing this comes out of the realization that while game developers are often extremely good at worldbuilding, they are typically less familiar with all the cool approaches that are out there for exploring what futures might be possible in the ‘real’ world. There’s a massive field of experts out there who specialize in ‘futures’ work — finding new creative ways to engage with what is possible in terms of the future. Some of us in our project come from that world. So a core tenet of our encounters is to engage in worldbuilding together, using some of these cool approaches. We believe that letting people experiment with futures methods will offer new perspectives on how games can help engage with original futures, while offering an opportunity get to know one another in a way that stimulates imaginations and shared creativity. In short, the idea is that we’re not just working on games for better futures — we’re also using futures to make better games.

A second aspect of the way we try to do things differently, for the live sessions in the Netherlands at least, is to gather in weird, unusual places that speak to our imaginations. The Joker’s basement was certainly that. As part of the old canal-side wharfs that are so characteristic of Utrecht, the architecture was ancient and the lighting magical. Even cooler was that our team member Milica Zec was able to set up her fantastic and award-winning VR installation Tree in the same space as well.

Milica setting up Tree for one of the participants.

Sipping on beers and munching on sustainable chocolate, people started the session by working with the classic ‘two axes’ scenario-making approach. This approach is typically used to make scenarios for policy and strategic planning; but this time, it was all in the service of coming up with new game ideas. Normally, the requirements for selecting different drivers of change are ‘are they impactful’ and ‘are they uncertain’, but we proposed to change this to ‘are they generative (as in, do they help bring up cool ideas) and ‘are they resonant’. Two very useful criteria for game worldbuilding.

Two groups developed a total of eight scenarios — wild stories about longer-term and shorter-term futures, often featuring strange and transformative uses of technology and new cultural norms. The next step was to use these future worlds as a basis for thinking up new game ideas. The process inspired some truly cool game concepts, such as a game where transhumanist manipulation of another person’s body is itself a form of communication — a way to express how you’d like to relate to them. Another game focused on truth machines that could be programmed with different ideologies.

The two axis scenario-making approach while enjoying beers and chocolate.

While the online session didn’t benefit from being in a weird game dungeon with beers and VR, we followed the same structure — starting with worldbuilding and then moving on to concrete conversations about games and transformation.

In this session, we used another futures approach — based on ‘seeds’, radical initiatives, technologies and movements that are still marginal right now but might lead to a changed world if they become more commonplace. Participants in the online session investigated different seeds from the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes database, and used a ‘futures wheel’ to discuss what a future world based on each seed would be like. Then, these future worlds once again became the starting point for game ideas. In this session, lots of stories about the global movement of species, including de-extinction and the danger of invasive species surfaced, leading to game ideas like ‘papers please for animals’; and a game around ‘kelp pirates’.

Part of the Miro-board for the online meeting, some amazing ideas from group 1.

We’ll be sharing the great ideas springing from this scenario work in a separate, future blog!

Games for better futures — what needs to change?

Fueled by this exploration of new worlds and new game ideas, we then moved the conversation to the question of what would be needed to help games contribute to better futures. Lots and lots of ideas came up in both sessions. These ideas have started to form what we understand as a community agenda. We will explore these directions and will facilitate organizing around them in practice. For now, here’s the big list based on everyone’s contributions!

With regards to opening up play spaces:

  • Breaking down the barrier between ‘entertainment’ and ‘serious’ games — a key challenge for Anticiplay — this also came up many times in the sessions. Many people see strong potential in that kind of ‘hybrid’ game space for meaningful games that do not try to be straightforwardly didactic, but that work with difficult or complex themes in ways that make for more engaging games.
  • New platforms and ways for making alternative, radical games visible. This came up a lot — developers, players and researchers would love new ways for truly original, radical, explorative and adventurous games to just become easier to find, and to become more visible. With a sector flooded with new games every day, this is crucial. This includes paying attention to marketing and PR and their associated budgets as well.
  • Connecting games to action and actual transformations. How do we bridge gaps between game play and action toward change? There are many ways in which games can be integrated with real life action — through charity, activities, augmented reality, and more. A key idea has been to connect games and social movements/activism. Lots of interesting ideas came up about how games relate to reality. For instance, games can offer really outlandish scenarios that still tie into real world challenges — perhaps provoking highly original solutions that way. LARPs and tabletop RPGs offer lots of possibilities in terms of more embodied play. How can people feel safe and ok with these more ‘creative’ forms of play? How can more resources be made available? What is the ‘unreal engine’ for tabletop RPGs?
  • ‘New people becoming gamers, gamers becoming new people!’ This very catchy phrase relates to the idea that new types of games beyond current mainstream game types might open up and attract entirely new groups of players. Just think of the Nintendo Wii’s accessible, playful use of movement and sports games — this opened up the Wii to entirely new markets of people who would not normally see themselves as gamers. And the other way around — gamers playing new types of games may open up their own conceptions of themselves in the world and as game players. More cooperative games were mentioned often as a key element here.
  • Challenging destructive imaginaries. Imaginaries are socially maintained and institutionally supported images of the future — like the metaverse, and Ready Player One. These imaginaries are very powerful in the games context and are being pushed by powerful actors. What are alternatives to these kinds of dominant ideas about a metaverse of media?
  • Using games to help explore the deeper questions. How can we investigate new subjectivities in games, and become more reflexive about existing assumptions, and articulate new ones? How can games subvert core ideas about the world, and allow for emotional reflection? Specifically, people talked about games as a way to investigate rules. Why are certain societal rules in place? What is good or bad about them? Can you break them?
  • A big flagship game that opens the eyes of the world to the possibilities of engaging with transformative change! Alternatively, event games that bring lots of people together — think Watch the Skies. Or what would the Pokémon GO for this movement look like?

With regards to funding, support, working conditions, and networks:

  • Approachable and supportive publisher and funding models that support creating games and playful processes outside of ‘traditional’ career paths in the game industry. There is much to explore here. What would such publisher models look like? What would be new possible sources of funding? How can funding structures be created that offer some freedom for experimentation without being crushed by external demands?
  • Better working conditions in the game sector. All of this experimental development of new, radical types of games will only be possible if working conditions in the game sector are good enough to support such exploration. In a hyper-capitalist and hyper-competitive industry there won’t be enough safety and security to try such new things. This is an essential part of social, cultural and economic sustainability.
  • Taking the dark side of current game design seriously — how it’s hyper-monetised, attention-grabbing, and about privatizing collectively creative assets. This also includes all the on-going work on the environmental impacts of this massive sector. Mobilizing external (journalistic) scrutiny on the sector to help push for change.
  • A very basic, but important need is just the development of networks between everyone — game developers, researchers, funders, media, players. This goes especially for independent people in the game sector — how can they get the support and networks they need? The confidence to work on games for transformative change was mentioned as important.
  • Educating decision makers: many decision makers don’t understand what the potential of games might be for better futures.
  • A Green Game Garden: The Dutch Game Garden in our project home, Utrecht, is a famous incubator for small indie studios. Participants proposed a Green Game Garden — an incubator for games for better futures!
  • Developing interfaces between games and sciences — for instance, making scientific modelling (climate modelling, agent-based models, and more) available as part of assets in unity or unreal.

As you can see: lots and lots of ideas. We’re very much looking forward to organizing our coming sessions around some of these themes, making sure everyone who can speak to them is in the room!

So, how about you? Did this trigger any of your thinking? Let us know by getting in touch with us through Discord or Twitter, or — better yet — join the next Games for Better Futures online meeting on December 14, at 7–9 PM CET for which you can register here!

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!

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An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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Anticiplay

Anticiplay

An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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