Futures Literacy. Can video games teach us how to surf the Apocalypse?

Let’s not fool ourselves, if the world were fine, it was a peaceful place and we hadn’t turned it into a giant toaster bursting at the seams with unprecedented species extinction rates and all thanks to our anxiety about infinite growth sustained by investment – now out of control – in weapons to defend how much some ones accumulate, we probably wouldn’t need to develop Futures Literacy (FL), no matter how beautiful we want to make up this meta-ability.

The horizon is not very rosy considering factors whose relationship is directly proportional to each other and that constitute the global contradictions that endanger our survival or, at least, the survival of our current model of social survival. To explain: We need more and more energy (it is expected that 30% more than we consume now by 2040) and, at the moment, energy equals increased carbon emissions and therefore global warming. Global warming means that in some parts of the world harvests decrease by between 15-25% (17% in the Mediterranean area by 2050).

We don’t have a formula for kicking our addiction to oil and coal other than shutting down the ships from China loaded with our Aliexpress orders, the truckloads of Amazon products, the tractors and combines, and on top of that, we’re bad at recycling to the point of flavoring without exception all our food and drinks with microplastics. What do we have left? We only have the future. Since we have not been able to leave our children and grandchildren a decent planet, we are going to try to anesthetize our conscience by educating them in those skills of Futures Literacy or, rather, skills to survive the future apocalypse, to survive the polycrisis.

Futures Literacy

Future Literacy (FL) IS NOT wanting to look like your apt gifted neighbor because your situation is now precarious and it is your dream to become what she is NOW… No, it’s not that. Future Literacy is to imagine the future of La Vuelta Ciclista a España when the riders will have to endure those summers of 50ºC of temperature that will be in our country in 28 years. Someone may say that La Vuelta is only good for getting a nap but this “literacy of the future” should serve to provide current and future generations of citizens with creative, imaginative and resilient skills and tools such as to seek solutions that allow us to enjoy those frugal sporting pleasures at the same level we do now… Or almost the same. What will we do? Will we invent self-cooling fabrics as stillsuits? Will we allow cyclists to use electric bikes? Will we make them run at night? Will we take advantage of the situation and experiment with camel DNA to generate human hybrids capable of withstanding these tough conditions and, incidentally, conquer other planets?

Some of these proposals might sound crazy but, on the one hand, this is what the FL is looking for, that is, to “think outside the box” and propose completely different new ideas precisely because we do not know what we will have to face in that future, that future now occupies the space of greatest uncertainty in the history of humanity. 100 years ago there were no nuclear weapons, no space travel, and video games are only 50 years old. Although it seems to you that smartphones have been here since ever the first iPhone was born on June 29, 2007 and the first test that demonstrated the principle of the specific redirection of the CRISPR genetic modification system turned 10 years old last February; So, if we asked a man from 1930 that the humanity would have the ability to destroy the planet completely, someone from 1950 who would one day explore the universe on his television while a space shuttle became a shooting star or a girl who came out of Expo92 that the video of his interview would be seen on YouTube on a mobile phone in next 20 years, they would surely tell you that it could be possible, but only that, possible, not real and tangible with 100% success. Uncertainty is precisely that fog that prevents you from seeing that these things will really happen. The faster the innovations that bring us closer to those possible futures, the denser that fog and the fewer meters we are able to see, that is why the Nokia phones that we see in the future of Matrix film (1999) and the flying cars of Blade Runner (1983) in November 2019 squeak us, not to mention the “skinny ones”. The serious thing about the matter is not that these futures are not credible or should not happen in the cinema, the serious thing is that if it happens (or not) in our reality of atoms, that is, that we cannot anticipate events like COVID except for some visionary that nobody believed, or that we suspected more than 100 years ago the serious consequences of emitting millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere but without having the capacity to do anything right now that a global increase of 1.5ºC is inevitable.

