A future I would want to live in
The games industry is a specialist in dystopia, but there are other ways of thinking about and designing the future
Where are we headed? I'm concerned that most of the stories we are telling ourselves, especially within the games industry, are dystopian. Dystopia, no matter how beautifully rendered, is a resignation to a view of humanity or to our fates that is brutal, fearful, uncaring, and incomplete. I don't accept this view. I am optimistic about the future.
I grew up in the countryside outside Vancouver, Canada, before the internet. To know about interesting music, I had to take a bus for one hour and a train for another hour, then I had to know where in that scary, big city (ha) the interesting record stores were, and also how to conform to a certain style so that the people working there would talk to me. And then maybe, just maybe I would get handed a flyer to an interesting event. The flyer would just have a date and a phone number. On the night in question, my friends and I would call the phone number, an address would be revealed, and we would find a way to get to that address. It could be hours away.
At that time, we could and often did spend entire dinner conversations debating a fact. Is a hurricane a cyclone? The only way to know for sure would be to consult an encyclopedia or to go to the library. The nearest, tiny branch of our library was a long walk away and wasn't always open. We all held pretty small and ignorant opinions.
Because I didn't have access to information, I was not very sophisticated. I remember asking a new friend once what he did, and he said he was a designer. I remember being very confused. I didn't know that such a job existed. I didn't know it was an entire field of many, many jobs. I didn't know it was a way of thinking about the world. I only knew that it was one stage of the software development process that I was learning in my computer science classes. In between requirements analysis and implementation stood design, and it had something to do with making charts... How did this man make a whole career out of that one thing? I had never met an industrial designer nor an interior designer. That is how small my world was.
"I got stuck in a local maximum that was shocking, white, misogynist, shallow, dystopian. Frustrating and lonely. Boring"
Leaving my country town and going to university was expansive for me. I learned about design, and about art, and so much more. I wondered what else I could learn by going other places. I tried to take a year off to live overseas after university. I ran out of money after two months. I came back to Vancouver desperately needing a job, and found one at a games studio. I fell in love with that job and I fell in love with the games industry. And I found that, in games, I could explore entire worlds as much as in the real world. I found the insight I needed in my life in Morrowind instead of in Paris as intended. That was in 2003.
I navigated my early- and mid-career with no goal in mind, but by delighting in each opportunity. I remember once at my first job I got called into the producer's office. In true imposter fashion - feeling like an imposter is the one constant in my career - I thought I was being fired. My producer asked me if I could help another project ship. I didn't understand why he was asking. I thought work was just about doing what you were told, helping where you were needed. I loved helping finish Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, and later when my boss asked me to, I really loved helping write the AI for Company of Heroes.
A few years later, shortly after I joined Assassin's Creed 2, my lead asked me to manage a team. To me this was hilarious, because I am really shy and really technical. I don't play well with others. But of course I took the opportunity. And I loved it. I loved matching my employees with work they found energizing. I loved helping them identify and develop their unique strengths, and encouraging them let go of and delegate the things they were less interested in. I loved going to meetings and debating what my team could and could not accomplish for other teams. It was a struggle each morning for me to get up in front of a group of people and speak.
Taking opportunities in front of you works for a while. I read a book once comparing promotion-focused or prevention-focused work styles. The authors conclude that focusing on what you can gain from an opportunity is a slightly better strategy than focusing on what you could lose from it. Opportunism is slightly better than nostalgia.
But just like working only with experts, or designing a game only from playtest data, seizing only opportunities presented to you and never going exploring beyond that will probably lead you to a local maximum. I got stuck in a local maximum that was shocking, white, misogynist, shallow, dystopian. Frustrating and lonely. Boring. Our industry circa 2015.
The longer I worked in these hyper-masculine environments on products that I wouldn't admit to myself I cared less and less about, the more I found that guitar solos began to grate on my nerves while electronic music continued to inspire me, and the more I found that films annoyed me while Netflix TV series charmed me, and the more I found that games left me feeling dead inside while great art became more and more valuable to me. I didn't connect these threads until recently.
At that time, a friend noticed my boredom and gave me the push I needed to break out of it. She told me to travel for a year making video games with people who find video games boring.
By simply talking with a few people who found video games boring, I found the theory of tend-and-befriend. I wrote about it earlier this year. In short, it's a common stress response in humans that does not involve fighting or running away, but instead, taking care and connecting. And it can be stimulated by more than stress. It can be stimulated by acts of care and connection themselves. In learning about tend-and-befriend, I realized that my boredom with so many games isn't that they are too hard for me or even that I have grown out of them. It's that they don't stimulate me. They aren't my pattern. My growing annoyance with guitar solos, linear films, and games had been a gift from my subconscious, showing me that entertainment could be different.
