“Hi Grandma, Mom says you’re gonna take me to see the lobster.”
It’s clear from the sound of her voice that the speaker in the voice message is a little girl. Her mother takes the phone.
“Hi Mom. They say the last lobster doesn’t have much longer to live in that exhibit, and you know, she really wants to see it before it’s gone.”
They’re calling from the year 2059, when the last lobster of a functionally extinct species lives in the New England Aquarium. Or that’s at least what the callers imagined 2059 would be like when they left a message for the climate fiction game Futurecoast.org.
FutureCoast, launched in early February with the help of a National Science Foundation climate education grant and Columbia University, has at least a hundred other messages like the Last Lobster. Some are funny: Like the one woman in the seaside town of Brighton who can’t get home because the tide’s gotten too high and needs to seek shelter in a “flotel” for the night. Others are devastating. In one message, a woman with a trembling voice asks her friend in government if he might be able to help her locate her partner, who’s gone missing after having gone to interview protesters at a “refugee rights” demonstration.
The emotional tenor and imagination of the messages range widely, but the futures aren’t actually that far off. In the FutureCoast world, voice messages are leaking into the present day from futures between 2020 and 2065. And some, like the disappearance of certain flora and fauna, mass political unrest, and water shortages, are incredibly realistic–just go and read the latest IPCC report.
Ken Eklund, the writer and designer behind the game, says that the aim of FutureCoast is to try to get people to engage in real critical thinking through play. There’s a physical component to the game, too. In the FutureCoast backstory, voicemails are decoded from plastic sculptures called “chronofacts” that fall from the sky into the present. FutureCoast volunteers actually place chronofacts in strategic landmarks for strangers to find. When they do, the chronofact inscription leads to the website, where anyone can leave a voice message. Unless a message is inappropriate for kids, the voicemails aren’t censored.
“The voicemails come from a cloud of possible futures. A lot of the conversation about climate change kind of really assumes there’s one future, and that is just literally not the case,” Eklund says. “It’s a way to express even half-formed fears, or unrealized fears, or hopes about what the future is going to be like.”
Part of the game’s mission, of course, is to change behavior in the present–the idea that if we take the time to imagine what’s at stake, we might start saving what could be lost now.
And yet, most messages aren’t even that apocalyptic. Instead, they leave an impression of a future in which climate change simply becomes a facet of reality, experienced in both subtle and dramatic ways. In the future, like in the present, humans have the choice to accept their situations, or struggle and try to change them.
“[FutureCoast] exposes a lot of this apocalyptic talk as being a lie,” Eklund says. “That’s just assuming that people will do nothing. And that assumption is probably not correct. People are going to do what they can to preserve the things that they want. That’s the message I get.”