Visualizing climate-changed futures with serious play by FutureCoast
FutureCoast: a fun storymaking game with voicemails leaked from climate-changed futures. They appear in our time as mysterious “chronofacts”
The software system of the future has sprung a space-time leak. But since it’s only in their voicemail storage, it takes them decades to get around to fixing it. Meanwhile, we get to listen to the messages that people leave for each other in the years 2020 to 2065 – by turns banal, mysterious, and terrifying. Welcome to FutureCoast, playful yet serious collaborative storytelling about climate-changed futures.
AN OPEN DIALOG ABOUT OUR FUTURES
“We’re finding voicemails from the future – come listen” is how FutureCoast invites people to play. Online, people find a growing library of voicemails that seem to have leaked from the cloud of possible futures. In about a minute each voicemail tells a story about a possible future and “how life is” for the people in it.
If voicemails sound authentic – like real people – it’s because they are. Anyone can call the game’s toll-free number to express their visions about the future and how climate-changed (or not) it may be. Not just for gamers!
MEETING PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
FutureCoast believes that for meaningful collective action, climate science must move beyond data tables to meet people wherever they are in their understanding of the issue. By framing a playful storyspace that listens nonjudgmentally to their stories, we create an engine to engage people in “futurethinking” and to connect climate to their human values – which is the key to action.
CHRONOFACTS + CHRONOFALLS
To embody its authentic fiction, FutureCoast stages chronofalls: we geocache “chronofacts” that players find to unlock new voicemails. Chronofalls draw people (especially students) into the playful story and out into the real world to see local places at risk of change.
FutureCoast is in the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University, funded by the NSF. Its successful pilot concluded in May 2014. Science and art museums tested its transformative engagement model; it was nominated for a Webby! It’s ready to go to the next level.
Category of the action
Changing public perceptions on climate change
What actions do you propose?
EVOLVING BEHAVIORAL NORMS
FutureCoast is designed to take on the root causes that isolate people from the threat of climate change – disengagement, disfranchisement, skepticism, feelings of powerlessness, and so on. By addressing these behavioral barriers at root level, FutureCoast releases the social forces that impel positive direct impacts on climate change and adaptation at the grassroots level internationally.
Put another way: the threat of climate change suffers from a narrative problem. It isn’t a clear story:
- It’s too big. We feel powerless in the face of a global threat.
- It’s too complex. We truly do not understand what is actually happening.
- It’s too abstract. Climate science is presented as tables of numbers, not human-friendly narratives.
- It seems remote. Climate science focuses on immediate impacts, and this makes climate change seem like something that happens to other people.
- It’s not future-oriented. Counterintuitive but true. Climate science focuses on present observations compared with past data, and knowing complex forces are at work, hesitates to speculate about the future.
Two things, however, are clear about the climate change story:
- It is non-welcoming. Polarization has created a situation that repels anyone in the middle ground from participating. Although it is almost ideal as a question for crowdsourced wisdom to address, this is not happening.
- It is top-down. Although climate change adaptation is well-suited to communities developing responses meaningful and effective for them, the current narrative remains focused on imposing action from above.
As long as this narrative problem persists, all climate change actions face an uphill battle and a “preaching to the choir” problem.
As a storymaking project, FutureCoast addresses the narrative problem. Since it works with story, it’s widely inclusive, as human beings are universally equipped to understand and contribute stories. With a nonjudgmental goal of “creating a map of possible futures,” it welcomes contributions from people no matter where they are in their understanding of climate science. It creates a safe space where multiple future narratives can coexist, and respects its participants and observers for what they know and share. FutureCoast is a listening engine, educational and collaborative, and above all participatory, playful and personal.
The narrative vacuum described above has launched “climate fiction” art and storytelling, such that “cli-fi” has now become its own storytelling genre. Cli-fi works because its visions of climate-altered futures challenge the viewer or reader to engage in “futurethinking” – and because they make these possible futures seem real. FutureCoast takes cli-fi to the next level: instead of envisioning a climate-changed future for people, it creates an engine by which people imagine and share their own.
