Last week I had the absolute privilege to be one of two dozen game masters (community managers and sense-makers) on the largest Foresight Engine the Institute for the Future has ever run: Face the Future, under the capable leadership of Jane McGonigal and experienced execution of Sara Skvirsky. Furthermore it was a little like group therapy given the timing (right after the 2016 election) and the audience (high school students and teachers involved in Facing History and Ourselves, a group dedicated to teaching how the holocaust and other genocides depends on the decisions and silences of everyday people).
The topic could not have been more timely, or more provocative: the future of empathy. Take 10 to watch the provocation video at least, with content developed by my frolleague Jamais for the New Body Language edition of Future Now magazine (again, links forthcoming). I run down my three blog posts on the game blog below the fold.
As an editor and a highly sensitive individual, I knew we had gold when I started weeping at the first draft Jamais sent me, and it only got better with each revision and illustration.
The kids loved it. The game, that is. They played tens of thousands of future-focused ideas on what they would do in a world in which feelings (the physiological and neurological phenomena of emotions) could literally be shared.
I loved it too. I only played/gamemastered for 6 of the 30 active hours, but felt a deep connection to my fellow players of all ages, and a properly thorough mix of wonder and anxiety at this awesome and fearsome future.
Here are excerpts of the three blog posts I wrote in 26 hours for the Face the Future blog, and some commentary about what inspired them.
This post revolved around a bit of scenaric fiction. I was frustrated by the flatness of the emotional observations on the platform in the early game. It was the same frustration I have with data scientists working on sentiment analysis, and on the psychology of the last few decades: happiness and sadness and anger are not the only damn emotions that matter. Dagnammit. So I wrote a plea from the perspective of a poet, and exhorted players to expand their vocabularies from there:
A message from the Poet Laureate of 2026
For centuries our best minds have wondered: how many emotions are there?
Charles Darwin wrote a whole book on it. In English alone, there are over four thousand words to describe feelings. Yet psychologist Paul Eckman in the 1990s boiled it down to six emotions. Scientists analyzing facial muscles say there are only four emotions. Technologists in 2016 using “sentiment analysis” (reading moods from primitive text and image social media) tracked only two: positive and negative.
But each of us is different, and each emotion we feel happens at a unique moment in our lives. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera noted back in 2015 that “love is a complete evolution. It changes, it changes and it changes.”
The FeelThat network added a new layer to my poetry. Expressing perfectly a moment of feeling is what poets do best, and FeelThat just adds to that perfection by sharing not just one moment but many. As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan sang, “the times, they are a-changing.”
So youth of 2026: share with me your specific hopes and anxieties, about all of your feelings. Let’s go beyond happiness and sadness, to the feelings that are yours alone. I’m tuned in.
I’ll get back to this concept in my next EMPE post, as it’s got me thinking about the deeper, more philosophical stakes of this future.
This election got the entire liberal intelligentsia (of which I am unarguably one) thinking about our relationship to Facts and The Truth and Lies. It also got me personally thinking about the lies that tell the truth: art, fiction, and their undeniable power. In the past two weeks I have tried to engage in politics about an order of magnitude more than I have since 2008. But art is both my refuge and my strength. I go to modern art museums when I can, when I visit a new city, or when I’m feeling lost in the world. I go because while most Modern Art is crap, there is always one or two or sometimes three pieces that help me see the world from a fundamentally different perspective. With, you have it, ever more perfect eyes.
So while I normally don’t get paid to explain Van Gogh and Rothko to high school students, I did last week. I also got to blog publicly about crying in a museum, which is not something that I anticipated even at the beginning of my gamemastering shift.
How true! Art is an emotional experience, and museums are a place to have these emotional experiences is a public (but safe) place. Have you ever cried in a museum? I know I have. And not just at the Holocaust Museum, either. I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam a few years back. Even though Wheatfield with Crows (1890) was never my favorite painting visually, standing before it I felt the pain he was in those last few months before he committed suicide. It was stunning! A small group of us stood before it and wept.
How much more profound would it have been, not just for that painting but for all of his others, to feel echoes of others’ reactions while viewing Vincent’s art?
It just gets better from there, thanks to great players. Go read it.
Finally, I noticed that no one among the blogging gamemasters had given a voice to the many observations about love that had mushroomed on the platform in the 30 hours of game play. Sensemaking for a game on the future of empathy was surely lacking if no musings were given to that most complete of changeable, empathic, and self-actualizing experiences.
If you were in love and had the FeelThat network, what would you want to share with your beloved?
I used the post to highlight a smattering of the hundreds of plays concerning love, from unrequited teenage love to John Green’s excellent rant, I am not a pornographer. I also got to do a call out to no one but my high school English teacher, who is too thoroughly retired to read any of this, on Romeo and Juliet and how their deaths are an argument for natural selection against those who feel to deeply.
My favorite point though was on the many cards positing that a physiological experience of empathy might make compassion an easier practice for many. This is the highest hope of this game. May it come to pass.