Game Design of Creating Experiential Situations Interview with the Futurist Stuart Candy

Author: Rashel
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Bio of Stuart Candy

Stuart Candy is an award-winning experiential futurist. He has worked as an advisor with governments at all levels and organizations including the BBC, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UNESCO, Sydney Opera House, and Burning Man, etc. Involved in the futures field since the 1990s, he is recognised as a pioneer of practices where design and foresight meet (experiential futures, design fiction, speculative design, etc), helped lay a foundation for these idioms, brought them to wider attention and use, and expanded their boundaries by directing, collaborating and advising on numerous transmedia storytelling projects, participatory design events, installations, and guerrilla interventions.

Originally from Australia, Stuart holds degrees in Arts and Law from the University of Melbourne, and an MA and PhD from the University of Hawaii at Manoa futures program. He was previously an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and William Bronson and Grayce Slovet Mitchell Visiting Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He has introduced hybrid design-futures approaches through appointments and visiting engagements at institutions around the world including the Royal College of Art, Stanford d.School, Duke University, California College of the Arts, ArtCenter College of Design, National University of Singapore, CEDIM (Mexico) and OCAD University. He is currently the Associate Professor of Social Foresight at Parsons School of Design / The New School.

Stuart in Dubai Future Forum

He founded the Situation Lab with Jeff Waston. Since 2018 they have designed two board games as design toolkits (The Thing From The Future and The Futures Bazaar).

Two Board Games

The Thing From The Future is an award-winning imagination game that challenges players to collaboratively and competitively describe objects from a range of alternative futures.

The Futures Bazaar toolkit is a turnkey framework for setting up a co-creative gathering or design jam where participants transform everyday objects brought from home into unique things “from” alternative futures, to provoke, amuse, and inspire each other. Every participant helps imagine and produce these future artifacts, and every artifact tells a story.

Concept drawing of The Futures Bazaar

Below is indienova’s interview with Stuart in Spring 2023 when he was still an Associate Professor at CMU. We talked about how games may be used to explore and broaden people’s understanding of possible futures.

  • Interviewer: Rashel
  • Translater & Proof-reader: Xinzhao Zhou

The Interview


Relating to the Situation Lab and that you mentioned you're creating experiential situations. I guess that's your method of interaction design. Since games could also be creating situations for players, I wonder if your understanding or definition of games is specifically related to situations.


I appreciate the question, but I think I have operated without a definition of games. I don't think having a definition is a prerequisite to making them in a funny way. So I have an attitude or a stance, I suppose. And my sense is that a game is something that you play, which sounds maybe a little bit like dodging the question, but I intend for it to. It points to the idea that what differentiates a game versus a non game or play versus non play is largely a question of attitude or mindset.

This came out forward for me really strongly when I was visiting my family in Australia over the winter break. I have a six year old nephew and basically everything we would do together was play. Sometimes it was a formal game like playing Yazy with the dice. But if we would go down to the park to play cricket or soccer, he insisted on having both cricket, bat and ball and soccer so that we could alternate and kind of mix them up.

Even on the way to the park, he's saying, oh, don't touch the white spots on the pavement. That's lava. So he turned actually getting to the park into a kind of play or game. And there is a way in which you can engage in activities that might not seem to lend themselves to playfulness. You can wash dishes in a way that makes a game of it if you want to, like maybe timing yourself and trying to beat your record or whatever. I mean, there's a bunch of ways of bringing that mentality to basically anything you want. But that's not just a theoretical point. That's a generative stance from which to design. So when it comes to the task of inviting people into a space of exploration of worlds that they've never seen but that could in principle exist, you actually need them to be willing to play to some degree in order to go there in their minds.

So, one way of getting to that kind of playfulness is to put them in a physical, immersive experience that basically they need to play along with in order to inhabit. But another way is by giving them a card game and say, here, use these cards to generate ideas for things that could exist in possible futures. And so that's where The Thing from the Future came from. We could have called it, framed it, and developed it as a workshop tool for having serious conversations about the future. And actually you can use it that way and it works fine. But to call it a game is already a gesture of invitation that helps people to approach it with a mindset that is useful for the purpose.

Cards of The Thing From The Future

Playing The Thing From The Future


You can call The Thing from the Future a board game or a serious toolkit for design. How did the idea come to you? Can you share some interesting stories from creating the game, organizing the events, etc.?


So the origin of The Thing from the Future is a direct intersection of Jeff Watson's work and mine. We were fairly early on in Situation Lab as a fledgling collaboration. The first thing that we did as a lab was putting on a listening party for the 75th anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast.

Let me introduce the background of this work first.

