The TED Interview
How to predict the future with Jane McGonigal
June 23, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Hi there. I'm Steven Johnson. Don't worry, you're in the right place. This is the TED interview and I am the new host. If you're curious about who I am and where Chris Anderson went, I'd really encourage you to listen to last week's episode. Chris interviewed me, and then I flipped the script and asked him a few question.
It was a great conversation, but now onto this week's show: if I were to ask you what you were thinking about right before you pressed play on this podcast, there's a good chance you were thinking about the future. A few years ago, a psychologist in Chicago performed a fascinating experiment to capture where people's minds wandered when they were left to their own devices.
This scientist built a system to ping people at random times during the day to ask them, “At this exact moment, what are you thinking about?” And it turned out that people were almost obsessively imagining future events, everything from tonight's dinner plans to this summer's vacation, to their worries about having enough retirement savings in the bank.
The study found that people were three times more likely to be thinking about the future than about the past. Now there's a growing body of evidence that suggests our ability to think about the future, to imagine multiple scenarios, both short-term and long-term, may be a cornerstone of our intelligence as a species, but it also raises an interesting possibility: that maybe we could train ourselves to get better at thinking about the future, both for the arc of our own lives and careers, but also for society itself.
And that's what we're going to explore during this episode of the TED Interview. Consider this a crash course in how to become a futurist.
[00:01:57] Jane McGonigal:
We have this banner in our offices in Palo Alto, and it expresses our view of how we should try to relate to the future. We do not want to try to predict the future. What we wanna do is make the future. We wanna imagine the best-case scenario outcome, and then we wanna empower people to make that outcome a reality.
[00:02:14] Steven Johnson:
That's today's guest, Jane McGonigal on the TED stage in 2010. I think it's probably fair to say that if you're interested in learning how to forecast future events or better yet, change the course of those future events, it's hard to imagine a better guide than Jane. She's both a professional future forecaster and a game designer. As Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute of the Future, she creates immersive social simulations to help us imagine and predict how we'll respond to otherwise hard-to-imagine futures.
She also has a new book called Imaginable, which offers a set of practical tools based on recent neuroscience and psychology that we can bring into our everyday life to help us get our brains out of their default settings and how we can use games to teach ourselves to start noticing little signs of change and see possibilities for the future all around us. So throw away your crystal balls. We're going to dive into the future using science… and also video games.
Jane McGonigal, welcome to the TED interview.
[00:03:37] Jane McGonigal:
Thank you, Steven. I'm glad to be here.
[00:03:40] Steven Johnson:
So this is a, a conversation largely about the, the future, uh, and how to think more intelligently and, and creatively about it. Um, but I wanted to start in the past actually, which is where your book Imaginable starts.
Um, because more than a decade ago, you ran not one but two projects with thousands of people involved that simulated a global future pandemic involving a respiratory virus. I mean, simulations that ended up anticipating many things that we have lived through over the last two years with Covid. So I, I thought we'd start there and, and maybe you could just set the stage for us and explain how these projects came about and what, you know, what their ultimate mission was.
[00:04:27] Jane McGonigal:
Great. So, this type of future forecasting game is called a social simulation. And it's social because it's not the kind of simulation where you put a bunch of algorithms into a machine, and you crank 'em and see what the machine predicts will happen. You know, “This many people will get sick. This many people will lose their jobs.This many people will die.”
That's not our kind of simulation. At the Institute for the Future, we say we're low on algorithms but high on social and emotional intelligence. We ask thousands of people what they would do and feel if they woke up in a particular future scenario. And when I first started making these games, the, the first big game was in 2008 called SuperStruck, and we had just under 8,000 people spend six weeks imagining what they would do, how they would adapt, and how they would try to help others if they were living through this respiratory pandemic, we called it respiratory distress syndrome, and they played on a private social network. So it's like you're on Facebook, but 10 years in the future. You’re on Twitter. But 10 years in the future, that game was set in the year 2019, we followed up.