FICTION AS A STORYMAKING ENGINE
FutureCoast creates a storyworld in which voicemails that people make in the future somehow leak through space-time to be found by us. On the website at FutureCoast.org, people play along as we pretend this fictional storyworld is real. As a storyworld, FutureCoast takes advantage of the most powerful storymaking engine the world has ever seen: online storysharing.
The extraordinary output of storyworld sharing such as the Harry Potter fandom is well established, but the output for “documentary-like” storyworlds is no less remarkable. In World Without Oil, a collaboratively told “what if?” story about our next oil crisis which I ran in 2007, collected collected 1500 stories In 30 days from a diverse array of people internationally, and its website now has over half a million views.
VOICEMAILS AS A STORYTELLING MEDIUM
Pity the poor voicemail: at first blush, no one’s idea of a good time. Yet as the FutureCoast pilot has shown, they are the perfect building block for a participatory story:
- Voicemails are rich. People are wired to glean meaning from the human voice.
- Voicemails are familiar. We encounter and create this type of story every day (i.e., we already know how to play this storytelling game)
- Voicemails are compact: people get to the point.
- Voicemails are personal. They bespeak person-to-person relationships and realities at a hyper-local, human level.
Voicemails thus afford much of what the climate change narrative now lacks.
Because FutureCoast has been piloted, these ideas about fiction as an engine and voicemails as a storytelling medium have moved from theoretical to demonstrated. Listen to the voicemails yourself at FutureCoast.org – scroll down to select an assortment, there are hundreds to choose from. You can access FutureCoast online or on mobile.
The voicemails you are listening to were created by people attracted to the FutureCoast storyworld. Each voicemail is an idea about the future told as a human story in 30 seconds or so.
THE THREAT MADE REAL
Climate science is typically presented abstractly, in the language of science. As such it is very difficult for the common person to understand the implications of climate change in relationship to their own lives and values. By using voicemails to present these ideas, the potential realities of climate change become both instantly graspable and emotionally compelling, which is key to transformative change.
PLAYFUL RATHER THAN GAMER
As a storymaking activity, FutureCoast is not just for online gamers. It is not a videogame or app and does not use avatars; instead, it creates a world of the imagination. The only technical requirement and skill needed to participate fully is the ability to get online (on computer or mobile). The pilot received participation from the wide web community, not just gamers.
CHANGING vs. BEING CHANGED
When the science community talks about people changing, they’re often referring to rhetorical change, i.e., an argument. In this model, if a person hears a better argument, they drop their old idea and adopt the new one. The worlds of science and policy honor the rhetorical model of change.
In the greater world of human endeavor, however, change happens by poetical means, i.e. by storymaking. In this model, a person experiences a new story, and incorporates it into their worldview. This new story does not argue with previous stories; a person can hold many stories, even contradictory ones, in their worldview. If the person might act on the new story, then poetical change has occurred. The worlds of marketing and advertising indicate how effective, pervasive and transformative poetical change is in our lives.
The key point: in rhetorical change, you are being changed, whereas in poetical change you change yourself.
FutureCoast embraces the poetical model of change, because this is how you evolve behavioral norms.
THE SOCIAL ACTIONS OF FUTURECOAST
You can see the archive of the FutureCoast pilot for yourself at FutureCoast.org, but to save you a click, here’s a 500-word summary of its “participatory documentary” story:
FutureCoast is a massively participatory “authentic fiction” about climate-changed futures. The immersive cli-fi learning game launched in February and wrapped in May 2014. It’s in partnership with Columbia University and funded by the National Science Foundation.
In the FutureCoast game story, the software system of the future has sprung a space-time leak. But since it’s only in their voicemail storage, it takes them decades to get around to fixing it. Meanwhile, everyone gets to listen to the messages that people leave for each other in the years 2020 to 2065 – by turns banal, mysterious, and terrifying.
