ken eklund is an artist who works in immersive and collaborative play, informed by a career in game design. He's best known for "authentic fictions"—immersive, what-if storymaking games about real issues—such as World Without Oil (2007),1 Ed Zed Omega (2010),2 and FutureCoast (2014).3 In these games, people explore social concerns by working together to bring possible futures into clearer focus, and by imagining positive solutions and action. Eklund's games have become known as "forecasting games" and as modes of developing long-term planning skills, as described in jane mcgonigal's [End Page 509] groundbreaking book about game psychology, Reality Is Broken (2011).4 His approach stems from a deep belief that participation and collaboration are transformative acts for players, and that engaging people in play opens them to true learning. Ken also designs free-to-play geolocated storytelling games and cellphone adventures such as Giskin Anomaly (2010-2012)5 and Ruination: City of Dust (2014),6 as well as socially relevant "games for non-gamers" for museums, cultural institutions, and public media. Often appearing as immersive "alternate realities" that play out in both a game world and the real world, his games respect the ability and desire of their audiences to shape virtually materialized possible worlds that reflect their experiences and their hopes. He is currently working on two new projects: Abundant Future, a cellphone adventure exploring community transformations, and Force Majeure,7 a game-powered theater performance about the Anthropocene. stephanie lemenager and Ken eKlund sat down in November 2016 to talk about site specificity, future forecasting, serious play, storymaking vs. storytelling, and creating empathic spaces.
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Set the stage for us. How would you describe what you do?
To artists, I would say I create authentic fictions. To funders, I would say I create engagement engines. Casually, I might tell you I am a game and experience designer. Others might say I create "thought experiments" or "what-if play" or "meaningful storyworlds" or "alternate reality games."
I'm fascinated by the ways in which your games tend to move between virtual and material or "real world" sites. Using one of your games as a case study, can you say a little bit about how the virtual or digital environments that the games offer enhance players' engagement with local ecosystems, infrastructures, or communities?
I think, when gamemaking, I actually approach this question from the other side: I assume people are already engaged with the world around them—or want to be—so I figure out ways my game can point that out, amp it up, encourage it, and reward it as people play. It's like a hidden asset that I can help grow and share.
One way to do this is to use the game story to "reformat" the real world, by putting a game layer over it. World Without Oil (Fig. 1) is a great [End Page 510] example: the game pretended a global oil crisis had started, and asked people to document how their lives were changing in the crisis.8 Many players responded with imaginative reworkings of their everyday environments. At least one player sent us a picture of their car with a FOR SALE sign on it (at an alarmingly low price), for example.
The genius thing about World Without Oil and many serious games that have followed it is that it turns players' engagement with local ecosystems, infrastructures, and communities into valued currency in the game. As a player, you talk about such engagements and share them with other players. And if you idealize them—or even make them up entirely—that's just fine. It's just a game.
It turns out that trying out these behaviors—playing with them—is an effective precursor to adopting these behaviors.9 In World Without Oil, there was a prominent player thread about backyard gardens: how to start them, the benefits of having them. And it was easy to join the thread, even if you didn't actually garden: just post a selfie...