In 2010, where we had 20,000 people this time, again on a private social network, sharing stories about how they would try to help others with not only a, a respiratory pandemic that started in China, but complicating scenarios we imagined like, um, a misinformation global conspiracy theory campaign on social media led by a group in our game called Citizen X, and we imagined historic wildfires on the west coast of the United States, and there were supply chain disruptions. Um, we had moms saying, uh, “I'm imagining not going to work because schools are closed and I'm gonna have to stay home, and I don't know how I'm gonna get my work done.”
So we were able to anticipate, just by asking ordinary people, these kinds of surprising ripple effects or social consequences that many experts in public health or epidemiology weren't really thinking about—the sort of irrational behaviors. Um, we were able by talking to ordinary people: allowing them to be experts in their own futures, what they would want, and feel and need, to get a lot of really actionable intelligence.
And it was just, you know, I have to say, as futurists, we're always looking about 10 years out. It's our favorite timeline. So in some ways it was just, I think, weird, dumb luck that our game was set in the year 2019 and 2020 and just sort of uncannily turned out to be exactly when we lived through what we imagined.
[00:07:12] Steven Johnson:
I think it sounds suspiciously, uh, accurate, is the way I, I think about it. No, it's fascinating. And I, I wonder if you could explain a bit more about, for someone participating in this game, and we're gonna get back to the, this idea of games in your work and, and in futurism in general, but for the time being, just explain to us how you actually engage, or is it kind of role playing? Are you describing the events as if they're happening and you're just sharing imagined stories from an imagined future? Is that, Is that what it looks like?
[00:07:43] Jane McGonigal:
Exactly. I mean, really if people can just imagine their experience of social media and news during the real 2020? That's what it's like. You go online to a website, you're seeing news headlines from a hypothetical future, so you can see, you know, we're not talking about real news, we're talking about future hypothetical events, and there's just a, this kind of collective narrative aspect to it, and we watch it unfold and we look for trends and we feed it back to the community and let it kind of seep into your imagination.
[00:08:14] Steven Johnson:
Well, you know that, that's a perfect segue because I, I wanted to just touch on one last thing about the pandemic simulations. Um, which is something you, you touch on in Imaginable as well, which is the feedback you eventually got from people when the real pandemic arrived in spring of 2020. So tell us a little bit about the, the response you heard from them.
[00:08:37] Jane McGonigal:
Yeah, I mean, I started hearing from people in January 2020 who had participated. And it's interesting. One of the things that stands out to me most about the, the emails and messages I was getting on social media is everybody was using the word social distancing because that was a concept we had introduced in Super Struck.
We had people reimagine all the things they did in their daily lives in a socially distant way. And I think just having that fluency with pandemic terminology, concepts, you know, understanding that masking was likely to become a requirement. I mean, it's like they had, you know, just enough information that they'd already put inside their brain just in case, you know?
And part of what we did wrong globally about this pandemic in 2019 and 2020 was a slowness to accept the potential scale and, and widespread ramifications. Like we just wanted to deny how bad it was going to get. And I think having pre-imagined it is a willingness to imagine, you know, literally what other people were saying “Well, it's, this is unthinkable. Like the idea that we would shut schools down, or that borders would close. All borders around the world closing at the same time.” Literally unimaginable, except if you have previously imagined it, then you know you're not gonna be caught off guard or blindsided, and you're gonna notice the changes faster so that you, you personally, have more time to adjust and adapt and prepare to help others.
[00:10:19] Steven Johnson:
It's such an important skill. I mean, imagining things that, that aren't apparent to us right now, but that might be possible in the future is an enormously important skill. Um, and one of the things that you and I over the years, we've talked about this in in the past, it's one of our kind of shared intellectual interests, is this idea. Goes by a bunch of different names.
Sometimes it's called cognitive time travel. I think, in the book, you call it episodic future thinking, as another kind of term for it. But it's this ability that we think humans may have kind of uniquely, which is to project forwards and backwards in time. Almost effortlessly. We do it all the time when we daydream or we plan.
To me, it's always been an interesting thing because we don't really measure this ability. Um, but in Imaginable, you talk about some kind of ways to actually improve this skill. And, and exercises that individuals can do on their own. It doesn't have to be a, a giant simulation with thousands of people. Um, so tell us a little bit about those.
