Case Study: Peek, a game for future storytelling

July 10, 2020

A collaborative, speculative storytelling game by Evan Raskob.

Peek (previously “Spoke”) is a playable science fiction novel/game helping people explore complex narrative spaces of the present up to the year 2060. In Peek, players are “Future Archaeologists” working with a future-viewing device called “the Peek”. They must report back on their future-possible glimpses to the “World Government”. The game presents research into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and sustainability in a shared narrative format that participants can speculatively inhabit. It has been playtested internationally, recently in New York, London and San Francisco.

Peek aims to get people thinking about how choices of technology and policy affect all of us in different ways, which is reflected in the diversity of outcomes and possible story characters. It was designed to be used in both teaching and general play sessions with the non-expert public. The game is a response to the disinformation prevalent in popular media, and in particular the difficulty in explaining AI and machine learning and their benefits and drawbacks to lay audiences. There is a real need to educate people about how these potentially disruptive technologies could transform society, one way or another.

Influences and provocations

Peek arose out of a number of influences: speculative art and design, futuring, comic books, games design, role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction and academic research into storytelling and story structure. Its creation was partially prompted by the use of serious games to try and explore crowd-sourced solutions to “wicked problems” like climate change.

Our “speculative game design” grows out of these practices. A game is a designed artefact that exists materially in our world but can also exist in other imaginary worlds. Games can be a framework for improvisation – for example, role-playing games and even comedic improvisation (“improv”) games create imaginary narrative spaces out of boxed sets of objects and printed rules.

Techniques for futures games

In Peek we challenged ourselves to create a speculative science fiction game that could be played in a single sitting at home, an event, a company meeting, or in a classroom. Constraining the game time meant heavily scaffolding the storytelling experience with pre-written story elements. The game is more novel than role-playing games because of this constrained story-world that funnels participants into specific themes of research, character development and plot opportunities. Still, players have access to the full range of their imagination, as long as they don’t directly contradict the game cards.

Every play of Peek counts as an impact and discussion point for this speculative object/novel. Influenced by knowledge construction theories of socio-constructivism, the game brings people together to collaboratively and socially create the knowledge of their world, integrating each others’ stories (and inherent viewpoints) into their own work and understanding.

Diverse narratives and audiences

Getting diverse groups of people to understand the personal impact of developing and new technologies on their individual lives and on their larger communities is often a challenge. A good storytelling game about the future needs good characters (or story “entities”) to drive the narratives. In practice, this is a difficult and sensitive skill. Storytellers need to avoid stereotypes, or they risk alienating and offending people. They also need to make stories personal, and to remember that in the real world we are all the main character in our own story and we want it told accurately and personally. Creating meaningful entities means finding a balance of representing people specific enough to others that they can empathise with the characters but being careful not to cross the line into stealing actual identities and obscuring them under the label of “personas”.

Even with sensitivity in mind, some participants found a few of our characters stereotypical or they painted a picture of their lives that was contrary to their lived experience. This was observed in one of our playtests, with a participant from Shenzhen, China. They expressed disappointment for a card with a storyline that, in their view, portrayed their home city as mainly a manufacturing centre, with less regard for the culture and vibrant inner life of a city of more than 12 million people.

The card’s story “reported” a future event where automated manufacturing runs amok. AI factories pollute the city streets with streams of unnecessarily manufactured plastic eggs because of competition between factory AIs. For us, it was meant to be a darkly humorous lesson in how AI controlled factories can create real-world pollution in city centres, looking at the boundaries between automated industry and human habitation. For them, it was yet another reductionist view of their city as a faceless, polluted (or soon-to-be polluted) manufacturing colossus.

Structuring the stories

Storytelling, like any form of art, comes with some basic tools of the trade. In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, he argues that there are only seven basic storylines that can be worked with or against. 

Out of this, we found a basic formula that worked well in our tests: Entity + Context + Feeling + (2 or more backstories or Reports).

The final version was pared down even more, removing the Context cards. In our original thinking, Context cards gave specific context to the broader themes inspired by futuring’s commonly used STEEPV (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political, Values) categories. Later, we realised that the stories from the Reports and Entities had enough context to make them redundant. Also, the practicalities of producing an affordable and reproducible game at scale meant cutting back on some content.

