At the tail end of an exceptionally frigid winter, with many communities still recovering from 2012's #Frankenstorm, it has become difficult not to imagine a post-climate changed future. Beyond rising sea levels, expanding deserts, and melting ice caps, however, the mind's images of the encroaching ‘global weirding’ don't satisfy the complete story. One group of storytellers have joined forces to put a human face on the consequences of Earth’s shifting climate. Led by game designer and "Writerguy" Ken Eklund, and producer Sara Thatcher, FutureCoast is an alternate reality artistic community that contemplates the nuance and nitty-gritty of living in a climate change-ravaged world.
Part crowdsourced, interactive Cli-fi (climate change sci-fi) storytelling game, part virtual community, members of FutureCoast (known as Coasters), tell and leave stories through voicemails, temporal fictions taken from futures that haven’t happened yet. In FutureCoast lore, these voicemails slip through a malfunction in the voicemail systems of many possible futures, and are scattered throughout the present. Manifesting in the form of ‘chronofacts’, cryptic, circular sculptures that store each of the future’s voicemails, Coasters can find these messages after ‘chronofalls,' sudden impingements from the future into the present. Once a Coaster finds a chronofact, he or she uploads an image of it into the FutureCoast database, activating a voicemail for all to hear.
Eklund delights in the unpredictable nature of these crowdsourced stories: “My favorite voicemail by far is the one I'm going to hear tomorrow,” he says. Snapshots of everyday life in the future, “Voicemails democratize the story itself,” Eklund told the Creators Project. “[They] are micro-stories that give you a sense of place and story and characters, within a story structure that people immediately understand. [And] voicemails are well suited to the internet, because they're typically short. It's amazing really how much story some of them pack into a 40-second listen.”
These casual conversations often reference new technologies or cataclysmic events from the past (our future), allowing listeners to fill in the blanks. One voicemail alludes to the popular 2034 reality TV show, You’ve Been Droned, while another captures what seem to be a man’s last moments in a world scarred by air pollution. In perhaps the most heartbreaking voicemail thus far into the tale, a mother pleads for help finding her son, who disappeared at a refugees' rights protest.
As more of these fascinating accounts emerge, Coasters can gather them together into groups called Timelines, which link together voicemails that follow similar themes, like atmospheric conditions or bio-technology, stories that might be from the same future timelines, or even just a Coaster’s particular voicemail favorites.
The deceptively simple concept of telling FutureCoast's tales through audio is only the mechanism of the machinery: it all starts with the production of real-world chronofacts themselves. Constructed from clear acrylic and laser-engraved with mysterious circular patterns, Coasters receive exclusive chronofacts from Eklund’s team, then place in the wild. Often providing GPS coordinates that spur locals to find and log the mysterious sculptures, these physically manufactured Chronofacts are then paired with their messages. In the world of FutureCoast, the chronofacts are the voicemails. And to keep the world going? Eklund and his team rely on the contributions of Coaster community members on FutureCoast’s sister site, FutureVoices.net.
Sound complicated? It isn't. FutureVoices organizes the real-life players in the FutureCoast game, teaching Coasters how to record voicemails, manage the ‘chronofall’ hiding process, encouraging participants to host events, and informing the community about what’s going on with FutureCoast. The backend of FutureCoast, FutureVoices keeps the gears turning in order to keep the project alive and growing. Coasters can submit videos of their exploits, find out when events will take place, and even watch an informative videos that captures the essence of FutureCoast’s storytelling:
All of these moving parts come together to create the vivid illusion a future quickly colliding with the present. If this illusion was true, could we change—and perhaps save—the future? This is the conversation Eklund and Columbia University’s PoLAR Hub hope to ignite with FutureCoast. By turning discussion about climate change into an interactive, non-political, non-abstract experience, Eklund wants to touch the hearts and minds of the silent majority.
"FutureCoast isn't intended for climate change communities, who typically already have their agendas and are acting on them,” he says. “FutureCoast is really for the rest of us, the people who have concerns and ideas about what is happening but who don't find any place for them in these other agendas.”
Eklund believes FutureCoast is a meaningful way to converse about the largely impersonal issue of climate change. He previously tackled the issue of fossil fuel dependance with a similar game called World Without Oil, which produced over 1,500 separate, meaningful interactions. Similarly to FutureCoast, WWO speculated about an alternate reality in which Earth had been tapped of all it’s oil reserves. The results weren't this pretty:
But after the overwhelming success of WWO, Eklund was approached by Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, co-chair of the Environmental Science Department at Barnard University, to build a new game, this time focusing on the humanity behind climate change. He worked with a large team to make it happen and couldn’t be happier with the results: “If you make a game about something that matters, your "players" will want to participate in that larger discussion. If you genuinely make that participation meaningful in the game, it can also be meaningful in real life.”
Fresh from collaborations with museums like the Smithsonian and the Bloom festival in Santa Cruz, Eklund and friends are focusing their Earth Day efforts towards a whole slew of hard-hitting events that embody the nature of FutureCoast and the conversation they're sparking. FutureCoast is calling all Coasters to participate in Earth Day 2030, a look into how we may have to celebrate the holiday in 16 years. FutureCoast will collaborate with the Science Museum in London to cache a new chronofall, the Games For Change conference in New York to feature a new FutureCoast activity, and, as part of the Conversations About Landscape series, the Exploratorium in San Francisco will host a presentation by Eklund himself. All these events precede the culmination of everything that FutureCoast has become since its inception on Febuary 5, 2014.
Chronofalls are set to end on April 30, but until then, the future is still wide open. What stories still remain locked in time, waiting for the right Coaster to stumble upon them? Maybe the future is full of frog people, maybe the entire human race will be corralled onto the last of the world’s landmasses. Maybe it all actually was a hoax, and we’ll be driving in Hummers and throwing burning tires into the ocean for fun. We don’t know yet—but maybe by playing FutureCoast, you will.