[00:11:21] Jane McGonigal:
Oh, yes. Uh, this is great. So why don't we talk about a simple exercise that people can do, and then there are three ways you can measure your skill or ability at mental time travel and use these, these kinda scoring systems to, to practice and get better?
So my favorite, just sort of introductory future thinking challenge is to first imagine yourself waking up tomorrow morning and to envision it as vividly as you can. Even though it's only, you know, a day away, it's still mental time travel. Right? And you can ask yourself questions to make it really specific and vivid and detailed. So can you imagine about what time you would be waking up?
[00:12:08] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, I can.
[00:12:09] Jane McGonigal:
Yes. Good. And what room that you might be in? Yes?
[00:12:13] Steven Johnson:
[00:12:14] Jane McGonigal:
Um, who might be with you or if there would be no one with you, a person, a pet? And you can probably imagine if it'll be light or dark out. What sound you might hear? Were you woken up by an alarm on your phone? Was it a song? Was it beeping?
So you make this as vivid as you can. Now the trick is to do this for 10 years in the future. So now imagine it's 10 years from now, you're waking up. Okay. Now, if you were just to do it, you would probably, the first thing that comes up for you is kind of like a blank, right? Like woo, I mean.
[00:12:52] Steven Johnson:
How can I know?
[00:12:54] Jane McGonigal:
Yeah, and it's, it's what your brain is doing is saying, “Wait, I don't actually have the data. I need to simulate this in my mind.” So what you have to do now is you have to choose what details. Whereas when you think about tomorrow, your brain's just gonna throw a bunch of facts at you. Reach into that hippocampus and say, “Here's what's true today is probably true tomorrow.”
When you're thinking 10 years out, you have freedom to imagine. And, um, so let's just try this. So Steven, can you picture a room you might wake up in 10 years from today and, and I would say feel free to change as many of the details as you like. You might picture a different room. You might picture a different person or creature with you, a different who—
What pet might you have in 10 years that you don't have today? You know, I don't put you on the spot to answer because one thing we know from the research literature is that when we imagine 10 years out, we tend to imagine things that are really core to our most authentic values and hopes and needs. We, we don't have anything on our to-do list for 10 years from today, so we can really choose things that relate to our, our biggest, meaning, our purpose, or the things that bring us joy. So, uh—
[00:14:07] Steven Johnson:
But you know what's interesting? Like I, I went first in starting to go through this exercise. I went to the technology side of it. So the very first thing I was like an alarm clock, which is what normally wakes me up is now…
That's gonna seem kind of retrograde. I mean, already people are getting, you know, woken up depending on cycles in their REM sleep or something like that. So the idea that some clock that would just be set saying, “Wake me up at eight.” That will seem really out of date. And then I was thinking, “What about mattresses?”
Like the mattress technology feels like it hasn't really changed all that much. Like what is my bed gonna look like? How could a bed be different? Um, but it's also kind of a blank spot in the sense that I don't really have a clear picture of what the answer to that would be.
[00:14:50] Jane McGonigal:
First of all, you're, you're one of the, the first people I know who has answered with like imagining the future of mattress technologies, that that is so you, and I think it actually does prove the point that we tend to go towards core curiosities and interests and values.
I mean, a lot of people, um, you know, for me, I have seven-year-old twin daughters, right? The first thing I have to adjust for when I imagine 10 years out is I'm gonna have 17-year-old twin daughters. So maybe they're seniors in high school. They don't like me anymore. I don't know what we’re… you know, I start to imagine, um, what defines my day most right now is, you know, my relationship with, with caring for my family.
Um, some people imagine being in a different city or country, a lot of people will think about their body and, and how they want it to be different. They wanna be stronger, or they wanna have some different change that they've achieved and it's really just interesting to talk to people through this imagination exercise and just wow, like what pops into people's heads when they have the freedom to imagine anything.
[00:15:55] Steven Johnson:
I, I think it’s really telling, You imagine your children as a parent. I’m a parent as well, and I imagined what kind of future alarm clock I would have. That's the difference between the two of us. Clearly, you're a better parent than I am. I, I do…You mentioned a specific set of ways we can measure how good we are at at mentally time, traveling. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that actually entails?
