The Case for Paratopian Design

What if we could make complex social and cultural questions playable? And what if we could do so through interactions with familiar digital interfaces set in alternative presents and near futures? Dr. Rilla Khaled discusses her work as being located at the intersections between the traditions of speculative and critical design, the philosophies and best practices of game design and playful media, and interaction design. In this talk, Dr. Khaled makes the case for paratopian design, which is neither utopian nor dystopian, but proposes paradigm shifts that invite us to reconceptualise and reconsider the building blocks of "here" & "now" by joining speculative design with the rhetorical dimensions of player experience. 

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Key Terms

Speculative and Critical Designs (SCDs): Rather than consumer-oriented designs that focus on problem-solving, speculative and critical design is a form of design thinking that uses objects with fictional functions to allow audiences to imagine alternative versions of the world, and to think critically about how close these alternatives are to our present world. 
Uncanny valley: The Oxford English Dictionary refers to the uncanny valley as the phenomenon in which a “computer-generated figure [bears] a close but imperfect resemblance to a human being, [arousing] a sense of unease … in the person viewing it.” Dr. Khaled notes that SCDs should aim to be situated in the uncanny valley of design, somewhere between the familiar and unfamiliar. By making modifications to what audiences take as familiar without making large enough changes that audiences might interpret as completely out of place, SCDs can become uncanny, forcing audiences to pay more critical attention to the questions that the SCD raises. 
Paratopia: Since dystopian designs can limit critical responses from audiences, and utopian designs are impossible and doomed to fail, Dr. Khaled urges the design of paratopias instead, which exist as lateral alternatives in the space between dystopias and utopias. Unlike the distant feeling of dystopias or utopias, paratopias are meant to be very close to our current world. In other words, paratopias do not require audiences to take major imaginative leaps to apply the design to the conditions of the present world. 

Bleed/alibi: Dr. Khaled borrows the ideas of ‘bleed’ and ‘alibi’ from LARPing. Bleed refers to the transfer of emotions between the player and the player’s character within the fictional world, while alibi refers to the strategies used to come to rationalize actions and ideas that are not acceptable in the real-world as acceptable in the fictional world. If the design experience is familiar enough, SCDs can induce a level of bleed in a design audience; however, if the fictional world of the SCD includes provocative elements, design audiences should be protected through alibis to that orient the player to accepted or appropriate actions within the context of the paratopian design.  


Speculative and Critical Design (SCD) is a school of design that seeks to propose alternative visions of the world through the functionality of objects. Rather than consumer-oriented designs that focus on problem-solving and optimizing its functions for users, Dr. Khaled notes that SCDs focus on “problem finding, asking questions … societal needs as opposed to production, and thinking about people as opposed to users.” 

This thinking focuses on how people will be impacted by engaging with this speculative design rather than how people will live in a world with this possible technology. That is, it is often focused on producing an object that represents a possible future but neglects to consider the rhetorical impact of their speculative designs, or the meanings users will make of their experience with the object. In this talk, Dr. Khaled shares lessons on how we can centre considerations of players and the rhetorical effect of speculative design. 

Lesson One: SCDs should be uncanny 

To produce real critical engagement, SCDs should be situated in the uncanny valley of design, somewhere between familiar and unfamiliar; Dr. Khaled notes if an SCD is “too familiar … the concept will be understandable, but boring. Too unfamiliar and the concept might be interesting but irrelevant.” SCDs can become ‘uncanny’ when modifications are made to facts, norms, laws, or rules an audience would be familiar with. As long as the SCD isn’t so unfamiliar that people feel fully out of place, the irregularities the SCDs present helps invite people to pay more attention than they normally would. 

Games and playful media can be used as vehicles for SCDs. The interactivity of playful media allows functions that are still conceptual to be simulated within the fictional game world. But Dr. Khaled brings up a problem: because of how rapidly games have developed in terms of their expressive capacities, it has become difficult for anything to remain ‘weird’ within a game, limiting the critical thinking an SCD should induce in its audience. Dr. Khaled notes that “any experience we have of uncanny design value as expressed via a game system gradually disappears as we work out the rules of play and as we become enculturated within that game system.” 