"Open world video games will be even better, one day soon when we fill them with interesting characters and not with explosions"
Guitar solos are a typical masculine energy. This linear build of tension followed by one climax and a dénouement is the structure of most western forms of entertainment. But it's not my pattern. It's not my biochemistry. I notice that I always get annoyed when the plot kicks in in a movie. I'm annoyed by the predictable conflict and build-up of misunderstandings followed by the predictable climax and the end. I just want to get to know the characters and exist in their world for a while. TV series are a bit better for this. The characters all have little arcs and there is more of an ebb and a flow to the experience. Open world video games will be even better, one day soon when we fill them with interesting characters and not with explosions.
Tend-and-befriend challenges the underlying assumptions in every game design book I've ever read. It implies that we might not need to design games around this linear build of increasing stress (adrenaline), and increasing opportunities to win (dopamine). Tend-and-befriend implies that we may be able to design games that balance care and characters (oxytocin and opioids). We might not need frustration, violence, or dystopia to engage the player or the viewer or the listener. Entertainment that is brutal and fearful and is also uncaring and incomplete. It's small. We might be able to imagine something bigger and better.
The internet has changed the world in ways we can't understand yet, and can't predict. We are all adapting.
When I was young, I had to go to the big, scary city to hope to find a flyer to a party. Now I have the big, scary city and its bad, boring flyers shoved in my face all day long. We're harassed, overwhelmed, overstimulated by a seemingly unintelligible jumble of important and unimportant information. Through all of that, we're also more informed and more connected.
While travelling from conference to conference, what has struck me in community after community is that the young developers I'm meeting are much more sophisticated than I or my peers were at their age. New developers may still be figuring out how to make games, but they already have a very clear idea of why to make games, and what to make.
Because of the internet, we aren't stuck walking through the snow to the library, cursing ourselves for forgetting our gloves, discovering the library is closed, and then walking home risking frostbite in our hands and still wondering, ineffectually, whether a hurricane is a cyclone or not. We are moving on to deeper pursuits. We are free to learn fast, to exchange ideas, to connect, to validate our own experiences with others like us and therefore to stop questioning ourselves, and from there to build something out of all this.
I talked with a handful of people who found video games boring and I found tend-and-befriend. This demonstrates that games designed by one kind of person end up being games designed for one kind of person. Then I talked with indie developers around the world and they showed me that the industry is changing. Unity, Unreal, YouTube tutorials, Kickstarter, Patreon, and Slack are distributing power in big, democratic ways.
It's not just game design that is changing. It's not just film and music either. Most researchers and designers in many other fields have also been WEIRD white cisgender men, and most research subjects have as well. Like games, our societies have been designed largely by one kind of person and therefore for one kind of person. Our systems. Our hierarchies. Our rules. Our roles. Our morals. The things we have stayed silent about. These things are changing.
When I said I am extremely optimistic about the future I'm making a choice. We are facing big problems in the world: the wealth divide, global warming, automation, AI, access to relevant education, internet harassment, individually targeted propaganda, overstimulation. If we continue as we are, we may fail.
"Unity, Unreal, YouTube tutorials, Kickstarter, Patreon, and Slack are distributing power in big, democratic ways"
Focusing on what we might lose is one approach to decision making: nostalgia. Focusing on what we might gain is another, and is perhaps more interesting: opportunism.
But as a game designer I know the way to win a game isn't to win each battle. It's to change the game. Trying to restore a mythical past is boring, unimaginative, uncaring, and may not work. But trying to leverage each new technical innovation within existing power structures is also boring, unimaginative, uncaring, and may not work.
Taking advantage of opportunities without considering the end game is resigning ourselves to a local maximum, a small one. Imagining dystopian futures is resigning ourselves to a local maximum, a small one, and one that doesn't include the full range of human nature. In earthquakes, ice storms, and hurricanes, we tend to react in the moment not by starting a brawl, but by helping each other.
Imagining a future that is new, bigger, and better for everyone might just be more realistic. It might just be the way we might survive. Suddenly I've become interested in utopia.
Anyone who tells you they can predict the future is wrong. We do not know the future. We cannot know the future. Some experts are predicting that the shift that is occurring with automation and artificial intelligence will be a global paradigm shift, and the greatest change since feudalism gave way to capitalism.
No one can accurately predict what this will look like. We have no idea and only conjecture. Expert predictions, fears, hopes, and frequent denial. Stories we tell ourselves. Stories are powerful but they aren't truth.
But there is another option besides trying to predict the future. Designing the future.
We can reform the old ways of doing things, the ways that have privileged one kind of person. We can design futures that leverage all our unique, individual strengths and talents worldwide. Where do we start? Kate Edwards once told me that you can't change the world but you can make your little corner of it better. Our corner of the world is video games. In video games, we can create the worlds we want to live in.
And video games is not such a small corner of the world. The entertainment we consume is the framework through which we understand the world. It's where our unconscious biases are built. It's where we find role models. It's where we explore our options. It's how we connect with each other. Video games can be powerful.
So here is a new story. It's not a prediction; it's a goal. It's a future of video games that is a future of the world.
A future I would want to live in
I wake up to a sunrise simulation, soft music, and the smell of coffee brewing in my breezy studio apartment. The walls are blank and glowing softly. I stretch. Through the windows I see beautiful flowering meadows with colours that give me a calm, peaceful energy. The views out my window are interactive tools designed by one of my favourite artists. Her works help induce certain states of mind.
