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How to Game the Dystopian Future

How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything ― Even Things That Seem Impossible Today
By Jane McGonigal

The biggest stars of TED Talks often have a shorthand claim to fame: the “neuroscientist who discovered he was a latent psychopath” or “the 12-year-old app developer.” But the game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal — whose TED lectures have garnered over 15 million views — is harder to define. To some, she’s the researcher who urged us to collectively spend 21 billion hours per week on games of Warcraft, building skills to solve climate change and poverty. To others, she’s the woman who suffered a brain injury, then hastened her recovery by designing a game she called “Jane the Concussion Slayer.”

In “Imaginable,” McGonigal stakes out yet another claim to fame: oracle. She leads simulations for her work. One such 2010 exercise had participants envisioning a future upended by a global respiratory pandemic, raging wildfires, and online disinformation spread by a shadowy group called “Citizen X.” As these story lines gave way to eerily similar realities, McGonigal received a flood of messages from past participants. “I’m not freaking out,” one wrote. “I already worked through the panic and anxiety when we imagined it 10 years ago.” Hoping to impart the same equanimity to her readers, McGonigal argues that mapping out imminent scenarios not only readies us for them, but preps us for unforeseen curveballs too.

And to simulate the future, per McGonigal, you must analyze it in vivid detail. If an epidemic of deer ticks leads to severe allergies worldwide, will you wear your EpiPen “as an armband, on your waist, or strapped to your thigh?”

To simulate the future, per McGonigal, one must analyze it in vivid detail, and she guides readers through questions about how we’d feel and what we’d do in different scenarios. Do her methods work? Absent a large-scale study, it’s hard to be sure. “Imaginable” does offer up neuroscientific findings, some more convincing than others. Her case might’ve been helped by a deeper look at the approach’s limits. For example, she means to empower her readers when she writes, “If you’re not the hero of your own future, then you’re imagining the wrong future.” But how might we do harm when picturing the future largely through our own eyes? When might a forward-looking gaze be a distraction? Can ambitious future-thinking lead to catastrophe?

Your opinion of “Imaginable” may ultimately be hard to separate from your feelings about other futurist authors or Silicon Valley’s techno-utopians. Levitating warehouses or humans genetically engineered to survive on Mars might sound preposterous, but to McGonigal, they’re not. Anything is plausible. One gets the sense that McGonigal could hold her own in a high-stakes discussion with military strategists, but overall, “Imaginable” strikes an upbeat, conversational tone. Indeed, lines like, “What next? Don’t worry. Literally, don’t worry,” might not sit well with those of us who’ve ground our teeth down to stumps over the past two years.

Maybe McGonigal remains so buoyant because she sees play everywhere. She writes about leading a quick game of “When does the future start?” That, to me, sounds like a question — an exercise at best. But maybe that’s her point: A game can be anything you approach with a sense of fun. McGonigal seems like one of the few interested in gaming’s potential to foster collective well-being, rather than filling corporate coffers. Play for play’s sake — but also for the sake of solving world problems — is an uncommon self-help angle. In “Imaginable,” there’s no tangible reward save the feeling of readiness itself. Which, right now, is certainly appealing.

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