Future forecaster and game designer Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., specializes in creating simulations that help people imagine the biggest global challenges they might face in the future. In 2008, one of those simulations was a global outbreak of a fictional respiratory virus originating in China set 11 years in the future, in the fall of 2019. Sound familiar?

McGonigal, who will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming RISE National 2022 in Nashville, Tenn., said the COVID-19 pandemic has provided her with a rare research opportunity because it’s unusual for forecasters to see whether reality matches up to a simulation.

The 2008 simulation asked nearly 10,000 people worldwide to predict how they would personally feel and what they would do during a rapidly spreading outbreak to help others. How would they change their daily habits? What social interactions would they avoid? Could they and would they work from home? During a government-mandated quarantine, what problems might they experience? And McGonigal’s main question: Under what circumstances would people resist voluntary quarantine and social distancing?

And she found certain behaviors are so deeply embedded in human values that people would participate in dangerous practices even in the face of a deadly virus. In her new book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today, she writes that the simulation data showed that people would continue to participate in religious services, weddings, and funerals. And those who were young and single would still go to nightclubs and parties even if the events were illegal. 

“During the real pandemic, people did what our players predicted they would do during our simulation,” she writes in the introduction of the book. “They held large weddings despite rules against it, went to nightclubs despite the urgent messaging to stay at home, participated in in-person religious services despite testing positive for COVID-19, attended funerals despite having symptoms and being told to self-isolate. And these scenarios all turned into common, real-world superspreading events.”

Preparing for future unimaginable events

In a recent interview with RISE, McGonigal says she felt compelled to follow up with simulation participants in 2020 to see how they fared during the actual pandemic. She found that people who imagined themselves in what was then an “unimaginable scenario” did do better. “Overall, they were less shocked, so they were able to act faster. They had less anxiety,” she says, adding that the feelings felt familiar to them.

McGonigal says their ability to better cope with COVID-19 showed her that the simulations helped participants be more flexible, adaptable, and resilient when the “unthinkable” happened. This type of future thinking “can help reduce the emotional pain and suffering around having to meet a challenge or to adapt to a crisis, and that’s a huge benefit,” she says.

RISE National 2022

Now McGonigal wants to provide more people with a chance to have the same opportunity as the 2008 simulation participants. “What types of unimaginable events should we be thinking about now so that if we do live through them, we don’t have the shock. We have less anxiety, we’re more ready, and we’re more in control of how we respond, and we can really uncover important insights about if such a thing were to happen, how might real people behave.”

For example, currently there is a lot of research in the field of asteroids and near-Earth objects, she says. Fortunately, NASA is already preparing for the unthinkable by having plans to deflect asteroids and working on global treaties. But the struggle is how would the agency communicate the science of a potential near-Earth object to the world? Would people trust science enough to make smart decisions and follow public advice?

What if we imagined a scenario that might require a huge number of people—a city or a country—to be evacuated quickly? Would people trust the evidence? What if people say it’s a conspiracy theory? What if people misused the science to create hysteria when there wasn’t an object near to Earth? “If more people just understood basic asteroid science or basic near-Earth object science, it would be harder to fool people, and it would be harder to twist their perception,” she says.

People can help society prepare for such a scenario just by taking the time to educate themselves, according to McGonigal. For instance, NASA publishes everything the agency is tracking, the estimate of how big the object is, and how fast it’s traveling. “If we just took 15 minutes to educate ourselves now, we’d be more prepared if we woke up in a world where people are worried about this,” she says.

By looking ahead, imagining unthinkable scenarios, such as the situations McGonigal lays out in her book, people can use their knowledge to feel more positive about the challenges they are facing now and will in the future.

 “Whatever the future actually holds—some of which is in our control and some of which is not—if we arrive at the future depressed, anxious, and burned out, we won’t be able to meet that challenge as effectively as if we arrived empowered and optimistic and hopeful, feeling we can find allies and use our creativity and our voices and actions to make a positive difference.”

McGonigal will present her keynote address on Wednesday, March 9, the last day of RISE National 2022. RISE Association members who attend the conference will receive a complimentary copy of her new book, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today. 

RISE National 2022 will take place March 8-9, with preconference workshops on March 7, at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend the event. Click here to see the full conference agenda, roster of speakers, and how to register. Click here for our health and safety protocols.