SKULD — Public Participation Game for Planetary Futures

Participative game of planetary futures deployed during NODE20 festival
24 Dec 2020
NODE Forum
AUG 2020 — OCT 2020
Frankfurt, DE — Online

SKULD is an opaque world simulation developed by the no-less fictional professor Norn. At NODE Festival, it prompted the audience for answers to a series of civilizational questions, and produced futures that were both absurd and too close for comfort.


The project hid­ing behind the obscure acronym SKULD is, in fic­tion, "a plan­e­tary emu­la­tor incor­po­rat­ing com­plex tech­ni­cal, social, and envi­ron­men­tal datasets, devel­oped by the hon­or­able pro­fes­sor Norn and his devot­ed assis­tant Pyry Ket­tunen at the uni­ver­si­ty of Old­en­burg." In real­i­ty, it is a mechan­i­cal turk pow­ered by two shad­ow work­ers, whose tasks con­sist in polling the audi­ence with fic­tion­al prompts and loose­ly match­ing the obtained answers with a set of preestab­lished para­me­ters, before build­ing a visu­al­iza­tion of the result­ing world and pro­ceed­ing to the next poll. The result is a col­lec­tive world­build­ing expe­ri­ence for the audi­ence of the 2020 edi­tion of NODE fes­ti­val — an online pan­dem­ic spe­cial merg­ing in-situ pro­duc­tion and online expe­ri­ence — and tak­ing the shape of short inter­ludes between events at the festival.

Back to the fic­tion. Intro­duced by the make-believe sci­en­tists dur­ing an inter­view with the fes­ti­val mod­er­a­tors, the sys­tem is designed in such a way that a thou­sand years of evo­lu­tion are sim­u­lat­ed over two days, focus­ing on a slice of earth rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the planet’s com­plex ecosys­tems. The world sim­u­la­tor alleged­ly “visu­al­izes nat­ur­al resources man­age­ment and eco­log­i­cal impact as part of a com­plex and dynam­ic ecosys­tem mod­er­at­ed by indi­vid­ual ide­olo­gies. It takes any kind of input — tech­ni­cal, social, polit­i­cal or even cul­tur­al — and com­pares it to a data­base of real-world events to deter­mine their impact on resources man­age­ment at both glob­al and hyper­local scales. It then sim­u­lates a new set­up, which in turn deter­mines a range of options for the next iter­a­tions. The ques­tions might sound odd to the festival’s audi­ence, but they will make per­fect sense in the sim­u­lat­ed world-in-progress.”

The sim­u­la­tion result­ing from this col­lec­tive exper­i­ment took the shape of a con­stant rene­go­ti­a­tion of moral choic­es and exter­nal con­tin­gen­cies, forc­ing the audi­ence to nav­i­gate short and long-term pro­jec­tions, define pri­or­i­ties, and make sac­ri­fices as it is faced with choic­es on resource man­age­ment, dis­as­ter mit­i­ga­tion, but also polit­i­cal and eth­i­cal conundrums.

Our earth sim­u­la­tor would be visu­al­ly updat­ed accord­ing to the results of the polls: a 3D ani­mat­ed slice of earth shows what the land might look like, while a range of para­me­ters includ­ing pop­u­la­tion, air qual­i­ty, tem­per­a­ture, life expectan­cy, ener­gy avail­abil­i­ty, etc. keeps on updat­ing, with new para­me­ters added when­ev­er a shift in world­view is reached. A brief fic­tion­al sto­ry is added before each new poll to give cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal con­text to the sim­u­la­tion, alter­nat­ing between speech­es, diary excerpts, cook­ing recipes, or even song lyrics. The sound­track is updat­ed to com­plete the mood.

In absence of an actu­al plan­e­tary emu­la­tor, the ele­ments real­ly guid­ing the flow of the exper­i­ment are a set of four com­plex flow­charts — a game master's sce­nario of sorts — each orga­niz­ing pos­si­ble choic­es and their con­se­quences into a tree struc­ture. The first focus­es on inno­va­tion and pro­duc­tion, the sec­ond on econ­o­my and soci­ety, the third on ener­gy pro­duc­tion and resources man­age­ment, and the last one on cri­sis man­age­ment. A polit­i­cal com­pass com­plet­ed the set­up, allow­ing us to keep track of the pro­gres­sive­ness and author­i­tar­i­an­ism lev­els of the civ­i­liza­tion pop­u­lat­ing SKULD. These ele­ments were revealed in a final inter­view with the fes­ti­val mod­er­a­tor, togeth­er with a recap of all polls and a short video edit show­ing the evo­lu­tion of the sim­u­lat­ed world over two days. We then drank bub­bles and sang ‘over the rain­bow’, for some reason.