[00:16:19] Jane McGonigal:
Mm-hmm. So there are three different dimensions of mental time travel skill: vividness, immersiveness, and flexibility or creativity. So to measure your vividness, try writing down what you picture so that you can literally go back and say, “Okay, I said that it was a blue truck, or it was a Bill Wither song that woke me up.” You're looking for every detail that brings the imagined scene to life, and when you bring the specificity of imagination to the future, it has a much more powerful effect on your ability to plan and prepare and actually shape the future.
The second ability is immersiveness, so that's really a subjective measure, but you can ask yourself: “How absorbed was I in imagining this future scene as if you were as immersed as someone might be playing a video game or reading a good book?”
The third skill of flexibility or creativity is we have you go back to the scene you just imagined and change as many details as you can. while still having it feel plausible. So now imagine you're waking up somewhere else, and you're in a different mood, and it's a different person or animal with you and you know. So being able to be creative while staying realistic in your imagination is a third skill that you can play with and try to improve.
[00:17:50] Steven Johnson:
When I think about cognitive time travel, it always takes me back to when I was a kid, actually when I was like 15. And I spent a ton of time imagining what life would be like for me when I was 25. And just imagining what my career would be like. Imagine living in New York and being a writer in New York, and I would just run these simulations all the time, and I ended up kind of living that life. And I feel like that that cognitive time travel that I was doing when I was 15 was… led to my ability to end up living that life that I was imagining and that I was just rehearsing it a lot.
And when I was thinking about this a few years ago, and I was writing something about this, I, I realized, at 50, I'm not thinking about what I'm, my life is gonna be like when I'm 60 anymore. I'm not running those simulations anymore, but what is that, the day that I'm looking forward to or afraid of when I wake up, when I'm 63, 10 years in the future?
And I do think that that is a really powerful exercise, even if you don't end up setting kind of explicit goals where you're like, “I need to have achieved this by the time I'm 63. To just have those simulations running in your head, you, you wrote about it and Imaginable seemed to really reinforce that.
[00:18:59] Jane McGonigal:
I’m… It is a practice, right? Like future thinking is a practice, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. And with them, there are also just some, some skills or habits that you can develop alongside what's happening in your active imagination that maybe give you a better idea of what to think about.
So even just based on that little imagination experiment we did, I would tell you to go look for signals of change about the future of sleep. The, you know what if you went to Google and search for “future of sleep”, what might you learn about how our sleep cycles or our sleep technologies might be different in the future?
Um, and it's not just about inventing things in our own mind, right? Because if we wanna be ready now to shape the future by understanding the forces of change, the new technologies, the new social movements, we have to be aware of what they are, right? So it's kind of balancing like, what can you conjure in your own mind, but also what can you learn about how the world is already changing?
And it's true that, um, we, we don't necessarily like to do this as we age. In my research, I have found, um, that the older we get, um, the more likely we are to say, “I don't wanna think about the future because it's full of things that I'm a little worried about or scared about,” or “I don't wanna think about whether it's aging or possibly losing relationships, um, losing the work we have in our lives.” So I think part of this, this futurist thinking practice is, is figuring out how do we keep reinventing that, that where, where thinking about the future is a source of joy and excitement. That everything feels possible. Even when we can realistically say, “Well, you know, for me, some things will no longer be possible, but we replace that with things that we're excited about and hopeful about.”
[00:20:51] Steven Johnson:
Part of the issue, I think, is when you're 15, the future seems to be arriving too slowly. Like you're, you know, I just wanted to be 25, and it wasn't coming enough, so coming quickly enough, and so I spent time imagining it.
Whereas when you're 53, the future seems to be coming too quickly, and you wanna slow it down in a way. So your expectations about how fast time is moving in a way, I think change as you age. But you said something really important right at the beginning that I, that I wanted to get to. It's one of my favorite ideas from Imaginable, which is this phrase: “signals of change.”
