Let's build a game. Let's make it a strategy game. We will realistically simulate global politics in the 2030s. Perhaps a sort of Civ or Supreme Ruler 2020-type system.
Where shall we start? How about something easy, like choosing the nations in the game? It's simple enough to consult an atlas. We'll start with Britain... but wait! Scotland is on the brink of declaring independence from the United Kingdom. Should Britain be a single power, or should England and Scotland be depicted as a separate nation? What about Belgium splitting into Flemish and Walloon states? And these are old, established European nations. How will states like Syria and Nigeria look in two decades? It was only a bit over 20 years ago that the Soviet Union appeared to be a unshakeable superpower that controlled Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Okay, let's switch to natural resources. The nations in our game need them to sustain their economies, and they will probably fight to control them. In 2030, the key natural resources will be... what? Where? Shale-oil and natural gas may turn the U.S. from an energy importer to exporter. Energy fracking by other nations, or alternative energy sources like solar, could change everything from global trade to how much money flows into certain Middle Eastern kingdoms. Beyond energy, there is also food. Climate change, whether it's natural or man-made, could radically alter where and how much food is grown, as well as where nations such as China choose to assert their power. Should we assume that where food is and is not grown now will be the same 20 years from now?
Resources feed into economics. Every nation in our game will have an economy. Just like Civ, you can set tax rates and spend revenue on building armies, roads and other infrastructure. The bigger and more advanced the economy, the more resources it has to spend. So, which will be the big economies in 2030? Will rising economic powerhouses like Brazil and India continue their ascent, or will internal pressures such as huge poverty-stricken underclasses cripple them? Is China destined to supplant the United States as the world's economic powerhouse, or will political repression and wealth inequality burst its bubble?
Designing the military part of our game should be easy. We have seen the effects of smart bombs and drones. Then again, what will drones look like 20 years from now? Will there be any manned combat aircraft left, or will warplanes all be pilotless? Will tanks also be robotic? Will nations be more willing to use force if they can fight wars without risking the lives of their soldiers? Then there is cyberwarfare. Do we assume that you can disrupt the communications of an enemy army, or paralyze a country's entire electrical system, with a single virus?
These are not trick questions. They are merely unanswerable, or at least the answers don't appear until after the fact. Lots of people in the Pentagon, think-tanks and universities get oodles of taxpayer money to devise forecasts, mathematical models and even make games to predict what will happen. Their answers may be better informed than yours and mine — perhaps they have access to classified intelligence data — but this doesn't necessarily mean that their answers are more accurate than yours or mine.
The pros often blow it in spectacular fashion (practically none of the experts on the Soviet Union predicted its abrupt collapse). This is not to say that Civ is a better predictor of the future than a mammoth $US300 million Pentagon simulation like Warsim. What it means is that predicting the future, whether you're a game designer or a talking head on TV, is to guess. The problem is that often these guesses are cloaked as expert opinion, or game marketing copy that boasts of impressive research. They're still guesses.
Some guesses are better than others. If our hypothetical strategy game portrays Uruguay and Malaysia as superpowers, then either we are privy to something the rest of the world doesn't know, or we made a mistake. As game designers attempting to simulate the future, the best we can do is conduct research, combine that research with our own intuition and knowledge, and make the best guesses we can. This is not an excuse for bad game design. It just means that in the absence of absolute certainty, you either guess or you don't create a game at all.
Image: Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press