"Imagining dystopian futures is resigning ourselves to a local maximum, a small one, and one that doesn't include the full range of human nature"
I get my coffee and my tablet and I curl up in a cozy chair and do some journaling in a self-care game that I'm playing. As I journal, I'm taking care of myself and of the character in the game. I write three pages, then I do a small guided meditation with biofeedback. I'm getting very good at learning to control my heartrate through breathing. Now, the character and I are both ready to face the day.
As I continue to wake up, slowly my calendar for the day begins to fade into view on my walls, along with a series of invigorating paintings that remind me of the meaning and purpose behind the projects I'm involved in. In one corner, I'm tending a procedurally generated garden. I'm growing lavender. It smells great. As everything comes into focus, I'm reminded of my goals for the day, week, and month.
I go to the gym for a run. I meet up with a friend who's in Melbourne at her gym, and a friend who's in Islamabad at her gym. We jog through a sunset in the Sahara. We beat our time from yesterday, when we jogged under the midnight sun in the Lofoten Islands. It's late in Melbourne and my friend tells us a story from her day. I schedule a reminder to connect her with a colleague from my last project. They may be able to help each other.
I go home and work with my team, who are located around the world. We came together around a specific project, and we'll disband when we're done. We work together because we care about the same topic and we each have something unique to bring to the discussion.
The line between work and play is blurry. Mind-numbing jobs have been automated. The work that remains is the fulfilling work of care, sport, art, and entertainment. Work has been decoupled from income. Everyone has the ability to take fallow periods of introspection and reflection, to discover and to develop their unique strengths, to take risks, and to join their dream projects.
As the morning progresses, during moments of reflection here and there I tend to my garden. This helps me retain the skills I am learning. Soon, I stop work while I'm still excited about it. This makes me more efficient in the long run. I take a few moments with my character in my self-care game again.
My roommate brings me lunch and we discuss the game of capture-the-flag we played across the city last night. The lighting grid was part of the interface and changed colour to represent territory and clues. In the end we all understood the city better; its current design challenges, and what could be improved. We'll be playing another round next month. We discuss some strategies.
The line between education and play has also become blurry. I open up my language and history course. It's sort of a cross between Pokemon Go and DuoLingo but with deep characters and dynamic story. I go to the library, where I like to sit in the stacks, and I learn a few new phrases in an enlightening conversation with Elissa, the founder and queen of ancient Carthage. Friends of mine in Tunis programmed her.
"Imagining a future that is new, bigger, and better for everyone might just be more realistic. Suddenly I've become interested in utopia"
In the late afternoon I meet up with one of my partners and we attend an interactive theatre performance about vulnerability that evolves each time it runs. Each performance is more meaningful than the last. The music is parameterized and always fits the feeling and outcomes. Years later, both my partner and I receive a surprise email from the theatre company with an album of the specific music we heard, and listening to it brings us back to that moment and the experience we had shared.
In the evening my apartment has changed. The night plants are blooming in my garden. The walls are darker and the light is warmer. The people in the artworks on my walls are falling asleep.
I make some tea and unwind by myself in an open-world video game in which I have learned about my personal aptitudes for curiosity, bravery, and creativity. I've learned to bake in this game and now I'm leading a new cake movement in this world. I'm also learning pottery. The characters in this game are deep and intense and my interactions with them bring me insight. I've accepted my curiosity as a strength and not a flaw. I've become braver over the last few months, and it shows in many aspects of my life.
I run into a beloved friend in the game and mention that I like the shirt they have designed, and they send me a copy to be printed at my house. I feel loved wearing it. I send a pot I made in the game to be printed at another friend's house for her birthday. We rarely ship materials around the world anymore, only ideas.
In every game I play I am discovering myself and the world around me. I can choose my pronouns and my clothes and my makeup and my body shape and hair and skin and other characteristics. I can choose actions I would want to do. I can meet characters and people I would want to know. And we can create things, together, for each other.
The sun has set in my apartment. In my self-care game, I log three things that went well today, three surprises, and three things I learned. I go to sleep.
Having abandoned the idea of a global government we now live in self-governed city-states. Dynamic coalitions form to solve global issues, guided by an AI governed by a universal declaration of human rights and responsibilities. Knowledge, resources, and power are distributed. The countryside is healing. I'll go out there for a hike in a few days.
We are all healing. In this world, through play, we each learn what our individual traits and individual strengths are and how to develop them. We know ourselves. We use psychology and other sciences to inform our habits and rituals and our understanding of ourselves and each other. We follow schedules that are based in evidence and not in an exploitative work ethic. Our interfaces to the internet have been optimized for usability and not engagement. We're not exposed to harassment. We aren't stuck reacting all the time. We're caring, creating, connecting, playing, reflecting, and celebrating. We're safe.
We know that care is stronger than brutality or fear.
How does this vision make you feel? Excited? Uncomfortable? Bored? ...Why?