A participant in a playtest pointed us towards Ben Robbins’s role-playing and storytelling game “Microscope”. Microscope uses a similar approach but on a broader scale – participants create whole worlds over the course of the game, which can last a day or more. Peek, in comparison, provides pre-written content, research and story elements that let players get started quickly and finish in at least 30 minutes. It uses structured “build-up” rounds that prompt players to link each other’s story elements together before they are tasked with telling an entire story.

An early version of Spoke/Peek at the V&A museum in London in 2018.

Assessing and scoring

Peek has collaborative scoring, to encourage players to safely be creative. As improvisational (“improv”) actors know, the act of being creative in front of others is a vulnerable one. Keeping someone’s story going, no matter how ridiculous, by responding to their thoughts with “yes, and …” is a technique in improv theatre.

Peek translates this into game mechanics where players can only add points to others’ scores, not remove them. Also, in the spirit of improv, whatever anyone says becomes “canon”. This means it becomes fact in this game and cannot be contradicted by other players. Stories can be undermined, but not erased.

Collaboration is related to corroboration, which is an essential method of science and academia for providing epistemically useful evidence for claims. Peek assigns points for two types of corroboration: “observations”, where story elements are re-used across players, and “citations” where the game’s own “peer-reviewed” story elements are referenced.

The scoring system and the rounds-based format of gameplay were the most difficult aspects of the game to design. They evolved from telling the story all at once at the start to a system of rewards for creating common links between story elements. Incremental storytelling helped less experienced or shy storytellers. We also observed multiple players picking another’s Entity and making them the focus of increasingly intricate plot twists (“she’s been secretly dating your character and … she reveals that she’s Elon Musk’s daughter!”).

To prevent stories from verging towards the fantastic and silly, we decided on two basic criteria borrowed from how we assess student work: creativity and plausibility. Players evaluate each other according to these two criteria but only in a positive way by adding to a player’s score, never taking away. This keeps the gameplay non-punitive.

Reflections and conclusions

A game like Peek is a living entity that grows over time, fed by the stories and experiences generated by its participants. No version will ever be authoritative, nor “finished”. This aligns with the multi-versioned, constantly-updating digital products that drive our world, a mode of thinking that comic book producers have inhabited for some time.

We have experience teaching user-centred design and futuring, including on the diverse MA Design Products programme at the Royal College of Art in London, but we were still surprised when participants found some of our stories stereotypical. We responded not only by changing them, but also by including those participants as authors in new and related versions of the story. This foregrounds the difficulty of designing futures for those different than ourselves, no matter our background. It would be trite to say that designers must engage their users early in the design process, when so much has already been written about collaborative design techniques like co-design and participatory design but it bears repeating that designers of all skill levels should have plans for how they will include other perspectives in their work, at every phase of that work.

Lastly, we were impressed with our participants’ abilities to tell stories, no matter what cards they were dealt. Every participant in the games told a story, and told them well! Some participants from technical backgrounds self-professed to be “bad at telling stories” and were initially uncomfortable with the idea of composing one on the spot. Their hesitance can be understood, because we are all both critical and also surrounded by amazing stories on our streaming platforms, podcasts and in plenty of novels.

Games, with their participatory nature and the right collaborative frameworks, can be a medium for collective reinvention.

Looking towards positive futures

In practice, games like Peek can be an entertaining format for telling stories, but we argue that they also have potential to change minds and influence the uncertain future. There is a plethora of dystopian science fiction and media in the world, but few positive visions for what could be. At its heart, this search for futures we might want is inherently a collaborative one. It will take the collective action of a large part of society to move us from resource-hungry, dystopian surveillance capitalism back to societal sustainability. Games, with their participatory nature and the right collaborative frameworks, can be a medium for this collective reinvention.

Evan Raskob is an interactive artist, game designer, livecoding performer and full-time educator teaching Physical and Creative Computing at Goldsmiths University. He has used speculative and science fiction design pedagogy to teach in both London and in China. Previously, he taught on MA Design Products at the RCA.

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