Um, tell us a little bit about what that means in practice and, and maybe exercises we can do with that idea.
[00:21:29] Jane McGonigal:
So, you know, the way I like to explain signals of change is that every art form has its own unique medium. So sculptors work with clay and chefs work with food and fashion designers work with fabrics.
Futurists work with signals of change. So these are real examples of things already happening today that might be small in scale. They might seem really weird and novel, and you can find these signals anywhere. You can find them in news, social media, in your community. And we use these clues to the future to stretch our imagination.
Um, you know, one signal of change that I write about in the book is just the first time I saw a “no drone zone” sign, right? In a public park. And to me, that was an instant clue that we were on, uh, a, a pretty significant, you know, upward trajectory for a new technology that up until that point had been pretty obscure. Not something that was so commonplace that you would have local park ordinances about it.
And you know, we take these clues as an invitation to learn more, you know? Well, okay, are they becoming more popular? Who's using them? What are they using them for? I went out and started trying to learn about it.
I saw drones are being used for activism, for art, for policing, for delivering, you know, urgent medical supplies, for harassment. You use these clues as an invitation to put more things in that brain of yours so that when you imagine the future, you could imagine exciting possibilities. You could imagine potential risks or complications, and the really powerful thing about a signal of change is once you engage with a clue to the future, your brain gets a dopamine hit when you encounter it again. It is now personally relevant, meaningful, and salient. And you know, I think what if we could, at a young age, get people to feel connected to whether it's new areas of science and technology or policy ideas and, and really create that lifelong relationship to a topic that maybe does become important in the future.
[00:23:48] Steven Johnson:
That… what’s really valuable in this, I think, is that so often the object or the behavior that is emerging that is genuinely new, is so new that it's often kind of frivolous or not particularly useful yet. Um, and so people, when they encounter it for the first time, have a tendency to dismiss it, where they're like, “Well, you can't do anything with that. That's just, that's just a toy.”
You know? That's a classic dismissal of all new technologies. When they first appear, people are like, “Well, that's just messing around. You can't actually do work with that thing.” And if you counter that default assumption with this idea of like, “Look, I'm just, when I see something new, I'm gonna take note of it and, and try to be as open-minded to this new thing, you know?”
That does keep you attuned, as you say, as these things develop, once you've kind of made note of it. Do, do you keep, like, a journal of these signals of change? Is that, is that the way you do it?
[00:24:40] Jane McGonigal:
Mm-hmm. I personally, I have a personal signals practice, and then at the Institute for the Future, we have a collective practice. So, for more than a decade, I've been sending emails to myself with the subject “signal of change”. I mean, you collect them, you like, you collect them. It's like you're collecting your favorite quotations or like photographs and you wanna come back to them. And, um, I think it works best when it is a community practice because we're, we're all exposed to different signals, and we're drawn to different signals.
And when you do it in a community, you definitely build that collective intelligence. Yeah. And more effectively.
[00:25:35] Steven Johnson:
So much of the exercises that you talk about in Imaginable are building on something that we've discussed already, which is trying to trick your brain into getting outside of its default settings or assumptions about how the world is supposed to work, and, and to imagine things that we might not otherwise imagine.
And sometimes those can come from kind of outside prompts by the game designer who's concocted a future world, uh, and we have to grapple with whatever they send us. But there are a number of other exercises that you can, you can really do on your own that, that I think are really interesting. And one of them is this idea of, of fact flipping, um, which I think is really clever. Maybe could you, you walk me through that, that exercise?
[00:26:17] Jane McGonigal:
Yeah. So this is basically a future brainstorming game. Like, let's say you wanna come up with some really vivid ideas for what the world might be like, and you wanna surprise yourself, right? Not, not things you've, you know, seen in science fiction movies or the same old tropes.
And so you pick a topic, and then you just list as many facts as you can about it. I say, try to get to a hundred. It doesn't have to be a hundred at a time. I will often have a Google spreadsheet going of facts that I'm sort of adding as the days and weeks and months go on. Um, one of my pet research areas is the future of shoes, and um, and so you list these facts that are just generally true about the topic today. Like you might say, um, most people own more than one pair of shoes. We take our shoes off at night when we sleep. There's not, like, a norm or cultural practice of sleeping with our shoes on. So you just write down—
[00:27:07] Steven Johnson:
Once we, once we have those future mattresses, you can actually keep your shoes on because they self-clean. It's really, it's really impressive.