If we can find them, that is. The voicemails crystallize into futuristic objects called chronofacts, which appear unexpectedly in random places across the world. A spunky band of citizens led the effort to recover these chronofacts, aided by three precious chronofall detectors hacked together by some scientists at CERN.
When the Coasters detected a chronofall, they announced its GPS coordinates at @FutrCoast, and volunteers mobilized on Twitter to orchestrate its recovery. Once found, tweeting a photo of the chronofact enabled the Coasters to convert it back into a voicemail and publish its audio file online at FutureCoast.org.
One by one, an amazing story emerged, a roadmap into our possible futures told in the voices of the people living them. Flipping through the hundreds of voicemails that FutureCoast collected, we hear about species die-offs, submerged airports, floating homes, and submarine tours of Old Paris. We hear dire messages about water and power shortages in 2032 and hopeful messages about the recovery of Arctic sea ice in 2056. We eavesdrop on voicemails left by fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, business partners (and of course, the future still has robocalls).
Once we’ve listened, we no longer can regard climate change as an abstract threat.
In reality, the messages we hear have been created by people playing the game. FutureCoast asked players to imagine the future and then create as a voicemail message that someone left for someone else in that future. This seemingly simple moment of “futurethinking” immerses people deeply and affectingly in the human element of climate-changed futures.
More than a website, FutureCoast was active on Facebook, Wordpress, SoundCloud and other social media. Coaster Sam pushed the Chronofact Recovery forward with her videos on YouTube and Vimeo, and FutureWatcherGirl created web art for her Tumblr inspired by the voicemails. For game news and climate science resources, players clicked through to the “secret” site, FutureVoices.net.
In May, as the Fourth Wave of chronofalls ended, new work began for FutureCoast. Behind the scenes, an evaluation team is analyzing submitted content, looking for patterns useful for climate science educators. FutureCoast’s storytellers, meanwhile, are pursuing FutureCoast’s collaborations with art and science museums, refining its fiction as a spark for art + science programs and school activities.
FutureCoast demonstrates how, if properly formatted, interactive fiction can transform even highly polarized issues into fun (and productive) collaborations. Listen for yourself to its massively multithreaded story at FutureCoast.org.
In our fiction, the pilot was the “fourth wave” of chronofalls; I’m now proposing to Climate CoLab a fully realized FutureCoast: The Fifth Wave.
In brief, the Fifth Wave would build on the lessons of the pilot:
- Run longer (for a year)
- Have an outreach budget
- Have a school outreach budget and program
- Enable people to submit scripts for voicemails, making participation easier
- Interact with more schools, art and science museums and affinity groups
FIXING THE NARRATIVE PROBLEM
How FutureCoast amends the climate change narrative:
- Not too complex. Together we can come to understand what is happening – well enough to act.
- Not abstract. In a very real way, the game makes the future seem real.
- Not remote. We have seen the ripple effects of climate change touch everyone’s lives.
- Future-oriented. Science can tell us what is happening, but it is up to people to decide how to react and what will happen next.
- We’re not powerless. There are many possible futures; we need to act to choose the one we want to live in.
FutureCoast gives these experiences to its visitors:
- Welcoming and inclusive. People are respected for expressing what they think and honored for contributing what they know.
- Thoughtful and fun.
- The future is bottom-up. Individuals and communities can and should develop responses meaningful and effective for them.
FUTURETHINKING FOR POETICAL CHANGE
FutureCoast collaborates with its players to create a shared sense that we have gotten a better look at the future, and trusts them to find their own ways to act on that insight. FutureCoast is thus an engine for crowdsourcing new ideas for solutions and adaptation to change and unlocking the determination to promote them to the worldwide community.
Who will take these actions?
