Notes from the Society for College and University Planning’s 2015 Chicago Conference

National Technology
Chicago from above. (Mirza Asad Baig / Flickr)

Chicago from above. (Mirza Asad Baig / Flickr)

There’s much to be said about SCUP’s 50th Annual International Conference, held this year at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, in Chicago, Illinois, July 11 – 15. Aside from what one must imagine are the typical characteristics of this globe-trotting annual event—mission-oriented indoctrination, relentless networking against seemingly never-ending waves of competition and sweets, a diverse range of diurnal activities and workshops concerning a stunning miscellany of unpredictable subjects (including drones)—this year’s event presented interesting spins on an emergent, “integrated” planning strategy involving the use of Data in University programming.

One of the conferences most interesting topics was the common theme of SIMULATION across the conference, specifically, in the context of using data born from a projected reality or fantasy, which ultimately ends up informing reality to such a magnitude as to change something. This is tied to video games, role-playing and the sensibility of the gamer.

In “How to make the Future – With Games,” Jane McGonigal, Game Designer and Future Forecaster, leveled the crowd with an exegesis on the collective intelligence and “collaboration superpowers” of gamers and their seemingly shared, innate ability to, not sit in a dark room for hours ingesting potato chips on a pleather couch peppered by blades of setting sunlight that make it through the blinds but not the headphones (the blinds reference could be 80’s: American Gigolo, Less Than Zero), but “strengthen and transform” Society. McGonigal’s milieu, becoming ours, involves “massively multi-player future forecasting games” that enable us to imagine and plan for “strange and wonderful futures”. She is, according to SCUP’s description of the Plenary Session, today’s “leading speaker on the engagement economy and the application of game-design to the real world.”

McGonigal’s initial visualization and consequent circumlocutory word-play involved the construction of a predictive model in the form of an asteroid threat, which utilized player response to inform a “collective intelligence around real-world pandemic response.” She described her use of social media as a ready-made network to host this particular simulation or game. She defined a geographic region or corridor. Players fantasized about impacts to everything from available medicine to the stock market and their responses were ultimately used to inform responsive, BIG BROTHER agency thinking. McGonigal further described concepts of “Interactive Documentary” and concluded with a very compelling description of “Find the Future: The Game”, a game in which over 500 players explored the New York Public Library’s 70 miles of stacks using laptops and smartphones, following clues that amalgamated in short personal essays inspired by the event which are to be compiled in a volume to be stored within the Library’s collection.

“The game is designed to empower young people to find their own futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and objects of people who made an extraordinary difference,” said McGonigal

McGonigal made mention of one other related item of interest relative to reality and gaming, the text Ready Player One, by Ernest Celine. I just read this book, which takes the notion of Simulation to a level that displaces reality while at the same time, supplies the, let’s just say participant, with many forms of currency which have palpability in the real world, be it knowledge, a sense of physical security, or income. Celine constructs a post-apocalyptic world in typical sci-fi fashion. He integrates ’80s lore (Music, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Video Games, TV, etc.) into the construct. His seamless interweaving of the content informing the game with the game itself and reality is fascinating, and it takes McGonigal’s expertise to its logical conclusion: Data generated from Fantasy has value in the real world and has the capacity to inspire change on many levels, even policy.

McGonigal’s influence put a strange, intellectual spin on the lens through which Data might be perceived on the level of Programming. It seems that Fantasy has as much to teach us about reality as human tracking. Going back to the idea of a predictive model, devoting more time to fully flushing out worlds that don’t exist, could significantly inform our approach to data-driven design methodologies in a way that is less invasive than human telematics.

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