In this way we can define FL as the art of teaching new generations the necessary skills to design, build and pilot the “EVAs” from Evangelion sci-fi anime at the same time that we are creating and sending them Angels to their immediate future, which will generate very serious “Impacts”, because we are no longer talking about having 50 or 100 years of time to fix it but already talking about true cataclysms in 10-30 years to come. We can thus say that FL is a strategy that aims to create “visionaries”, visionaries with the ability to imagine, with the ability to act and, above all, with the ability to communicate and generate credibility in the masses of the future population to produce significant changes. If any of these elements fail, there is nothing to do, our future will have vanished into ashes.

UNESCO itself describes FL very well as “the ability that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do. Being futures literate empowers the imagination, enhances our ability to prepare, recover, and invent as changes occur.” FL is to educate the citizens that come so that they can glimpse through that fog of uncertainty fueled by our lack of understanding of the natural and physical reality that surrounds us despite scientific and technological advances and the modification of that reality due, precisely, to these own scientific and technological advances and… All of this added to our mood as a species, that is, our qualities and gifts, but also our limits, nightmares and disabilities. As said in a recent TV series: “my mother was an atheist, so she believed that hell was the product of human imagination, but she also believed that anything that a human being is capable of imagining is also capable of creating it”. If we are not able to create strategies and tactics to navigate the next crises, we could find ourselves playing the violin on the Titanic or, as Tom Cernev says in a “Global Collapse Scenario”.

But who wants to hear bad news and take responsibility for solving these problems when as a politician you’re running a country 4-8 years at most from now, or just busy with work, family, and other personal issues?

Gaming the Apocalypse

Jane McGonigal’s statements about Gamification and its power to save the world still resonate in our ears, however, and now that this tool cannot save us in the present, we must develop new tools that can save us in the future. There could be a part of reality in that phrase of McGonigal and, as I already indicated in my book Homo Alien (sorry for the self-promotion), the game has served to train the human communities of a certain culture to face the challenges of the immediate future even when the change of social, cultural and/or economic paradigm was very radical. Some of these examples were very clear: In the case of the Playing Cards, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they help the European transformation from rural to urban. Playing cards was a very good way to: Socialize in the common spaces of the city, Introduce yourself to basic mathematics and use of money and also to Understand the influence of the 4 main powers of the town (aristocratic, economic, ecclesiastical and popular) among many other learnings. Could games and video games be a tool to educate in FL?

UNESCO’s description of LFs is more extensive than the sentence mentioned above, it also mentions the characteristics necessary to develop this future toolbox, requiring the development of very specific skills that, in my opinion, have a lot in common with those skills that video games are also capable of training. We are going to review one by one doing this analysis and also taking into account that UNESCO indicates which ones are important and why, but in no case explains how they should be trained, here we go:

