Come play Spoke at the V&A Digital Design Weekend 2018 on September 22-23!

Lunchroom 1, Sackler Centre for arts education. Drop-in sessions at 10.00-11.30, 11.30-13.00 and 15.35-17.15

Spoke is a game for writing design science fiction stories.

Spoke is a serious but fun tool for future planning. Using a unique story wheel derived from classic narrative arcs and a series of intuitive cards, it prompts players to quickly turn large quantities of research into compelling narratives about future events. Players can be small or large groups, students or professionals or company-wide teams. The game is available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (CC BY-NC-SA) but the art is copyrighted by the authours.

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Science fiction has been trying to conjure up a future of automated production for some time now. The trope of “a device that can effortlessly make anything” is a well-worn one. William Gibson put them in the mundane convenience stores that anchor city blocks around the world. Star Trek had replicators, food synthesizers, bio-matter re-sequencers and even a full-on Holodeck to the keep waste from building up and the crew well fed.

Our collective imagination of what future humans will do with our augmented cybernetic selves and robotic companions generally lacks the practical details of day to day life - and focuses more on the grand social activities of love, politics and war. As Tim Harford pointed out, the landmark sci-fi film Blade Runner had a future android hunter (Deckard) using a pay phone as a main means of communication. A great many people today, 30 years on, have never even seen the outdated technology of a pay phone. “...when asked to picture how everyday life might look in a society sophisticated enough to build such biological androids, our imaginations falter.”

Perhaps that is a function of the escapist, emotionally-charged nature of our fiction. Perhaps that is because writing is more of a mental task than a physical one and worlds of imagination flow more freely from the pen and word processor. Or perhaps it is because not enough designers, makers, industry veterans, and academics are engaged in writing science fiction. We need more stories of economic systems to tell than the largely dystopian ones we’ve got. But from a practical standpoint, it’s very difficult to use single narratives employing single point-of-view characters to meaningfully explore such systems.

In the disciplines of Scenario Planning, Futuring, Design Science Fiction, or Economic Science Fictions, we are looking to understand a complex, unpredictable future system from the point of view of many “characters:” organisations, be they companies, governments, trade unions, nations, or other collectives of people at any scale.

Creating these multi-media, multi-perspective narratives is a challenge for individuals, no matter how creative. That is partly what motivated us to create a card-based board game to help designers and artists and other creative people quickly develop design science fiction stories. Frank Herbert’s Dune was an inspiration for his use of narrative based less on characters than on changing institutions and ecology.

In our game, we anchor the gameplay by providing all the players with shared general plot points in a future narrative. Inside these plot points, people put together story elements using different rules to create fleshed out narratives of how future people and organisations might behave. Players generate creative and provocative stories by combining classic storytelling elements like real “characters,” conflict, metaphor, and context using informative cards with key organisations and people, future events, and tidbits of relevant research into current and future issues. In this version of the game, all the story elements come from actual research into automated computer manufacturing by academics and industry, so the resulting stories have a rigour and realness to them. The devil is in the details.