[00:27:15] Jane McGonigal:
So you write these facts and, and then you just rewrite them. So you flip them so that the opposite is now true, and you're gonna come up with a bunch of weird stuff that doesn't make sense. For example, shoes are free. Nobody has to pay for them anymore. Uh, most people only own one pair of shoes.
And you just write this down and then it becomes this, um, kind of seed that you plant in your imagination, and you start looking for signals of change. That could explain these weird upside-down futures and it's again, it's like increasing that salience, like your brain's ability to detect clues. So for example, I was walking around for quite a while wondering, “Why would people sleep with their shoes on in the future?”
Then I lived through an experience that was a lived signal of change. I was advised by a Red Cross evacuation and rescue expert during our fall wildfire season here in California that my family should sleep with their shoes right next to our bed or actually sleep with our shoes on because people panic and they lose precious time looking for their shoes when they need to evacuate.
And in fact, he told me the number one injury that people experience during evacuations are foot injuries because they can't find their shoes. And I realized, you know, now I could imagine a future where people like me who've lived through months of these extremely anxiety producing, you know, wildfire threats, and maybe people like me start to sleep with our shoes on as like, just one symptom of, of the extreme weather we might have to live through.
Now, it's not a prediction of what will happen. You know, I'm not calling up Nike and saying “Start manufacturing sleeping shoes. It’s gonna be the biggest hit.” What we're trying to do is create these really visceral feelings of the world we might wake up in, and you, you know, sometimes we imagine futures that sound alarming and, and worrisome and we can start to play with them and think, you know, “Is there anything I can do today? To try to, to make the best of it or change it?”
[00:29:22] Steven Johnson:
It, it does push you into this really interesting kind of storytelling mode where you're like, “How do I, how do I create a narrative in which it makes sense that we are wearing shoes in our beds?” Or what, you know, whatever, whatever the, the fact that is flipped.
[00:29:37] Jane McGonigal:
Um, and really it's just, you know, even if none of the futures you imagine ever even become remotely real, what we're really doing that's most important is developing that mental flexibility. To accept that things could change. And we don't wanna get stuck in old ways of thinking.
[00:29:54] Steven Johnson:
I, I wanted to come back here because this is, again, one place where you and I have just a, a lifelong kind of shared interest in this. Um, it, to me it is so interesting how, how, how much of the history of people inventing the future in various forms, um, have revolved around games and play in terms of trying to think more creatively is, is specifically described under the umbrella of gameplay. And I guess I just wanted to ask a, a kind of a macro question about that, which is, you know, I'm sure many people listening to this podcast are thinking, “Well, games are frivolous, games are silly.”
Like if you're trying to do rigorous thinking about the world, that's the exact opposite of games. Games are escapism. Why would you want to use games in this kind of context? And you know, I think one of the things that makes games interesting as opposed to other forms is that they're different every time you play, right?
You, you read the novel. It is, you know, maybe slightly different in your imagination as you read it, but the words don't change. But what makes a game a game is precisely that open-endedness and unpredictability. And, and so I think that's part of the seed of what makes this such a powerful, conceptual tool. But, but you've thought about this much longer than I have. Um, I'm curious what you think.
[00:31:06] Jane McGonigal:
Well, let’s just, let's invite everyone to sit with this really profound truth, which is the very things that we have kind of “gamer’s guilt” about, or we yell at our kids to stop playing and go do something important or something real, that’s what we're using to make machines more creative, collaborative, and, and flexible in their thinking.
So just as a little, you know, public service announcement: we can take note of that amazing fact that if, if that's the best way to teach machines to be these things, maybe we're, we're doing it for ourselves as well when we play.