  1. Innovation. FL makes it easier to innovate and to take advantage of innovations.
    1. Innovation through video games. By learning and adapting to the different types of interaction, tools and events, the player must always be innovating, looking for solutions to solve increasingly complicated problems. In the most complex video games, emergent situations occur (see Emergent Gameplay), that is, situations that even the creator of the game cannot foresee due to the complexity of the situations generated by the interaction with multiple rules and systems within the gameworld, these emerging situations require innovative approaches to be resolved satisfactorily.
  2. Agility. FL enhances the speed with which changes are perceived and choices are made. 
    1. Agility in video games. In many cases, video games challenges  must be solved soon, since the subsequent result will depend on the speed with which measures are taken. A problem that drags on is usually a problem that grows and becomes more complicated, that mutates. This is especially relevant in RTS video games where the level of APM (Actions Per Minute) and the suitability of said actions are the key to defeating an opponent, but also in games where the quick and intelligent combination of techniques and tools mean the difference between winning or losing, this is well known by those who play Fortnite and other tactical FPS.
  3. Discovery. FL makes it easier to detect and make-sense of novelty, shocks and surprises. 
    1. Discovery in the video game. The discovery is something intrinsic to video games, why? Well, basically because each video game offers a completely new world with different rules and different interactions, even when several of these video games are the same gender, the situations and the way of managing them can differ a lot. On the other hand, there are video games that make exploration and discovery the heart of interaction with the user. Of course, said exploration requires the interpretation of the new information that each new discovered space provides to be used to our advantage and, also, the recognition of new dangers and the adaptation-evolution of our character to face these challenges. Action-adventure and survival games are especially suitable for training this skill. I can think of games such as the Fallout saga, ARK, Don’t Starve or This War of Mine as examples of this.
  4. Confidence. FL makes change easier because it makes change more comprehensible. 
    1. Confidence in video games. Playing is learning and playing video games is learning too, it means a mastery of situations that, through the metaphor and the improvement in the management capacity and training of certain soft skills such as cognitive flexibility, judgment and decision making, etc., also achieves that other skills are trained, such as self-confidence and self-discipline, all of which are related to Confidence. To pass to the next level of difficulty you must have overcome the previous ones, although this seems obvious it is not at all, having solved the challenges of the previous level not only generates in the player a feeling of triumph (the “epic win” effect), but also the confidence that, if you had the necessary skills to face previous challenges, most likely, and with some effort, you will be able to confidently face the challenges of the next level or next cycle of interactions.
  5. Choice. FL makes it easier to build choice menus that are more diverse. 
    1. Choice in video games. The complex systems of strategy games in video games are, in fact, increasingly complex. This requires a great capacity to make several decisions at the same time and by overlapping space-time layers (multilayer), making forecasts, that is, decisions must be made by constantly imagining possible future scenarios: if we will be attacked, how will this maneuver be perceived by opponents, what happens if we explore this space instead of this one, what if we should start a preemptive attack, etc. It is impossible to play a game without making decisions, hence decisions are an intrinsic part of the interaction necessary for the game to work, they are massive, constant and diverse if we want to succeed. Multi-layered choice/decision situations occur especially in turn-based strategy games such as Civilization and others not so turn-based but equally strategic such as Stellaris and Europa Universalis.
  6. Capability. FL empowers exploration and invention that take advantage of uncertainty and complexity.
    1. Capability in video games. It is for me the most important capacity of this entire list of competencies that must exist in a future-literate citizen. It should be noted that in most video games the Simulacrum is a core phenomenon, in a certain way a simulacrum could be defined as an “advanced” simulation because in the Simulation we can only introduce the elements that we already know while a Simulacrum is a fantasy exercise that it also includes imaginary elements and, therefore, unexpected and, therefore, that pose new insoluble dilemmas. These imaginary/unexpected/unresolvable elements are, precisely, those that provide a perfect metaphor for those unexpected/unresolvable elements, impossible to foresee in the end, of our off-screen future, those for which we do not yet have tools that allow us to glimpse them, nor sense them. Becoming an expert in a video game obviously trains you, not only to deal with similar video games/situations, but also to manage complex and changing systems that contain unexpected elements (simulacrum again) because the metaphors that we have learned to handle are transferable to other management contexts. In addition, these metaphors train the soft skills that allow us to adapt and self-train, so that the relationship and management of these simulation metaphors become skills and, therefore, capabilities.
  7. Leadership. FL diffuses initiative and experimentation throughout the community.
    1. Leadership in the video game. Some of the soft skills trained by video games are related to leadership skills. We define leadership as a meta-skill that groups others such as team management, stress management, resource management, judgment and decision making, communication, etc. In multiplayer games, this leadership can be even improved. A horizontal, creative and, above all, distributed leadership, which enhances collaboration between the different members of a community, a leadership of (self) management of actions, knowledge and roles can be trained.
  8. Knowing. FL embraces multiple ways of knowing the world around us, including emotions and contextual specifics.
    1. Knowledge in video games. The knowledge acquired through the video games is an eminently practical and emotional knowledge. In the video game, learning is not abstract as in mathematics or in written content, in the video game learning is based on actions: “learning by doing”, where that “doing” is fully diversified and not only generates mental or rational responses but also both emotional and even ethical learning.
  9. Strategy. FL makes it easier to see genuinely distinct strategic alternatives.
    1. Strategy in video games. It may sound repetitive, but this skill is the basis of many video games that, precisely, are cataloged as “strategy games”, and there are also a large number of subgenres such as “real-time” strategy, “turn-based”, “construction”, “MOBA” etc. In addition, in other competitive video games such as FPS, or sports and motor (Rocket League), creativity applied to strategy is a fundamental constant. In these video games, the complexity of their systems produces emergent gameplay and, therefore, an almost infinite multiplicity of strategic and tactical options to be followed.
  10. Resilience. FL makes it easier to take diversification approaches to both risk and uncertainty.
    1. Resilience in the video game. The ability to compost waste (resilience) is a constant in video games. An enemy incursion can be seen as an opportunity to create a firewall for another enemy, turn the challenge into an excuse to improve the level of our response and even learn from the actions and strategies of the adversaries are palpable signs of resilience training in video game playing. In some cases, these situations allow us to shape a response with different ethical and moral bases (as in the case of strategy video games with a high load of political responses, such as Civilization). Constant contact with negative situations and developing our ability to take advantage of them prepare us as players to deal with anxiety, face failure and see it as part of our learning path, complementary attributes of Resilience.

