How to Eat the Future

The consultancy-futurism Jane McGonigal offers in Imaginable is part of the problem it is meant to fix

In 2010, Jane McGonigal published Reality Is Broken, a now-classic text in the public discussion of video games and what they do. McGonigal fought the good fight there, walking through the video-game culture of the early 2000s to speak truth to power about what games were: not wastes of time but productive places to stage real interventions in the world; not murder simulators but places to experiment with life; not antisocial but prosocial. McGonigal urged the public to take “advantage of the power of games to make us better and change the world,” and the public responded positively to that message with national newspaper coverage, TED talk opportunities, and the lodging of McGonigal firmly into the elite sector of designers who become the face of what video games are about as a medium.

McGonigal followed Reality Is Broken with SuperBetter (2015), which drew on her personal experience of using game-design principles to work through the long-term symptoms of a concussion. Now she is back with another book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything — Even Things That Seem Impossible Today, which touches a key nerve of the present much as Reality did. Broadly, Imaginable, which was published in March, argues that our societal capacity to imagine the future has either atrophied or was never developed enough, which is revealed by how often the ongoing pandemic was called unimaginable or unprecedented as it ramped up in 2020. McGonigal’s expertise as the director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future makes her seem like the exact right person to help us all develop our imaginations and, crucially, never get ambushed by something “unprecedented” again.

At its core, Imaginable has a simple thesis: Imagining the future is good for you. McGonigal cites a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that thinking in definite terms about where you might be or how society might look is an exercise that produces positive effects. It helps us set goals. It creates contexts for us to understand our actions as purposeful. The vast majority of the book is dedicated to exercises that create parameters to show readers how to imagine, and there is a table of contents dedicated to these “Scenarios and Simulations,” if that is a reader’s main interest. By asking readers to imagine how the world might change if the U.S. government abolished physical currency to replace it with a digital one (Future Scenario #8) or how society might shift as global sperm counts decline (Future Scenario #3), McGonigal provides a method for how to flex specific metal muscles: She advocates for attuning oneself to “signals of change,” or key indicators that something in the state of the world is shifting, and “future forces,” or a disruptive long-term trend that has already been detected.

Imaginable has a simple thesis: Imagining the future is good for you

This focus on activities gives Imaginable the feel of a self-help book, and it is clearly a text that has learned key lessons from SuperBetter, whose self-help structure made it a New York Times Bestseller and took her on a press tour that even placed her on Joe Rogan’s podcast. SuperBetter is a guide for breaking down massive problems into small pieces and addressing them, as she phrases it, “gamefully.” SuperBetter, she claims, “will help you tackle your toughest challenges, and pursue your biggest dreams, with more courage, creativity, optimism, and support.” 

These mechanistic ideas work themselves into Imaginable. Developing your imagination requires a transformation of the self, which is explicitly what McGonigal is selling here. It should be familiar to anyone who has perused the literature on self-development in the past 20 years. “Future forces” and “signals of change” are akin to vision boards, setting an agenda for engaging with the world that is reaffirmed through constant focus. For example, McGonigal tells readers to focus especially on future forces that make them uncomfortable in order to fight through normalcy bias, the tendency to disengage with emergent situations that deviate from expectations. “Fortunately,” she tells us, “you’ve been training your brain to overcome normalcy bias just by reading this book.”

Imaginable melds Reality Is Broken’s provocations about the shape of our world and SuperBetter’s mechanized ways of transforming yourself as a person engaging with the world. But if Imaginable is a training regime for imagining the future, it is worth thinking about where the regime emerges from. There is no imagination without an attendant ideology. 

Notably, the book consistently refers to McGonigal’s work at the Institute for the Future, which bills itself as “the world’s leading foresight education and futures organization.” Originally spun off from the RAND Corporation in 1968, it produces forecasts of the future, based on a series of methods and practices that McGonigal outlines in the book. It also hosts a wide range of workshops, some of which are free to the public and others which are available only to partner organizations (which include BP, Mitsubishi, Nestlé, and the AARP, among others). From the outside looking in, the Institute has the feel of an omnibus consultancy firm, but one based in predictors and the drivers of change, which are of obvious interest to profit-seeking companies.  

There is no imagination without an attendant ideology

While imagining the future is critical for our species, as McGonigal tells us regularly, it is also a process that starts at home; the privative mind is the experimental space from which a possible world grows. That is to say, that outside the future-thinking workshops or the walls of the Institute, Imaginable feels less like an invitation and more like a trap. Its exercises provoke future-thinking in terms of opportunity and disruption, of things to be grasped or tamed by the clever, the educated, or the future-oriented. In other words, Imaginable reads as a guide for how to eat the future, how to capture and entrain it, brought forth by a series of consultancy exercises that are partly responsible for how we got where we are right now. 