Um, one thing that you also said about games that is really important for playing future of forecasting games is they're different every time, because people are different. Every player will bring their own ideas about what is possible, different strategies, different reactions, and when you can get lots of people playing the same game, then you have that phenomenon that game developers call “emergence”, that we're always looking for when suddenly the gaming community is doing something we didn't intentionally design for.
They’re surprising ourselves when they find ways to leverage the economy, when they develop their own culture. You know, these new forms of nonviolent play that they've created for themselves in this world where all the avatars are running around with weapons, that same kind of surprise emergence helps us understand the future better, and that's why it's important to have thousands of people playing, right?
Not just for me to sit around a table with other experts, um, is so that we can get that emergence effect. And because it's a game, people feel free to be wild in their thinking, to be creative, to try different things, experiment. And that's important too, if we're trying to, to surprise ourselves with, with ideas that we would otherwise not be able to predict.
[00:33:03] Steven Johnson:
I remember Stuart Brand said, said somewhere about games and young children is that one of the defining characteristics of, of kids when they're young, when they're playing games, before they get structured into like organized sports and things like that, is inventing the rules of the game are as important as actually playing the game.
In fact, that the part of the play is like, “Well, how should we…Well, let's invent that. We've got a ball and a stick and like that wall over there, and maybe the game is you try and throw the ball so it bounces off here.” And that, you know, that is like… building the rules as you're playing is just an amazing cognitive exercise, I think, and it's just really a rich type of play that school, you know, steadily squeezes out of you and tells you you shouldn't be doing.
[00:33:45] Jane McGonigal:
No, I love that. I mean, it's why I say whenever… So we have a new scenario club at the Institute for the Future where you can come and play with a different scenario every month. And one of the things I always say to people is, “If you don't like the scenario, then change it, right?” We try to bring a game designer's mentality.
If I'm describing a future in which universal basic income works this way, or, um, the, the new Central Bank digital currency works this way, and you don't like it because it sounds unfair, or you just don't find it realistic, change it. So it, it feels more like a future you'd want to wake up in or a future you believe we could wake up in.
And you know, in that way, like, it goes from games to scenarios to society right to life. We can, we can decide to live another way. Isn't that the biggest lesson from the Covid 19 pandemic? If we want to, we can change a lot real fast.
[00:34:39] Steven Johnson:
Which opens up the possibility that we can make changes in behavior for other reasons. That we're not necessarily locked in a way. And I think that was one of the things about Covid that that was interesting. And, and the other thing I was gonna say about games: recently in my own life, I've been, I've been playing this game called Anno 1800, which is this video game that simulates kind of a trading empire in a circa 1800 incredibly complicated game.
And I realized at a certain point, given what was in the news, that this game is all about supply chain management. That's all you're doing all day long is thinking, “All right, I gotta get my coconuts to this island so that I can manufacture shampoo so they can get it over to the tourists who are showing up at this island.”
And you know, you're just sitting there being like, “Gosh, supply chains are really hard.” And, and suddenly you have this, through this simulation, this understanding of what's happening in, in the world. And here I was just doing it for fun. You know, far, far too many hours every night. Um, so I think…
[00:35:37] Jane McGonigal:
No, no, not too many hours. Not many hours. Remember: games are profound. Get rid of the gamer's guilt. No.
[00:35:41] Steven Johnson:
I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty. No shame. No shame. But I do think that that, you know, the possibilities for education on this front I think are really, are really profound.
[00:35:49] Jane McGonigal:
Yes, and I, I think that, you know, for me, I always go back to “What is the skill that I want everyone to have as we move into these, you know, really uncertain times?”
It's not playing with simulations. I, what I want young people to do is to be designing their own future scenarios that make them excited and hopeful, and to use that ability to make more vivid and believable and actionable the worlds we want to wake up in, and, and I think giving that tool to young people would be one of the, you know, the best new things that we could add to the common curriculum.
[00:36:27] Steven Johnson:
Well, I do think that this is one of the things that's always been true of your work and is especially true, I think, of Imaginable. And when people get a chance to read the book, I think they'll see this animating all the pages of it, which is that optimism and that sense of, you know, “We're not just predicting the future here as this thing that we have no control over, but part of this is to imagine a future so that you can then figure out what the pathways are that you can go and follow to create that future.”