Back in 1938, Orson Welles directed Citizen Kain and other classics. Orson Welles was a Vunderkind of radio and he was part of a collective called the Mercury Theater in New York and they did an adaptation of HG. Wells science fiction story The War of the Worlds which is about an alien attack or a Martian attack more specifically on Earth. And they in 1938 did this dramatization of it which they framed. So it's not on the radio, not on TV, but it was framed as an interruption to your standard programming. The show actually starts with a musical performance and then the broadcasters interrupt and say, oh, breaking news, there's some strange reports of things happening over in New Jersey. And it unfolds over the duration of the radio show, this kind of apocalyptic catastrophe that is incredibly skilfully and dramatically staged. If you missed the start of the show, where they say, the Mercury Theater live on the air, you might think (and some people did think) that this was actually happening. So there were reports from across the United States of people panicking and freaking out and in some cases, putting themselves in danger because of thinking that the US was under attack by aliens.

Script of the War of the Worlds, reprinted by Radio Digest/Pic:Wiki

And this was a side effect of an unintended side effect of this very innovative radio show that was done in 1938. So I just wanted to mention that, because it was the 75th anniversary of that event, of that broadcast, the first thing Situation Live did was we rented an old fashioned radio of the kind that they might have had in 1938, and then hid a laptop behind it, playing back the audio from this thing. And we invited people to come in 1930s gear and sit in the dark listening to this show as if we were kind of visiting the 1930s and having this experience on the radio.

That was the first thing we did. You could call that a kind of play as well. I don't know if I'd call it a game, but the project that we did after that was a collaboration with our friends from an experimental design unit called Extrapolation Factory. The idea was that we would run a design jam where participants from across the university and also the public could create physical artifacts from the future ideated and then fabricated from scratch in one day to fill up a vending machine. We had a vending machine and a bunch of people who might be interested, but we didn't yet have a framework for getting them to come up with and then create future artifacts. So The Thing from the Future was created initially for use at that design jam. So we piloted it, and we played it with friends first and tried it out, iterated on it, et cetera.

The first edition we printed was used as the ideation engine for this design jam at Okad in Toronto in early 2014. And people played the game, came up with hundreds of ideas, and put them all in a pool. There was one rule that you couldn't make from an idea that you had had. You had to share your ideas and then borrow somebody else. We wanted to create a collective fund of ideas that people could draw from. And then they took an idea and then went over to the table filled with weird stuff that we had brought from 99 cent shops, and turned those objects into future artifacts. And sometimes people would like to do the graphic design and then print out packaging for these things. Sometimes you could take an existing product and totally reframe what it was. For example, a veil that a woman might wear was onced turned into a source of a WiFi signal, and it was called “A-veil-able”. So people were playing with the naming and the branding.

We filled up the vending machine with the future artifacts and then it was on display at OCAD for the next six weeks. We programmed the machine so that the artifacts were purchasable. We also had a bunch of the first edition decks of The Thing from the Future and people could buy those from the vending machine as well. That was the first of three collaborations that we did with Extrapolation Factory, which was called the Futurematic Vending Machine.

Futurematic Vending Machine/Pic:Flickr

The second collaboration was at NYU. It was called the Futurematic: Canal Street. We created artifacts, street vendor merchandise, stuff that people might sell on the street. Because the NYU campus is right near Canal Street.

Historically, if you were going to buy a pair of Ray-Ban that fell off the back of a truck, that's where you would go. It had a garage door down and so we were able to lay out all of the imaginary products that people had just created. Some people actually came and bought them. And then we did a third one which was called “1-888-FUTURES.”

The Thing from the Future sort of became a signature project of Situation Lab and the basis for many collaborations and training with different partner organizations. And as we learned more about how to make the game work for different contexts, we were able to adapt it for the Skoll World Forum, the World Economic Forum, the NASA JPL, and the Clinton Global Initiative and on and on. Lots of different collaborators sometimes create physical artifacts, videos, or live presentations. But the gameplay and its creating results are open to the players. I think flexibility is a major reason why we stayed with the project and kept improving on it or trying to improve on it.


I also wonder, since you're affiliated with the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at CMU, are there many ETC students taking your courses?


I have had ETC students and also architecture, drama, Heinz. Because ETC is a different campus, I think that creates a little bit of a barrier sometimes. I have done guest appearances in a lot of other departments, including ETC students, and visited the festival that they put on as well with their projects in progress. I think the game design orientation of ETC would be wonderful to see that kind of more closely in dialogue with the folks on the main campus who have an interest in this, particularly the folks in design like yourself.


Do you think speculative design could be an unconventional but inspiring practice for game designers to do?


Well, that's for the people being inspired to answer. But I suspect so. I think speculative design and design fiction and to an extent discursive design, these are all framings that have appeared over the last 10 to 15 years as kind of as the potential of design to contribute to conversations about futures and other things.

