By Darrell Owens
The year is 20XX: Dallas is covered in 30 inches of snow, San Francisco is experiencing mild tornadoes, and Greenland has become a tropical paradise. At least, this is what inhabitants of possible futures are saying in the new alternate reality game, Future Coast.
Future Coast is the brainchild of game designer Ken Eklund, who worked in collaboration with Columbia University’s PoLAR Partnership. Elkund has created many politically-minded games. Now he’s using alternate reality gaming to advance climate change awareness.
Here’s how the game works: players log onto the Future Coast and get instructions for where to find transparent disks called chronofacts, which are hidden in the real world. The site provides the GPS coordinates for these objects, which players can punch into GoogleMaps and follow directions to find them. Once players find a chronofact, they take a picture and upload it to FutureCoast.org, where Coasters ‘decode’ it. The disk carries a new voicemail from the future, which the game-makers share online and through the Future Coast podcast. In reality, the messages are dreamed up and recorded by players who call into 321-7-FCOAST. Callers will hear an automated greeting, “Welcome to the Future Coast hotline, this is where you create voicemails from possibly climate changed futures.”
Sara Thacher, a Future Coast producer says, “It’s a great way of making the fiction come out of the web and surround us.”
On a drizzling Sunday, I wanted to step into that fiction, so I went out to find a chronofact hidden in Oakland, CA. The coordinates online directed me to Lake Merritt, but when I got there, I couldn’t find the artifact. I searched in the park, around the lake, and even in a few trash cans, with no luck. Although it is possible that I simply didn’t look hard enough, the lost chronofact may be the result of a glitch in the system, or maybe a curious passerby beat me to it.
“The first person [who] gets there gets the object [chronofact],” explains Thacher.
Despite my disappointment about not getting my hands on a chronofact, I do plan to try again, and you can too. Other chronofalls have occurred in major cities around the United States and Europe.
— Kate de Longpre’ (@ShoutOutKate) February 10, 2014
— Sarah Atkinson (@DrSarahAtkinson) March 5, 2014
Uncovered chronofacts have released dozens of future voicemails. From the year 2064, the possible weather forecast might call for rain, which has become occasion for a “rain party.” “So bring your best glassware” the future caller advises, “we’re going to set the glasses outside, let them fill up with rain, and then we’re all going to toast the rain together.”
I even made my own message from a possible future, telling of the impending heatwaves damaging the University of Berkeley in the year 2065.
Going on a scavenger hunt or leaving voicemails of meteorologically extraordinary events is engaging. Though you can’t play the game for very long– unless you intend to travel from city-to-city in search of chronofacts.
Future Coast is a part of the climate-fiction or cli-fi genre, which is inspired by radical climate situations. The name became more commonly used in the last few years, but the genre has existed for decades in books, films, and TV. Perhaps you’ve seen the genre in films like The Day After Tomorrow, Evan Almighty, Waterworld, or even all the way back to 1961 “Twilight Zone” classic:Midnight Sun. In this episode, the Earth moves closer to the sun, where “even at midnight, it’s high noon– the hottest day in history.”
But how do all these works of fiction help us understand the real dangers of climate change? Stephanie Pfirman co-chairs the Environmental Science department at Barnard University and is a member of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. She says, “Stories help in making connections, breaking down disciplinary boundaries and linking larger scale events with personal consequences.” She notes that the gamification of climate change can bring a deeper understanding of climate change to the public. “Scientists are increasingly using scenarios and storylines as ways to explore the implications of both environmental changes and societal choices.”
Personally, as someone deeply interested in science fiction, I find climate fiction interesting… when used right. Although I don’t think it will become a hugely popular genre until the possible future gets even closer to becoming a climate reality.