Um, and the book just is, is really inspiring in that way throughout. I did want to take us back to a slightly more negative side of things. Just to bring us full circle, since we started with your uncanny forecasting of what would become the Covid pandemic 10 years ago. Uh, I think it's just my obligation to ask you: what are you worried about for 2030 or 2032? You know, what, is this the scenario that keeps you up at night or that you're running simulations about now?
[00:37:25] Jane McGonigal:
Mm, that's such a good question. So I would say, there is a future scenario that keeps me up at night, but also puts a fire in my pants to jump out of bed in the morning. Um, and it's a topic of the social simulation that we just started running this fall and we're running again this year.
It's climate migration, and we know every expert looking down the horizon says in the next 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, people are going to be on the move more than at any other point in human history. But this doesn't have to be something that is so alarming, right? I mean, humans have always been a migratory species.
We have an opportunity to maybe rethink, reinvent, reimagine what forms of movement do we want to make safe and legal in the coming decades? How can we be welcoming to people who need to leave, whether due to climate change or other emergencies and threats? And there are definitely going to be challenges.
You know, leaving because you have to is never something that we want to happen. But if, if we can use this as an opportunity to maybe change some things that need to change, um, and to maybe create freedom of movement more, more as a human right, you know, instead of being so, so harshly restricted, and to think about what kinds of new productivity and art and cultures and community we might make if people are a little bit more on the move.
[00:38:57] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Well, how important, and boy, you know, just thinking about migration in the Ukrainian situation, um, just millions of people moving in such a short amount of time, we, we no doubt have more of that in our future. So I'm glad you're thinking about it.
We have a new tradition on the TED interview, um, which is a kind of a bonus question for all of our guests. Um, you may be uniquely suited to answer this question because you think about things like this all the time, but what is the problem or kind of mystery in your field that you are most excited about, but that has not yet been solved?
[00:39:32] Jane McGonigal:
Well, okay. I wanna give you two answers. One is really obvious, but it's amazing. It has not been solved yet, which is, you know, what is the long-term impact of futurist thinking, right? When, when people imagine the world ten years out, does it really change how they experience the next decade, the actions they take?
There is not a lot of good longitudinal research on this, and it's really hard to get funding to study, you know? How does thinking about the future change people's lives and experiences? You need a, you need an endowment or something. You can need to follow people for at least a decade. You know, in Imaginable, I'm sharing anecdotes, I'm sharing observations, interviews with people who say that imagining something 10 years ago did change their experience, you know, of the actual future when it arrived, but we need a rigorous right field of research to study this.
The other thing I wanted to say is there's an ethical issue, a kind of outstanding ethical question, which stems from something we know from the research literature: when you vividly imagine a future, you then rate it as more plausible or more likely. And that means that being a future forecaster, somebody designing scenarios, there's a sort of ethical dilemma in that people will believe that whatever world I've imagined is more likely, and we haven't really done anything as a field to address the potential risks, you know, in how this art form, or you know, art and science might be used for manipulation, for propaganda, for conspiracy, you know, theories. So, I mean, nobody's really talking about that. I would like to see, in the next five or ten years, a more nuanced understanding, maybe an ethical code for, I don't know, trying to use this power responsibly and wisely.
[00:41:35] Steven Johnson:
Well, Jane McGonigal, we obviously, uh, ten years from now, in 2032, if there is a 2032, we will have to have you back on the show to talk about all these, all these forecasts and things that we've discussed, and mostly get to the question of what our mattresses and shoes look like, uh, in that future. Thank you for coming on the show and, uh, it was, it was a real treat.
[00:41:59] Jane McGonigal:
Thank you, Steven.
[00:42:02] Steven Johnson:
That's it for the show today. The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Wilson Sayre, who's also our managing producer. The show is brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. Sammy Case is our story editor. Fact-checking by Nicole Bode. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager, and Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.
Special thanks to Michelle Quint, Anna Felan, and Allie Graham. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. For more info on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson, or you can sign up for my sub newsletter: Adjacent Possible.