IMAGINE: the scenario game that helps kids think about the future

“It’s 2031, and we are renewing…”

Last week, Teach the Future to introduced a new game called IMAGINE designed to get kids thinking about foresight and the future. We joined The Association of Professional Futurists’ (APF) 12-hour Futures Festival on Friday, September 16, and showed them how it works! They were very excited, and I want to share our experience.

The Festival was an online gathering using Adobe Connect and provided a forum for futurists from around the world to present tools and ideas as well as various projects they are working on. We thought it was a perfect opportunity to test our game with people who understand what futures thinking is all about.

IMAGINE is a card game that Teach the Future designed to help young people create future scenarios grounded in observable change and heightened by imagination. Worth noting is that this game is just one piece of a larger curriculum that Teach the Future is creating to make futures thinking more accessible and fun for both teachers and students (more news on that soon!).

Our experience teaching the future to young people proves that they often have the foundational skills needed to create strong scenarios. They are comfortable spotting trends and signals of change as well as creating wildly imaginative future stories.

But we’ve also found that weaving those two ideas together in one scenario is often a challenge for them.

For the APF event, we created a web version of the game (you can find it here with instructions: and ran a demo with the group, hoping that we could learn more about the game and receive insight and perspective from experts.

The Scenarios

During the demo, we asked participants to create “fill in the blanks” scenarios using inputs from a set of “spinning wheels” that contained various options. They then combined those with their own ideas, using their imagination and understanding of change.

Here are two scenarios from people who attended our session:

It’s 2031, and we are renewing. Our ocean is thriving and our hope is being restored. Back in 2016, we saw growing concern about trash and plastics, and because of that, new technologies began to emerge. Since then, more floating plastic has been removed from our major oceans.

It’s 2031, and we are renewing. Our ocean is out of pH balance and our hope is that we can rebalance its pH. Back in 2016, we saw acidification of the ocean. Because of that, oceanic food supply was threatened. Since then, new technology has created passive alkalinities, which, when deployed in acidic hot spots, will help transform it and renew a pH which supports life.

You will notice a few similarities in these scenarios. We gave participants some structure and inputs to work with, and then they could take it in any direction they wanted. In a classroom or workshop setting, the game would be paired with some research, it would be played for several rounds, and followed up with analysis to identify insights and next steps.

What We Learned

Though the medium for our first dry run with the game was virtual and we are planning to use cards in the classroom, we learned a lot. Plus, we received some very positive feedback from people who work both with students and with adults. They felt that the game would be a great tool for scaffolding scenario creation. Since that was our objective when designing IMAGINE, that was great to hear.

We’ll continue to finesse how we introduce players to the game and how to stage it so it flows well and delivers valuable outputs. Instead of giving the players everything at once, we may need to take a more step-by-step approach. Please play the game online, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Next Steps

Later this week, we’re playing the game with students in person at Travis High School in Sugar Land TX, so we’ll have more insight to share. Soon we will have the cards downloadable for anyone to play, and we hope to unveil the whole curriculum early next year.

Stay tuned! And thanks for your support. Please share any comments/suggestions/feedback in the Comments section below.

Teaching the Future: Emeryville

A screenshot of one of the final games students created in "Game the Future."

A screenshot of one of the final games students created in "Game the Future."

What is the future of digital privacy? What are the implications of space resource extraction? How might we deal with food waste differently in the future? Can robots be competent caregivers?

A small group of high school students explored these questions (which they developed and researched) as part of a three-week academy put on by Teach the Future and California State University, East Bay’s STEM Institute CIRCLe Labs program. We called it Game the Future because the students learned how to “find the futures” of their chosen topics and consider multiple possibilities of how those topics might develop over time and then created online games to communicate their ideas, thanks to the talents of Jateen Bhakta of Ninja Pandas, my co-instructor on the project.

You can find an adaptation of the unit we did in the Teach the Future library. (It unfortunately leaves out most of the great game design skills because, well, I didn’t teach that part and don’t know how to!) You can check out a draft version of one of the games here. (They’re still being revised and will be submitted for publishing on in the Google Play store).

A few reflections:

Futures Gallery Walk

We did a gallery walk to illustrate the definitions and examples of trends, events, and “unknowns.” I showed them sets of images and news headlines representing trends (population growth), events (President Obama is elected), and unknowns (how might artificial intelligence develop?) and talked about the patterns they noticed and discussed other examples of trends, events, and unknowns in society. It was my favorite activity of the unit. The discussion was wide-ranging and insightful, and we even had the chance to talk about ideas like cycles in social change and underlying assumptions that sometimes direct the course of change. A major aspect of Teach the Future is giving teachers and students the language and the framework to be able to talk about and make sense of changes they already see and futures they already consider.

Futures Wheels

Futures Wheels are one of the most fun and accessible foresight tools, and this group used them to envision futures where privacy is a concept of the past and people regularly adopt new identities; where tension arises between what an elderly person wants and what her robot caregiver is programmed to provide; where our cycle of consumption and resource extraction pushes us deeper and deeper into space. A key support that instructors can offer in this activity is to make sure that students are moving through first-, second-, third-, and fourth-order effects step-by-step instead of jumping ahead to the most far-out effects right away. This keeps the conversation grounded in logic and reveals the less-obvious (and generally more interesting) effects.

From Futures Wheels to Stories

The step of our process where the students took the futures wheels and translated them into branching stories was the most challenging task for them and the one I’m still thinking through. Weaving together a series of possible outcomes into a coherent storyline and identifying how exactly those outcomes link up is not easy. Next time around, I would do more focused modeling and practice, but I would also be interested in any other instructors’ thoughts on how to scaffold this process more fully. Developing scenarios is a key skill that can help any of us envision possible futures, but making it both approachable and informed by research and critical thinking is a challenge.

What else?

As I thought about how instructors might adapt this unit for their own needs, I realized that this could be a great project-based learning unit. Students could identify an audience who needs or wants to understand the future of a certain topic, interview their audience, decide which aspects of the future of that topic might be most important for them to understand, develop their stories accordingly, and learn about how games can influence people’s thinking and behavior.

Every day, we reflected on what we’d accomplished and learned, and one student commented, “I like that we talked about the grey areas and the complicated ways things could turn out. Most of the time, people just talk about the future like it’s black and white.”

And that’s what Teach the Future is all about.