The more we practice being disrupted, the better able we become at riding the waves of change, of making sense of that which does not yet make sense. Playing futures games and developing our skills of futures literacy can help us anticipate and pre-experience alternative futures as we cannot know which one is coming.
This article focuses on these themes encountered during an experimental gaming workshop run as part of the Futures Agent training of the project Bounce Forward – Resilienssiä työelämään.

Authors: Martyn Richards & Kaisu Isomäki

Media, such as books, movies, and games, can be consumed for the purpose of self-observation. In contrast to traditional media forms, games create dynamic spaces that give players the power to make (and create) choices. Exploring the root of these choices can help us to understand the sources of change in society. (Freyermuth 2015, 15; American English.)

Foresight is for everyone

Participation in Futures Studies processes is based on the idea that foresight and futures is not just for experts but for everyone. Futures will one day become the present. Imagined futures influence behaviour through visions and scenarios, and on a personal level feed into hopes and fears that inform our beliefs about how the present will unfold. But “the future” does not exist. Predictions of different futures are plentiful, yet knowing which will become the present is impossible, so in futures studies we argue that multiple alternative futures should be anticipated. (Dator 2017, 77.)

So why play games to talk about futures and not just have a conversation? Scholars of Futures Studies make the case that games are a means of bridging the gap between participation and expertise (Sweeney 2017, 38; Dator 2017, 77).

People have an inborn instinct towards learning new skills and perceiving their own improvement. Games provide interesting environments for learning, competing and collaborating, and they are fun because they correspond to what comes naturally for us. (Moreno Ger et al. 2014, 391.) Games are a good way to interactively pre-experience different scenarios and analyse them (Dator 2017, 77-78).

The principles of future-oriented thinking can be told but they are more likely to be adopted in the organisation through practice (Dufva et al. 2016, 560, 568-569). A futures game that goes hand in hand with the everyday struggles and successes of an organisation, and is integrated well with day-to-day activities can be used to generate insights about organisation’s alternative futures.

Alternative trajectories of the present

Longer term developments might be difficult to cope with without foresight – an approach to anticipate alternative futures and trigger responses to them. Organisations need to anticipate futures so that they can expand the range of possible futures and be prepared for them. (Dufva et al. 2016, 560.) The Futures Cone diagram below displays the range of different meanings of “the future” that are considered when we talk about “futures”.

Futures cone presenting alternative futures: preposterous, possible, plausible, projected, probable and preferable.

Picture 1. The Futures Cone (Voros 2017)

We are often so focused on day-to-day concerns that we rarely consider outside of the cone of the “projected future”, the future that is essentially a continuation of today with little significant change outside of the “probable” (Miller 2018, 21-23). What might happen, is a bewilderingly wide range of alternatives that expands the longer the considered timescale is. Where we place our personal boundaries between plausible, possible, and preferable depends on how much exploration we have done. How broadly and deeply we can see is also limited by our starting assumptions and mental models about how the world works (Miller 2018, 4-6).

Being more agile in our thinking about what is possible, what is preferable, relies on testing and exploring alternative assumptions in the light of alternative trajectories of present developments.

Gamified workshop of the Futures Agent training

The games in the workshop were participatory, open-ended games that leveraged creativity to generate new ideas about, and interpretations of, future signals of real-life phenomena derived from horizon scanning. As such, the games were set up to allow players to act as creative analysts that synthesise their own experiences with the inputs of the game through face-to-face collective sense-making to produce interesting new perspectives.

Futures games can be categorised to have three main purposes: idea generation, experience and informing and several other purposes between the main ones (Picture 2).

Main category purposes of futures games are informing, idea generation and experience. Other purposes are collection, interpretation, simulation, performance and learning.

Picture 2. Purposes of futures games (Adapted from Dufva et al. 2016)

The games that were deployed in the workshop sit in the lower left of the triangle: idea generation, which proposes that there are infinite number of futures, and the imagination is the only restriction. The purpose of the session was to generate new ideas from the intersection of present megatrends and emerging issues. All three of the games played made use of a set of custom card decks that provided a summary of specific emerging issues relevant to working life, as well as significant large scale trends affecting Finland as a whole. This combinatorial card deck method was inspired by the Futures Deck and Card Game (Cheong & Milojević 2017) and The Thing from the Future (Candy & Dunegan 2017).

Participants were required to interpret the possible implications of combinations of these cards over time. This had the primary effect of asking them to intensely consider the presented issues and megatrends in perhaps previously unconsidered ways, and a secondary effect of educating them about those issues and megatrends.

The players then had different tasks depending on the format of the game. In one game, the players improvised the dialogue between a human and a non-human service provider.  In another game, visual metaphor cards were added to the mix to assist creative thinking about the implications of sets of trends. In the third game, artefacts from a future time were created in response to mood prompts and trend cards.

Futures literacy – developing the confidence to face disruption

Futures Literacy is about becoming more aware of how our perceptions of the future are shaped by unquestioned assumptions.

Prism of imagined futures shows how our beliefs can be reflected into multiple assumptions.

Picture 3. Prism of Imagined Futures – How futures literacy makes use of imagined futures (Richards, 2022, in press).

The image above illustrates how the imagined future scenario of a game can be used like a prism to reveal our unquestioned biases and assumptions. These assumptions are often in the form of beliefs or models about how we think the world works. Revealing these assumptions helps us to imagine how the world could work differently to our expectations, helping us to be more resilient in the face of surprises.

Before 2020, few people thought about the impact of a global pandemic and its implications for wellbeing, working conditions and globalised supply chains. We had mental models that assumed the continuation of freedom of movement, relative stability of supply and demand, and uninterrupted employment.

According to Futures Literacy, we should develop the ability to anticipate for emergence as a complement to traditional planning and preparation activities. Anticipating for emergence is about seriously considering apparently absurd or wildly imaginative scenarios and their implications. It is a method for stretching and exercising our imaginative capacity for the purpose of testing the assumptions that influence our decision making in the present.

Encountering a weird and unfamiliar future that forces itself into the present is far more disruptive if we haven’t practised being disrupted under simulated conditions. Studies make the case that developing futures literacy not only enhances our ability to perceive systemic change, but also improves our own sense of agency and confidence in the face of disruption (Kazemier et. al. 2021, 2).


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Martyn Richards has an MSSc in Futures Studies. He works as a project researcher at the Finland Futures Research Centre for the project Bounce Forward. He has specialised in futures literacy and transformative learning approaches.

Kaisu Isomäki (BBA, ICT-engineer (UAS)) works as a project planner at LAB University of Applied Sciences for the project Bounce Forward – Resilienssiä työelämään, which is funded as a part of the actions taken by the European Union due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Illustration:, (Federico Rizzarelli, modified Kaisu Isomäki, unsplash-license)

Published 5.9.2022

Reference to this article

Richards, M. & Isomäki, K. 2022. Gamifying horizon scanning: a futures literacy approach. LAB Pro. Cited and date of citation. Available at