Fiction Games Helicopter Marketing Time

Play, engagement and climate-changed futures

Ken Eklund

Yesterday I attended a talk by Ken Eklund, a writer and games designer based in California, at an event organised by The University of Brighton, and excellently hosted by Matt Locke of Storythings. Ken creates ‘cli-fi’ games that allow people to ‘immerse themselves without fear’ in challenging future environmental scenarios.

One game requires people to locate unusual plastic objects which have been scattered, apparently randomly, in several countries. The gamer who collects these objects finds they correspond to a voicemail from the future. These messages allude to future climate change events, such as suggesting that an airport is underwater.

Another game in 2007 saw people documenting a fictional oil crisis. People used various internet platforms to contribute to a crowdsourced fiction about life in an oil crisis. Ken said a pivotal moment was when one person suggested they stop posting doom scenarios and instead find a way of tackling the problem.

Ken creates a game playing environments that are ‘multi-sourced, open and emergent’, he also calls this ‘Authentic Fiction’.

As there was an opportunity for questions, I asked Ken to say more about how while advertising uses creativity to funnel people towards an outcome, such as buying a pizza, his fictional activity turns the funnel the other way to allow for a multiplicity of crowd sourced responses. Would the desired message be dissipated?

Ken said he wasn’t in advertising, but instead created a playful space for the issues to be raised. I liked this as Ken is the kind of storyteller who creates the frame rather than the picture.

While the idea of a messages from the future is an SF staple, it certainly doesn’t crop up much in advertising and marketing. The UK First Direct bank’s confident first effort back in 1989 (a message from the then future of 2010) was the first one that sprang to mind. In a game-playing context, however, those who are ‘playing hard’ are far more willing to suspend disbelief than someone passively watching their TV. In Ken’s scenario the messages from the future become valuable and sought after. Marketing, which naturally is seeking ways of making its messages more magnetic, definitely has something to learn from Ken’s work.

With my other hat on, as a writer, poet, etc. I found the scenarios a little predictable, but I think Ken’s focus was in unleashing the creativity of others, enabling what he called ‘the resurgence of my story’ to feed into a greater narrative arc. In that way richness and unpredictability is organically added.

The robots are around the corner

His latest project in development is around how artificial intelligence may take over human activities. A project which coincides with Channel 4’s excellent new Humans series about AI being aired in the UK. One scene nails Eklund’s concern where Mattie, a teenage character resentful of the robots, questions what is the point of her continuing to become a doctor. “That’d take me seven years, but by then you’d be able to turn any old synth into a brain surgeon in seven seconds,” and goes on to asks if they are all supposed to become poets.

I found Eklund’s work fascinating and I will be keen to keep tabs on his future projects.