Headlines screamed these words millions of times starting in 2020:
The COVID pandemic caught us all off-guard, with global consequences: unimaginable levels of contagion with millions of dead worldwide, triggering unthinkable interventions like border lockdowns, and schools and businesses shutting down for months, with mandates for community safety measures like social distance, quarantines and masks.
Indeed, who could possibly have imagined all that?
Jane McGonigal, that’s who.
The renowned futurist, games guru, and best-selling author of Reality is Broken, could and did imagine how we might encounter & react to just such a previously “unimaginable” situation.
In her new book, Imaginable, McGonigal recounts her prior experience with a global respiratory pandemic, a simulation enacted as a massively multiplayer forecasting game, Superstruct, created by the Institute for the Future and played by thousands of participants back in 2008.
Superstruct simulators went through many of the same experiences in their simulated future event the rest of us later encountered during the last two years. One aspect that deeply interested McGonigal became was people reactions to the mandated measures. Specifically, she noted several key points of resistance, situations where even well-informed, well-intentioned individuals would choose an increased risk over safety mandates — so she asked her simulators. They identified key points of increased resistance to distancing & masking mandates as including events like religious services, weddings, and funerals.
In Feb 2020, most of us were not yet aware of the looming crisis. Asked to share her experience with a simulated pandemic, McGonigal made some suggestions for planning for these points of resistance. Church leaders should into holding services remotely/virtually. People planning weddings should consider postponing those plans and exploring how they could be held more safely circumstances, perhaps outside with a smaller crowd. More than a few of us have had to attend the funeral of a family member or friend virtually due to social distancing precautions put in place during the pandemic.
More importantly, though, the Superstruct participants reported feeling less general anxiety about pandemic conditions and precautions than their peers did. Having previsualized the situation through the simulation, they were not completely overwhelmed by the wave of contagion-related experiences. There was a feeling of “Hey, I know this — I’ve been through this before.”
That’s how the subtitle of Imaginable comes into play:
“How to see the future coming, and feel ready for anything — even things that seem impossible today.”
As McGonigal emphasizes early on, futures forecasting is less about getting it “right” and more about exploring possibilities to expand the imagination and allow us to think through a variety of possible futures. That can allow us to explore options to steer towards or away from specific futures.
I must confess to a bit of a “McGonigal addiction” in regards to her work. I first heard her in passing at SXSW Interactive, at a lunch area where they were showing her presentation about the value of playing games in the background. What little I did hear of hat talk piqued my interest enough that when SXSW Edu announced her as a featured speaker in 2012, I made it a point to get there early to sit at the front.
That’s when I first heard her describe Supestruct as an example of using games to engage people’s minds in imagining future events to explore options for action to deal with large-scale, future problems. Intrigued, I was hooked.
She spoke of her new game, SuperBetter, that she’d designed to help her beat the challenge of a difficult recovery from a major concussion injury. That talk proved extremely timely for me. Within a few weeks, I suffered a severe rotator cuff rip, necessitating major orthopedic surgery. Long before most people ever heard of SuperBetter, I used that game structure to work my way through the difficult months of post-surgery recovery.
I’ve written at length about SuperBetter here before. I’m even basing the soft-skills challenge I’m designing, FlexQuest, based on the same gameful elements of invoking the help of allies and battling bad guys to accomplish missions, using power-ups along the way to an epic win.
So, of course, I pre-ordered Imaginable online as soon as I heard about it some months ago. In fact, I pre-ordered it twice — imagine that. I’m still just starting to read it, but I’m so excited that I’ve taken to rambling about it to anyone who will listen.
My brain is a-buzz with thoughts of imaginable futures.