Let's just stick to the future stuff as that has become more available as a thought to people. There has been a real, really exciting surge of interest in using design to speak about possible futures. And each of those terms and experiential futures, the umbrella term that we talked about earlier, each of those terms has their own genealogies. And I think that talking about a genealogy, like where it comes from and what motivates it and why the people who framed it that way did and what they thought they were doing and then what happened to it. These are human processes that are unfolding and being motivated by a bunch of different needs.

The conception of The Thing from the Future

What I'm struck by is that these are providing really valuable identities for people who see themselves as designers or aspire to be designers and can use the existence of those terms and the kind of communities of practice clustered around them as a license to try things out in that direction. Different from architecture, the real surge of activity in speculative design and design fiction is that people who are trained as or who identify as designers are able to give themselves permission to experiment in different ways. Futures have always been concerned with how to navigate space like different kinds of world, different kinds of society, different versions of the city that you live in or the industry that you work for or the product that you make is a lot narrower than what the world is going to be like.

Creating situations that people can step into that may or may not have any fancy designed objects in them. You could call that design, but that's not traditional design. That's closer to theater, actually, as a practice. If you start with design and then add futures, you end up with a narrower practice than if you start with Futures and say what can we add to this to bring it to life? And you can add designed objects, you can add games, you can add theater, you can add guerrilla interventions in the street.

Why does the work take so many different forms? Sometimes it looks like an object in the mail and sometimes it looks like a game that you play online with others and sometimes it looks like a workshop activity that is being framed as a game. Sometimes it looks like a card deck that you play with. And all those modalities and others continue to be fair game and they need to be because the need to think better and more effectively and diversely and groundedly about alternative futures is urgent. And it's a lot more urgent than with all due respect to people working in more disciplinarily constrained ways. I think helping humanity make wiser decisions is more important than having just allowing yourself to design with a touch of speculation. I mean, that's great, but there's bigger fish to fry here.


Since we have more and more new media emerging, do you think that this situation can facilitate people to imagine different futures?


Well, yeah. In a way, part of the theoretical underpinning for what I'm describing as experiential futures, what Jeff, I, and many others have pursued under that banner is it's based on the idea that we are constantly thinking with our environment.

There's a classic paper at the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy called “The Extended Mind” by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. It offers a view that thought is not just happening inside the skull, it's happening inside the body and the environment. Whenever we're having a thought process, we are thinking within our environments and being inspired. I mean, we're obviously literally perceiving what's going on around us using the various sensors at our disposal. But, when we try to ideate or be imaginative, if you can design the extended mind, design the environment in which you are ideating, design it in such a way that it heightens the ability to imagine granularly and socially. So, if you put a group of people inside a room where they are being told that they're climate refugees arriving in a military state and being oriented in what their new lives are going to look like now.

There is an example from the Hawaiʻi 2050 Sustainability Plan, the kind of post economic collapse version of Hawaii. Not to be confused with the three completely other stories, different stories that were happening at the same time in three other rooms. But in that room you're creating an experience using whatever it takes. In this case, a series of posters on the walls that are like props from that future. Most people probably didn't even see them, but there was kind of an “Oath of Allegiance” for this future government and actually they had to make an aloha salute and swear an oath of allegiance to the government that was taking them in. There were flags from the new Hawaii which is like a riff on the historical and the existing Hawaiian flag, but that in a symbolism tells you something about how this future is different from the present. There was a video that we made, like an orientation video, using PowerPoint with images and a voiceover that told the history of Hawaii from prior to European colonization until the late 2040s when the economic collapse happened. There are characters in the room. There was a soundtrack of waves crashing on the shore because the idea was just subtly in the background — here is the first place that people are stepping into after they arrive in Hawaii on a boat.

Coral Cross is an immersive, interactive VR game inspired by Stuart's experience at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies

So, all of those different elements are design cues of a sort. I don't really care what you call it — theater, art, design, media — it's all fair game. What we're trying to do by designing a situation like that is creating a context within which people can think and feel more granularly into a hypothetical. If we just told them to read about it, it would only be treated as an intellectual exercise — a lot less encompassing than an immersive experience can be. By inviting people to have an emotional response to this and to situate themselves in it as a potential embodied experience rather than like a description of a system that they aren't in and that's set four or five decades away.

In one case, you have this immense psychological distance between the present and the future that you want to have the conversation about; In the other case, you're creating an immersive environment that is engineered to make that conversation richer. Within the situations, people can imagine more intensively, have new ideas, or explore a scenario from a bunch of different angles as a potential reality in waiting, not just as a sort of “what if,” like a thought experiment or a philosophical thought experiment that is an endlessly generative design space. That mentality, that idea of designing situations actually requires people who don't identify with a narrow conception of design, theater, or public sector deliberation. You need people who are less worried about definitions and more interested in outcomes.

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