Game players stave off human extinction

<i>Superstruct</i>, a new massively multiplayer "forecasting" game from the Institute for the Future, pits players against five so-called superthreats.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
The Institute for the Future's new game, 'Superstruct,' posits that humanity may be extinct by 2042 and that only stories submitted by players can mitigate the dangers of five so-called superthreats. Institute for the Future

If you knew the human race was facing imminent extinction, what would you do?

For the folks at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based think tank, creating a fictional scenario in which five "superthreats" have coalesced in 2019 to augur the end of the human race by 2042 became the basis for a new in which players the world over have been weighing in with ideas for staving off disaster.

The game the IFTF created, known as Superstruct, launched October 6, and is the first of what could be many so-called massively multiplayer forecasting games. The idea behind Superstruct and others that could follow it is to leverage the wisdom of the crowds to come up with solutions to complicated problems and do so in a fun, challenging, and entertaining way that encourages people's participation.

The five superthreats include "quarantine," which involves "declining health and pandemic disease," "ravenous," which deals with the world's collapsing food system, "power struggle," which revolves around declining energy and the fight over remaining energy resources, "outlaw planet," which focuses on the erosion of civil rights and "generation exile," which looks at the worldwide "diaspora of diasporas," or a worldwide refugee epidemic.

And it may be working. Already, the game--which ends November 17--has more than 5,000 players from across the globe who have contributed hundreds of ideas, in the form of stories, intended to mitigate the coming faux-disaster.

As of Monday, those user-submitted ideas have already been deemed strong enough that the Superstruct site now says that the end of the human race has been pushed back at least six years, to 2048.

To be sure, Superstruct is nothing more than scenario planning in the guise of a game, and despite the many, many drastic problems Earth faces these days, it is very unlikely that the human race is actually down to its last 40 years.

But for many participants in the game, being involved has satisfied an itch to make some sort of difference in the world.

"It appears that people are extremely motivated by the challenge of fixing the future," said Jane McGonigal, the lead designer on Superstruct. "People are unsettled right now, with the economy (and other crises and) that makes us hungry for the opportunity to contribute."

McGonigal, who previously helped design the famous ARG, I Love Bees, A World without Oil, and more recently led the design on the Olympic-themed ARG, The Lost Ring, said that the early planning of Superstruct involved asking participants to submit stories of dinner conversations they might have in 2019.

She said that very quickly, more than 1,000 people came forward with such stories, something that caught her, and her fellow Superstruct lead organizers, forecast director Kathi Vian and scenario director Jamais Cascio, off guard.

"That signaled to us that people will take this very, very seriously," McGonigal said. "That was the cue to me that this was going to be big and was going to tap into this unmet hunger for contributing."

Among her favorite dinner stories, McGonigal said, was one that a married man from New Zealand who currently has no children, but hopes to one day, came up with about what he would say to his kids about the fact that they could be the last generation of the human race.

"It was really thoughtful, not (like from a) B-movie," McGonigal said. "It was serious, and reflects what people are thinking about today."

The five superthreats confronting humanity include global food shortages, massive movements of refugees and worldwide battles over energy. Institute for the Future

And while Superstruct is clearly fiction, McGonigal and her colleagues at the Institute for the Future see it as imperative that scenarios like the ones raised in the game get talked about now.

"The world will almost certainly be a worse place for the next generation," she said. "If we don't act now, we're going to have a lot of explaining" to do.

Because Superstruct takes place across a wide range of media--including wikis, blogs, YouTube, forums, and others, some feel that it can help players with their own professional development even as they participate in bettering the understanding of how to deal with the problems of the future.

"I think one of the coolest parts of the game is how it takes advantage of players' existing participatory media literacy and pushes them to develop new ones," said Dale Larson, a mobile and social media strategist. "The transfer from game to real world is not only...solving the future problems but (also fostering) real world collaboration from both social and technical perspectives that lead to job skills and organizational skills."

As the game progresses, a series of "game masters" are taking some of the stories submitted by players and incorporating them into the larger Superstruct scenario.

That's why the date of humanity's extinction has already moved from its original 2042 to the current 2048--because of the value of the many user-created submissions.

Indeed, one of the goals of the game seems to be to turn the superthreats on their head and use the submissions made by player in each of the five categories to come up with solutions to the problems. And that's why each superthreat is subtitled, for example, "inventing the future of food," or "inventing the future of security."

Each week, a new update is posted for each superthreat, bringing the scenario current according to the game masters' incorporation of submissions.

So, for example, this week's assessment of the food crisis includes the following: "There are big ideas afoot to confront the Ravenous Superthreat head-on, like irrigating the Australian desert with solar-desalinated ocean water. Alongside this are more subtle ones oriented to ecological stability; this week, for instance, has seen no fewer than three Superstructs proposed to address the challenge of maintaining bee populations. As solutions continue to arise, however, so do the challenges. We're getting reports of continued battles on the home front for personal food security."

Of course, the stories that are used to create these ongoing scenarios are available for public viewing as well. And the best are given awards based on creativity and other attributes.

One example came from a player called Tiny Tegan, who posited a scene from Amsterdam, where supermarkets have closed down due to a lack of stocked shelves--and government regulations against imported food. The fictional Amsterdam resident reported that he (or she) walked past a closed market, only to see people milling around inside. Climbing through a shattered door to see what was going on, the resident found a number of "ragged farmers" trading various meats, cheeses, bread and so on.

"I purchased (an apple) for a resaonable fee and asked (the farmer) where she had come from," Tiny Tegan wrote. "She explained that these farmers were part of a virtual collective, sharing agricultural tips and political news across Netherland's rural expanses--and that the urban food shortage has inspired them to start a co-op in the city. They had arrived that morning and were planning to open their doors the next day. Needless to say, I was ecstatic and asked what I could do to help. She said, 'Spread the word.'"

Hundreds of similar stories exist for each of the five superthreats.

And that's precisely the point.

"It's exciting stuff," said Ron Meiners, the director of community for the Hollywood Interactive Group. "It creates a new forum for people to collaboratively address issues and problems we all face. The technology offers new opportunities for people to work together, but we are just learning the roles we can have together. Superstruct is a very creative way for people to effectively discuss different Issues, and ideally, meaningful solutions...We need to evolve new social structures to collaborate and work together."

As the game has moved forward and players have impressed the game masters with their submissions, the human race has gotten a little more time on its clock.

McGonigal acknowledged that she and her fellow planners did consider letting the clock run in reverse, meaning that humans could die off before 2042.

Thankfully, though, it will only be possible to make our race live longer, at least under the rules of Superstruct.

"We decided that just by throwing your lot in and putting attention on problems," McGonigal said, "that will only do good, so we've decided that there's very little players can do to hurt" mankind's future.