Conclusions

Futures Literacy is the toolbox of the skills we need to survive what, so far, constitutes the greatest of human failures, that is, known problems, identified but for which, as of today, we have no solution. As “hope is the last to die”, then we leave the problem to the generations to come while we try to develop in them this super power or meta-skill to solve said problems.

These generations to whom we are going to inherit various survival labels -since we are no longer talking about improving the world but about avoiding a Global Collapse- urgently need  to develop those skills now, when they are still children, young people, and develop them quickly, internalize them to use them at the highest level and with the greatest creativity. To attract these young people you have to provoke learning in a pleasant, friendly way, so what better Child-Friendly-Method than using commercial video games with all their splendor and potential.

On the other hand, the video game -almost any video game, but especially strategy ones- seems to be an appropriate candidate as a tool for training FL skills or competencies, that is: Innovation, Agility, Discovery, Confidence, Choice, Capability, Leadership, Knowledge, Strategy and Resilience.

Lastly, the enormous capacity of the video game to become a “FLs trainer” seems to be that the video game, in general, is Simulacrum itself, that is, it is exaggeration, explosion, excess… The Simulacrum constitutes the perfect metaphor of the unknown, of the uncertainty that we are going to find, putting a face on it as a disguise, a mask of what we cannot know because we were not there yet, we do not have the instruments to measure it or, simply, it is still hidden in the dense fogs of the immediate future.

Simulations do not contemplate invented elements, in Microsoft Flight Simulator we do not have to fight dragons or pterodactyls, or a world in which physical laws change on a whim, it is easy to get used to that simulated reality and interact with it. On the other hand, the Simulacrums do contemplate those invented elements of excess. A space station on Mars that, in addition to having the demands of a challenge such as terraforming, must face constant waves of alien zombies is a challenge that surpasses any simulation. What are those zombies in a Martian terraforming video game? In the video game, this simulacrum of zombie aliens may be the metaphor for the unexpected in that Mars terraforming challenge that, in our reality, would be translated into situations of potential and unexpected risk, for example: psychosis of a crew member, a vital system that fails for unknown reasons, a type of mineral not considered in the intervention zone, etc. For this reason, in order to become literate in Futures, it is necessary to go beyond Simulation-Based-Learning and go towards something I like to call the Simulacrum-Based-Learning that video games allow. This Simulacrum-Based-Learning helps us RIGHT NOW to interact with complex evolutionary systems, systems with a high level of uncertainty in their own development and evolution.

Video games seem to be perfect for training in FL, more research needs to be run in order to get to their full potential and, who knows if, in this way, help us figure out how to surf the apocalyptic tsunami that looms on the horizon.