As a crowdsourced storymaking project, FutureCoast regards its audience as its key actors:
- People who script and perform voicemails
- People who contribute voicemail scripts
- People who curate voicemails into timestreams
- People who volunteer to cache chronofacts
- People who track down and recover chronofacts
- People who assist in the chronofact recovery effort online
- People who listen to voicemails from the future
- People who share voicemails on social media
- People who follow the immersive fiction on social media
- People who contribute art and other storyworld creations on social media
- Storytellers and storytelling communities with affinity to the project
- Writer-actors who create and maintain the immersive fiction
- People who manage the online communities
- Specialists to manage social media
- Education advisor and outreach
- Science advisor and outreach
- Mass media outreach and promotion specialists
- Partner manager – museums
- Partner manager – schools
- Manager of chronofall staging and volunteers
- Manager of voicemail script submissions and volunteer talent performance
FutureCoast reaches out to museums and other institutions of informal and cultural learning, to shape exhibits, workshops and participatory events for their audiences.
- Science museums
- Art museums
- Art and science exhibitions
FutureCoast reaches out to middle schools, high schools, and universities, to shape curricula, symposia, exhibits and participatory events for their students, teachers and communities.
- Middle school arts & science
- High school arts & science
- High school student groups
- University arts & science
- University student groups
- Informal learners and communities of practice
Where will these actions be taken?
ONLINE, VIA COMPUTER OR MOBILE
The worldwide audience takes action on
- the FutureCoast website
- our behind-the-scenes website
- our toll-free and Skype numbers
- our social media:
- iTunes podcast
- their own social media
CHRONOFALLS (LIVE EVENTS)
The audience takes action to create chronofalls:
- people find and describe potential sites to us
- people stage actual chronofalls
- people mobilize others on social media to find chronofalls
- people post recovery stories on social media
Chronofalls take place across the United States and in other countries. During the FutureCoast pilot, our fans staged over 40 chronofalls in the US, the UK, France, and the Marshall Islands.
FUTURECOAST LIVE EVENTS
FutureCoast actors stage live events to draw attention to the immersive fiction, in collaboration with universities, museums and other organizations:
- Live appearances
- Skype appearances
- Voicemail listening sessions
ART AND SCIENCE MUSEUMS
Museums partner with FutureCoast to stage exhibits, workshops and participatory events for their communities. For example, during the pilot, FutureCoast collaborated with Science Museum London, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Exploratorium, and more.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
ENABLING BETTER FUTURETHINKING
FutureCoast targets the adoption-rate problem of climate-change solutions. Measures to address climate change exist already, but the adoption rate is slow for the narrative reason noted above: people feel disconnected from the problem, they are unable to visualize the problem (“it’s not real”), they are disenfranchised from public dialog, and so on. Addressing these behavioral barriers with narrative is a way to move forward with all current measures and empower future measures.
ENABLING GRASSROOTS INNOVATION
FutureCoast also serves as a way to find and disseminate the mitigation and adaptation solutions currently lost in the nonexistent middle ground of the polarized climate change dialog.
IN THE YEAR 2030, EMISSIONS REDUCED BY 30%
Projected from the attention generated by the pilot approach, hundreds of thousands up to a million people could engage with the next iteration of the game, and their transformative narratives multiply over time.
What are other key benefits?
SCIENCE + ARTS: AN INTEGRATED APPROACH
The FutureCoast pilot was funded because of a growing awareness that both science and arts can be necessary to communicate ground truths successfully. FutureCoast explores many key themes from that integrated approach, such as storytelling and narrative frames, story immersion, embodied learning, social and peer learning, and the role of agency in the successful uptake and application of the learned material. FutureCoast pushes hard at what we know about the intersection of science and the arts.
HOW DO PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE?
The FutureCoast pilot generated a wealth of data about current attitudes and knowledge about climate change and its effects (as well as about the future in general). Our evaluators and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions are analyzing this data. A full run of FutureCoast will generate much greater insight into how narrative helps people think about the future.
What are the proposal’s costs?
Cost for a year-long FutureCoast (Sep 2015 through Aug 2016): $600K to $1M
(The idea is scalable)
We’re currently evaluating the results of the FutureCoast pilot – it should be complete by end 2014.
Once the effectiveness evaluation is done, the pilot will be ready to scale. If funded in early 2015, could launch in fall 2015. It would run for about a year.
