How to Play Dystopian Future

How to see the future coming and feel ready for anything, even the things that seem impossible today
By Jane McGonigal

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

In “Imaginable,” McGonigal claims another claim to fame: oracle. She runs simulations for her job. At one such exercise in 2010, participants envisioned a future shattered by a global respiratory pandemic, raging wildfires, and online misinformation being spread by a shadowy group called “Citizen X.” As these stories gave way to eerily similar realities, McGonigal received a flood of messages from former contestants. “I’m not panicking,” one wrote. “I already got over the panic and anxiety when we imagined it 10 years ago.” Hoping to convey the same equanimity to his readers, McGonigal argues that mapping impending scenarios not only prepares us for them, but also prepares us for unforeseen curveballs.

And to simulate the future, according to McGonigal, you have to analyze it in detail. If a deer tick outbreak leads to severe allergies around the world, will you wear your EpiPen “like an armband, around your waist, or strapped to your thigh?”

Simulating the future, according to McGonigal, requires analyzing it in detail, and she walks readers through questions about how we would feel and what we would do in different scenarios. Do his methods work? In the absence of a large-scale study, it is difficult to be sure. “Imaginable” offers neuroscientific findings, some more compelling than others. His case could have been helped by a closer look at the limitations of the approach. For example, she wants to empower her readers when she writes, “If you’re not the hero of your own future, then you’re imagining the bad future.” But how could we harm imagining the future largely through our own eyes? When can looking to the future be a distraction? Can ambitious forward thinking lead to disaster?

Your opinion of “Imaginable” may ultimately be difficult to separate from your feelings about other futurist authors or Silicon Valley techno-utopians. Levitating warehouses or humans genetically engineered to survive on Mars may sound absurd, but to McGonigal, they are not. Everything is plausible. It feels like McGonigal could hold his own in a high-stakes discussion with military strategists, but overall, “Imaginable” has an upbeat, conversational tone. Indeed, lines like “So what next?” Do not worry. Literally, do not worry“might not be suitable for those of us who have bitten our teeth on the stumps in the last couple of years.

Maybe McGonigal stays so dynamic because she sees play everywhere. She writes about directing a fast-paced set of “When Does the Future Begin?” This, to me, sounds like a question – an exercise at best. But maybe that’s his point: a game can be anything you take on with pleasure. McGonigal seems to be one of the few interested in the potential of gambling to promote collective well-being, rather than filling corporate coffers. Playing for fun – but also to solve the world’s problems – is an uncommon angle of self-help. In “Imaginable” there is no tangible reward except the feeling of preparedness itself. Which, right now, is certainly attractive.

Lance B. Holton