Fri 11 Feb 2011
Just like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew of Muppet Labs, we’re going to do something quite extraordinary: making the future today. Or rather, the history of the future. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s simple, really. Just imagine how people in the future will remember what goes on currently. This can be helpful if you want to make a game about a current event, but you want to view it from a distance so to speak, as if you’re not a participant, but an observer looking back on it.
First of all, it’s helpful to determine what events people remember. That’s not always easy if you can’t predict the future, and I’m guessing most of you reading this can’t. But big events like wars, natural disasters, political upheavals and other occurrences that impact a large number of people will likely be remembered for more than just a few years – and possibly forever.
One such game-changing event, which will be taking centre stage here, is the leaking of government documents through WikiLeaks. A number of indie developers are already making games about it, as part of the WikiLeaks Stories project. This is an excellent opportunity to make a serious game about something that matters to all of us. People wrote pamphlets about the French Revolution. The great Russian writers of the 19th century wrote about a time when serfdom was coming to an end, ushering in a new era for Russia. And now, on this monumental occasion, game makers (that’s you!) have the chance to use their medium of choice to get their ideas across.
If you are planning to make a game as part of this project, it could be an interesting idea to use the ‘future history’ approach. People will remember these leaks for years to come, but with a little imagination, you can already work those memories into your game now (at this point I should say that while the focus here is on WikiLeaks, the general concept of ‘future history’ introduced in this article can be applied much more broadly). How? To answer that question, let’s take a look a how people remember the past first.
The past is a funny thing, in that it can only be remembered, it cannot be experienced. There are several ways in which people remember the past. One is by building monuments, to commemorate heroes or events, either tragic or joyous. But if you want to make a game about the history of the future now, those are not much help. Often, monuments are established after the fact, sometimes many years afterwards.
Fortunately for us, there are other ways in which people remember the past, ways that are available to us right now. If you read the second part of this series, you’ll remember that research is vital, and many of the historical sources you’ll consult are in writing. It’s probably not an outrageous claim to say that in the future, historians will also focus on written sources.
But what kind of sources? The same we use to read about our past – newspaper articles, books, letters, diary entries. Now that we live in the digital age, those sources are all readily available. Let’s go over them one by one, using WikiLeaks as an example. Firstly, newspapers. You don’t have to go to newspaper stands to buy every paper in existence; it’s all available at the tip of your fingers. You can use a site like Google News to read what press from all sides of the left-to-right spectrum write. At the time of writing this, a Google News search for ‘wikileaks’ returned over 25,000 results – more than enough research material, I’d think.
Books are a bit trickier. It’ll usually take a while for people to write a book about a current event, and even then, it’s highly unlikely to be an historical analysis. Still, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open for academic works, especially those that could conceivably be used by historians in the future. A subject like WikiLeaks, which showcases the changing nature of media and their use by civilians and governments, is bound to inspire academics, and it probably won’t take long for extensive studies to surface about it.
If you can’t wait for that, or you just want to get the perspective of the common man, you could try studying letters. At least, that’s what you might do if you had access to an archive filled with old letters. The problem is, you’re unlikely to find someone whose e-mail account you may search, but there is an alternative. These days, a lot of written communication goes on out in the open, on discussion forums. Google has a cool ‘Discussions’ search feature, with which you can explore such communication.
Lastly, I mentioned diary entries. Again, it’s not very likely that someone will just offer you their diary to read through (although if someone does, you should definitely jump at the opportunity and then give it to me so I can read it as well), but there are online alternatives. A myriad of blogs exist across various platforms – WordPress, Blogger, LiveJournal, Tumblr, to name but a few. Once again, Google offers a blog search to sift through them, but you can also use Technorati, or the search feature offered by one of the blogging platforms I mentioned. And that’s only the written sources. There are many other opportunities as well. You could look for videos on YouTube or another video search site, photos on Flickr, art on sites like DeviantArt, and of course look for entire sites. The possibilities are almost endless. If you feel overwhelmed, just take it one step at a time, and you’ll be fine.
One friendly word of advice though: be careful not to make any outlandish claims that may make you look silly later; you’re making a serious game here, not a science fiction B-film from the 1950s! The best way to do that is by keeping things simple – there’s no need to always focus on big events that leave big footprints, thus increasing the margin of error in your predictions; you can also play it safe by focusing on the small. To illustrate that, let’s look at an example that may well inspire a WikiLeaks game.
One episode of Yes Minister, one of the finest products of British television, called The Skeleton in the Cupboard, deals with how someone’s past can come back to haunt him. In the episode, a blunder that Sir Humphrey Appleby committed as a junior civil servant decades before, gets him in a tight spot in the present. Now imagine that blunder has been committed in the now, and the tight spot will be years in the future. Just look through the leaked cables for a mistake or a statement that may come back to bite its producer in the backside later on. Perhaps a lowly diplomat will work his way up through the ranks and maybe even become a head of state. What would be the consequences of his earlier actions?
That’s just one example, and I’m sure you can come up with many more, and probably better ones, yourself. I hope that after reading this article, you’ll feel confident recreating the history of the future. Just remember to research the current sources like a historian would, don’t bite off more than you can chew, and try to keep it realistic. Good luck!