📖 Imaginable by Jane McGonigal
Our guest for this Tuesday, Feb. 22 is Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games. She is the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, and the author of two NYT bestsellers.
Her new book, Imaginable, is about the power of thinking deeply and rigorously about the future. You can pre-order the book here, or get a signed and personalized copy here.
Join us Tuesday for a Q&A on how imagination can help us build better futures.
💰 our take: thinking about the future doesn’t need to be scary
If you’re like me, the future feels scary, and has for a while. Why? There are many crises to choose from, like an anxiety buffet. My own fear is rooted primarily in the ever-advancing climate crisis, which feels like an apocalypse already in motion. At some point in the past ten years, I learned to stop thinking about the future of the planet beyond what legislation I want passed or what actions I want to take each day. Thinking ahead feels too painful – how is it possible to plan for the long-term when the road ahead seems to contain so much sorrow?
All of this is to say that I try not to think about the future because it terrifies me. I’m an anxious person in general, and living through many paradigm-shifting crises at once obviously hasn’t helped. So reading Jane McGonigal’s Imaginable, a book all about imagining and preparing for the future, was a novel experience – not only because it led me to think about futures both personal and collective, but also because it made me realize how much I could gain by doing so in a critical and creative way.
Imaginable draws on McGonigal’s decades of experience as a professional forecaster of futures as well as a game designer, roles which she merges to create future simulation games. The book arose out of her reflections on a particular simulation she ran in 2010 for the World Bank about the year 2020, which correctly predicted a severe respiratory pandemic with the possibility of long-term symptoms, widespread conspiracy theory campaigns, and wildfires across the US. This set of predictions seems uncanny, but McGonigal emphasizes that it all came from a set of techniques she uses to ask big questions and consider the possibility of immense, paradigm-shifting change. Whether you like it or not, everything can and will change, even those things we take for granted – and imagining these changes can actually make us far more resilient in the ways we think about both the present and the future. Participants in McGonigal’s 2010 simulation reported much lower feelings of stress and shock to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic than those in their immediate circles, and acted far more quickly to respond. In this way, imagining radical futures can give us more agency over the present, as McGonigal’s anecdotes highlight again and again.
McGonigal frames Imaginable as a preparation for its readers to “think like a futurist,” which means to think about all the massive possibilities for change that might exist even just in the next 10 years. Its throughline is the question: what will your life look like, exactly ten years from today? It’s a long time, and I found myself jarred and destabilized by the question. But gradually, I began to think about it. The book is divided into three parts, loosely reflecting three categories of questions McGonigal tends to ask people about the future: “Unstick your Mind,” “Think the Unthinkable,” and “Imagine the Unimaginable,” and each part helped me gain more ease with a possible 10-year future horizon. I imagined what I’d have for dinner, what I’d be wearing, where I’d be living, who I’d be with. I have no way of knowing how accurate any of it was – but according to McGonigal, that doesn’t actually matter: it’s the act of imagining clearly and realistically that helps us become more aware of and hopeful for the future, even if we imagine great risk.
Importantly, Imaginable isn’t all doom and gloom. McGonigal emphasizes that when imagining the future, it’s important also to consider not only what could go wrong – which she calls “shadow imagination” – but also what could go right, through positive imagination. In one of the simulations she proposes, McGonigal imagines a world in which it’s a common custom to throw parties to welcome new climate refugees. Whether or not you think that’s a plausible situation, it’s one way to imagine what beauty people might create even in times of intense hardship, and how we might help rather than hurt each other in the future. In another particularly touching anecdote, she describes writing about a future ten years away and seeing clearly that she had a daughter – and how that very imaginative exercise prompted her to decide to have children with her partner. It’s a compelling case for how imagining the future can change us in unexpected ways, and create new realities in our present.
I’m excited to ask McGonigal how she feels about the future – and how she deals with the present given the possible futures which are grim, especially ones which require broad, sweeping action on a global scale (climate, again). But I’m also excited to ask her what other possibilities she’s excited about, in the near-term and long-term, and whether she has other stories of imagining unexpected futures that revealed to her something about the present.
In my correspondence with her, McGonigal used the words “urgent optimism”. By nature, by anxiety, I’m not an optimist, much as I wish I were – but ultimately, what Imaginable does is lead its readers to a more expansive view of the future, one which includes both the worst-case and the best-case, but also the full field of odd and unexpected possibilities that lie beyond. In McGonigal’s words, “I see my job as transporting people to imaginary worlds, to worlds that don’t exist—either because they’re virtual or because they’re future worlds that haven’t happened yet.” Imaginable helps us do just that. Whether you’re an optimist, a pessimist, or an anxious mess, it’s good to look the possibilities of the future in the face. When we do, it seems, we’re often surprised by what looks back.
Shira Abramovich is a poet, translator, and software engineer currently working at Monthly.
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💝 closing note
Finally, just a reminder that you can pitch the newsletter anytime — fill out the form here! In 2022 we’re able to offer $50-100 for accepted pieces.
Hope to see you next week,