FutureCoast: The Fifth Wave would build on what was created during the pilot:
- Players and player communities
- Storytellers and storytelling communities
- Relationships with climate scientists and their communities
- Relationships with schools
- Relationships with museums
The project could then be evaluated, improved, and run again after a year hiatus. Each iteration would build on the narratives, themes, relationships and communities created during the previous iterations. Each run would generate a new set of gameplay data about player futurethinking and collaborative solutions to be used to improve the engagement model.
MEDIUM AND LONG TERM
As a futurethinking exercise, the project would mutate to address future challenges.
Climate Stories Project
"Some of us are experiencing climate change effects but don’t understand how they fit into the stories of our lives. Some of us have never thought of climate change before, or… for various personal, political, or ideological reasons resist connecting the dots. Unfortunately, our culture and institutions lack the language and conversational space to connect the dots between industrial civilization, rapid environmental change, and the growing impacts of climate change on our lives. What we need is a forum to speak openly and honestly about our… reactions to climate change."
CSP and FutureCoast both see the need to create safe conversational spaces for people to engage with climate change, and story as the language of that space.
Grassroots Action for Mitigating Emissions (GAME) – Igor and Marc
GAME and FutureCoast both see the psychological barriers to change as the root causes of inaction on climate change, and play as the means to get people around those barriers.
PRESS ABOUT FUTURECOAST 2014 (THE PILOT)
FEB: Voicemails from the Future Explore the Impact of Climate Change – Brandie Minchew, WIRED
FEB: Participatory cli-fi: the Making of FutureCoast – Stuart Candy, The Situation Lab
FEB: FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: VOICEMAILS FROM THE FUTURE – Guest Post
FEB: 5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 2/20 – Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
FEB: A Game for (Future) Good: FutureCoast – Guest Post, The Center for the Future of Museums
MAR: FutureCoast – Ruby Dutcher, WKCR
MAR: Will you find a voicemail from the future? – Sarah Atkinson, University of Brighton
MAR: [EXCLUSIF] L’EXPÉRIENCE TRANSMEDIA FUTURECOAST DÉBARQUE EN FRANCE – Alice Gillet, The Daily Bud
MAR: L’expérience transmédia pour mobiliser autour du changement climatique – Agathe Foussat, L’Atelier
MAR: Alternate Reality Game Eavesdrops On Climate Changed Future – Darrell Owens, National Geographic Newswatch
MAR: Dataspel som räddar världen – Mia SJÖSTRÖM, Svenska Dagbladet
MAR: FutureCoast: A Voicemail Vision of Climate-to-Be – Margie Turrin, State of the Planet
APR: FUTURECOAST: PARTICIPATORY CLI-FI – Guest Post, Climate Access
APR: Cross-Media Moment: FutureCoast – Steve Peters, StoryForward
APR: Voicemails From The Terrifying Future – Rick Paulas, The Awl
APR: Listen To Voices From The Future Describe What Climate Change Will Feel Like – Sydney Brownstone, Fast Company Exist
APR: FutureCoast Turns Climate Science Fiction Into Potent Augmented Reality Experience – Beckett Mufson, The Creators Project (VICE)
APR: New Climate-Fiction (Cli-Fi) Game Sends Players Clues from the Future – Julia Pyper, Scientific American via ClimateWire
MAY: SOS From The Future: We’re Not OK – Eric Molinsky, WNYC / NPR
JUNE: A Look into the World of Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games – Molly Ebner, Do Art Foundation
Nov 2013: Thacher School, Ojai
Nov 2013: American Museum of Natural History, NY
Nov 2013: Play As Inquiry, Chicago
Mar 2014: Workshop, Univ of Brighton
Mar 2014: Workshop, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mar 2014: Activity, DIY Days Paris,
Apr 2014: Participatory Exhibit, BLOOM Santa Cruz
Apr 2014: Activity, Games For Change
Apr 2014: Workshop, The Exploratorium
Apr 2014: Workshop, Science Museum, London
Apr 2014: Workshop, College of the Marshall Islands