Design as a Serious Reality Game

The latest instalment of Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect takes a look back at the now-complete the Superstruct project.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson


Officially, the Superstruct foresight game to which my previous two entries were connected, has wrapped; unofficially, the game will continue for however long the participants wish to play. It can’t be shut down. As a consequence, “to play or not to play” was on my mind for much of the final two weeks, because while my involvement – both as a game master and as a player – absorbed significantly more time than I’d anticipated and distracted me from other activities, the professional benefit I realized from mentally immersing myself in what I considered to be a realistic fabrication of my future circumstances cannot be casually dismissed.

From a design strategy perspective, the Institute for the Future‘s exercise in crowdsourcing was for me a worthwhile deviation from the typical mix of qualitative/quantitative approaches I’ve seen most often employed in the R&D process. However, as I began to assess the value of my involvement in Superstruct, the product developer in me recognized a potential opportunity: the chance to engage a willing community of amateur and not-so-amateur futurists in an effort to design more appropriate and perhaps more sustainable products.

This is, to my knowledge, an unprecedented opportunity for some relatively unusual and potentially valuable feedback. Neither traditional focus group participants nor strategy-savvy business managers role play their future selves or immerse themselves in their imagination to the same degree as Superstruct‘s players; nor are they quite as free to do so if they wished, since issues of confidentiality discourage such activity.

You’re not likely to see, for example, a product manager post a video to YouTube that resembles anything like what the IFTF’s Director of Game Research & Development, Jane McGonigal, posted; or have focus group members start blogs to discuss the things they were shown in confidence. As a consequence they don’t as easily or effectively communicate the shared imagined circumstances of the time and place where all products in development exist: an end user’s future.

In other words, typical product development projects are potentially hamstrung by limiting participant activity to within the “box” required to contain confidential information. A multi-player game played atop the internet’s virtual structures is not constrained in this way. This presents two avenues for development, one of which is to engage with members of a “serious” game already in progress; like Superstruct. The second is something I’ll be giving some additional thought.


Walt Disney said of Tomorrowland that it was “an opportunity to participate in adventures that are a living blueprint of our future.” Superstruct may not be tangible in the way that Tomorrowland is, but it certainly can be argued to have a life of its own.

I’d instead submit that a more meaningful distinction between the two is that Disney’s idea of participation essentially meant shelling out an admission fee to experience someone else’s blueprint. In contrast, Superstruct points the way toward genuine engagement as well as participation in the design process for those who want to do more than visit some wizard’s futurist ideas made tangible.


Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the U.S. military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]