Imaginable was written during the Covid pandemic, and McGonigal uses that crisis to set up the book’s jumping-off point: that the world suffers from a lack of an ability to imagine the future. She claims that too many people were “blindsided by reality” when the pandemic began because they had no experience imagining such a massive world event and the many political and social changes that it would set into motion. By contrast, McGonigal in 2008 had guided thousands of players through Superstruct, a simulation in which players imagined themselves as living through “five different threats, including a global outbreak of a fictional virus called ReDS, short for respiratory distress syndrome.” More than a decade later, she claims, many of these players told her that this made Covid more graspable for them: “Participants kept telling me, in their own ways, that pre-feeling the future helped them pre-process the anxiety, the overwhelming uncertainty, and the sense of helplessness, so they could move more rapidly to adapt and act resiliently when the future actually arrived.”

The idea that Covid was “unimaginable” rings hollow, given the deep history that surrounds the imagination of pandemics and plagues. As Ashley Fetters pointed out in the Atlantic, science fiction stories have played this scenario out many times, and many of our “solutions” (like remote learning, for example) are staples of science fiction’s future settings. Similarly, Charles Yu patiently dismantled the surprise of both the pandemic and our adaptations to it as the lockdowns were in full swing. Few elements of pandemic life were not “pre-mediated,” Richard Grusin’s phrase for when things are uncannily represented in media before they erupt into the real. In 1826, Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man about a plague that kills the vast majority of humanity; in 2015, Will Forte created and starred in The Last Man on Earth, a show about a selfish and bumbling man who survived a plague that also killed the vast majority of humanity. In between are a huge number of novels, short stories, films, and other media products about this exact phenomenon. There was no unfamiliar terrain here. It was fully mapped to the extent that the plague-based shows The Stand and Station Eleven both wrapped production and aired during a real-life pandemic. 

The idea that Covid was “unimaginable” rings hollow. There was no unfamiliar terrain here

Why would McGonigal claim that most people can’t or won’t imagine futures? It may be to generate a sense of ownership of methods and designs, to position herself as the doyenne of the very concept of thinking futurally. It may be simply that she wants to argue for a specific way of conceiving the imagination that is as personalized as a gym routine. If our social method of viewing the oncoming tide of possible realities can be atomized down to many individual actors all working on themselves, then it provides a clear route for elevating the self-help methods of SuperBetter to species-level importance. 

But McGonigal’s stake in proving that we have impoverished imaginations may have more to do with her role at the Institute for the Future and how it emerged into the world. As Jeremy Antley has detailed, the Rand Corporation touted games as predictive tools for developing postwar military and domestic strategy. Olaf Helmer, who split from RAND to become a co-founder of the Institute, co-wrote a document in 1960 that claims that “the purpose of all science is to explain past events and predict future ones.” Imaginable takes up this long legacy of gaming the future, of speculating within specific bounds to produce results that predict, inform, and produce the future. 

For example, one of the exercises in the book is imagining how one might live through the “alpha-gal crisis,” a theoretical mass sugar allergy outbreak caused by tick bites. McGonigal positions this event in the year 2035 and bases it on a real developmental allergy. The example, taking up a few pages, directs a reader on how to think the crisis. McGonigal creates a typology of five “kinds of people,” which includes people with the conditions, people afraid of it, people who do not have it but live as if they do, people who double down on “meat life,” and people who think it is a hoax. This typology, clearly extrapolated from Covid responses, asks readers to think through which of these groups they might belong to and then moves to another series of questions to better “feel (and actually be) more in control of how the future turns out.” These questions are: What will people want and need in this future? What kinds of people will be particularly useful in this future? How will you use your unique strengths in this future? Presented as a quasi-factual exercise, as McGonigal presents it, none of these pieces of speculative data seem particularly odd. There are some big buckets into which people’s reactions might fall, and then there are some basic questions of how these different kinds of people might interact.

At the level of schematic thinking, however, this entire system is bizarre. Why create a typology of people based on reaction? Why not evaluate this framework based on need or vulnerability? The Covid pandemic has highlighted a series of brutal racial health-care frameworks, and thinking a future pandemic scenario from that position could do a substantial amount to alleviate terrible outcomes. Asking players to think through not only their reactions but their structural positions has a significant number of benefits that could do more than relitigate ideological battles that have been at the forefront for the past two years. Similarly, why are the questions about the future about the utility of people rather than the opportunity of action? You do not have to be any kind of person to help in times of crisis and mass pandemic, to learn new skills, and to operate as an informative source. 

A simple answer to these questions is that these exercises are not really aimed at me. The entire example is framed in such a way that it speaks to an organizational sensibility. The five types of reaction are market segments. Asking what kinds of people will be needed or necessary is another way of asking what kind of trainings and educational backgrounds among employees would allow organizations to become key operators in a disrupted market. This is a corporate training exercise through the lens of individual speculative practice. 

The culmination of the Imaginable is also pursuant to that goal. McGonigal offers guidelines for making your own large simulation game and several smaller “classroom activity”-level exercises to stretch your brain. Connectivity and shared fictional realities are valorized for their inventiveness and social functions, and the games and simulations she offers — 14 in total and all generally in the shape of the sugar-allergy scenario above — are treated as providing massive value for the people who play them. “When our simulations are social,” she writes, “they allow us to dream together.” 

This is a corporate training exercise through the lens of individual speculative practice

Of course, this isn’t the social dreaming that a socialist might advocate for. The book’s possible future exercises have a vision of collectivity that imagines basic democracy (occasionally with the specter of universal basic income invoked) as the final outcome of social cooperation, as typified by a later thought experiment that asks readers how they might have voted in an election to determine whether humans should blot out the sun for a decade to curb climate change. I, for one, am eager to have my voice heard on this issue of blotting out the sun.

Most of the book pushes through specific and delimited thought experiments: What do the next ten years look like? Can you imagine yourself in an exact situation then? If one thing changed in the future, what are 100 repercussions of that change? What are the “future forces” latent in our current world that could eventually become dominant? These are all mechanisms and tools that McGonigal specifically evokes to embrace future thinking. In total, these ways of apprehending the future become immunological: “Willful imagination,” she writes, “acts as a kind of pre-exposure therapy for difficult futures, similar to exposure therapy treatments for anxiety and PTSD.” Since the future itself is depicted as being largely determined by individuals’ psychological attitudes toward change, this process will supposedly help build a better world for everyone.

But by constraining speculation to the domain and methods of the professional futurist, Imaginable not only misses the many ways the future is imagined across media, but also the speculative character of many of our current everyday practices. In our lives, right now, future projections dominate conversations in newspapers, TV news, social media streams, and conversations. What will Putin do? Will inflation continue to rise? What will the housing market do? Will cryptocurrency outpace other speculative instruments? These questions about the now, the short-term, and the long-term future are so constant that I have talked about all of these things recently, and I imagine you have too. 

As huge numbers of people across social classes are imagining themselves as investors or at least meme stock dreamers, it seems ludicrous to claim that future thinking has somehow atrophied in the general populace. Future thinking is also common to the conspiratorial landscape: Far-right reactionary elements are constantly imagining other worlds and possible futures, conjuring ideas of Great Replacements and Great Resets, summoning hordes of fictional people doing the worst things, and attributing abhorrent behavior to real people: Pizzagate, Benghazi, Democratic Party Satanists. People sat in Texas waiting for a long-dead Kennedy to reappear. 

We do not have a shortage of future-thinking, but of thinking about how different ideological futures compete with one another

McGonigal is content to corral all these forms of social speculation under misinformation and delegate it to be solved by other future-thinkers. But they provide a critical context for how the methods of self-help future thinking do not allow us to get out of this mess. People are already speculating about the future, they are doing it in large groups, and they are doing it structurally. We do not have a shortage of future-thinking. We have a shortage of thinking about how different ideological futures compete with one another, a problem that McGonigal is not interested in addressing. There are no mechanisms in Imaginable for debating possible futures or for evaluating good or bad developments. Ethical concerns emerge at the level of thoughtful discussion, where we ponder the possibilities of engineering children from the DNA of three parents, but not at the level of the production of futuristic scenarios themselves. There is not a chapter that speculates on how we might address, for example, white supremacist futurism at the level of the political.    

By asking us to imagine the future within very specific parameters, McGonigal suggests that the only way to fix the world is to fix how we imagine, as if the material world around us came from and consists of the thoughts of a few key dreamers and not a massive pile of material history, with constraints and practices that stretch back into the past. The problem is not getting people to dream together; the problem is in how to bring dreams together in a way that is good, equitable, and just in a way that the past has not been. What McGonigal offers us is a reformulated marketplace of ideas kicked off into the future, as if you and I can create different futural projections and the best one will win in front of the board of directors. For those of us outside the Silicon Valley imaginary, who need no training in how to think about the future because it is constantly happening and we’re constantly being confronted by new possibilities, this is simply not a part of reality.

Where I live, by mid-2020, masking or any other acknowledgement of the mass death occurring was treated as foolish by a large number of people. The Republican governor in my state is currently running for re-election with an ad that says “we were right” in being the first state to drop mask requirements. At the same time, a Congressperson from my state gave substance to an entire set of imagined futures and contemporary fictions, whole-cloth inventing enemies and interior threats to justify the most extreme violence and rollbacks of basic human rights. When McGonigal says “we,” she seems to mean a positive sociality of people who can imagine and come into some other world. But the “we” that surrounds me, and the imaginary of that “we,” has a very different idea of what it means to dream together than McGonigal does.

Our era is governed and embattled with the imagination, and it is not clear to me McGonigal’s self-help of the imagination, does much more than allow me to play with a mental model of a catastrophe of my own invention, rather than the disaster we’re living through in the present. From the perspective of the Institute, and the classes of CEOs and bright young students McGonigal summons, it seems more important to declare our imaginations are impoverished rather than dealing with the fact that there is a vast contest of imaginations, with the future hanging in the balance.

Cameron Kunzelman is a critic whose work has appeared at Vice, Polygon, Kotaku, and Paste. He holds a PhD in Moving Image Studies. He’s writing a book on speculation and video games.