Reflection questions: How does speculative and critical design align with (or clash against) other forms of design thinking? In what other contexts do designers try to strike a balance between being too familiar and being too unfamiliar? In what ways can you apply SCD thinking in your own projects? 

Lesson Three: SCDs should move from dystopias/utopias to paratopias 

The alternative vision that SCDs present is often one that is dystopian. NEO//QAB, an SCD designed by Dr. Khaled and her team, presents such a dystopia. NEO//QAB presents itself as a technology that allows people to ‘uncensor’ Muslim women wearing niqabs by editing a face on them, raising questions about societal stances on religious differences and interrogating our boundaries of religious tolerance. Dr. Khaled emphasizes that she is not advocating for NEO//QAB to be made into a real technology and is very much a dystopian design. 

When NEO//QAB was tested in a research setting, however, Dr. Khaled ran into what she referred to as the ‘woke problem’. All of NEO//QAB’s testers from this research setting shared similar political leanings; Khaled notes that, when describing the design motivations of the project during the debrief decision, she noticed a lot of head nodding, “perhaps too much head nodding for the design to have done anything other than making people uncomfortable.” 

Beyond her similarity to the testing group, Khaled notes that dystopian design is a ‘mic drop’ that doesn’t allow room to respond, irresponsibly leaving the burden of thinking about alternatives to the audience. Dystopias also allow audiences to reason ways in which it wouldn’t apply to them, taking away the motivation to engage in further critical thinking about the questions these designs pose. 

If dystopian designs have many problems and utopias are impossible to design, designers should aim to create paratopias instead, which Khaled calls the “lateral alternatives and possible parallel worlds” between utopias and paratopias. Paratopian design can help to solve the woke problem by asking people not to imagine a distant dystopic world, but a much closer world to our own. Paratopian designs ask audiences to shift paradigms and see the present through a different lens. 

Reflection questions: What can designers do in response to the ‘woke problem’ to encourage critical responses to provocative or challenging SCDs? How can the idea of ‘paratopias’ be useful in other, non-design contexts? 

Lesson Three: SCDs should consider the cultural values of their target audiences 

In creating SCDs that propose worlds that are closer to the present than dystopias, it’s critical to explore how to make these SCDs in participatory ways, especially with the communities these designs would most deeply impact. Dr. Khaled demonstrates this with Aunties+Algorithms, a project created by her team that she refers to as an “algorithmically assisted online matrimonial platform for people based in India.” Aunties+Algorithms seeks to ask how assumptions of matchmaking can be reimagined beyond non-digital social networks in the Internet era, and what new design trajectories can be developed from young Indians in thinking about marriage in the future. 

Dr. Khaled quickly found that this project needed to be developed by people that would inhabit this paratopia, not just her team. Dr. Khaled ran workshops with participants in the Bangalore area, identified the major perceptions and issues surrounding relationships and marriage among Indian youth, had them brainstorm visions of the future where these issues were minimized, and worked together to develop prototypes of platforms they could use in the near future. 

Aunties+Algorithms demonstrates that SCDs must be tied to the values and cultural knowledge of the people who would use it. To truly imagine a world in which people could practically use an SCD, Dr. Khaled emphasizes that designers should develop a shared trust and perspective with the communities these SCDs affect. 

Reflection questions: Who are the targeted audiences of your designs? What ways can you allow these audiences to be part of your design process? 

Lesson Four: SCDs should include onboarding designs in certain contexts 

Onboarding is critical to SCDs especially when the fictional world of the SCD is complicated. Dr. Khaled compares onboarding to the idea of airlocks, sealed off compartments that help inhabitants acclimatize to the environment they are about to enter. In creating SCDs, it is important to understand what participants need to acclimatize to; it’s crucial to ask what the design audience already knows and assumes, as well as who these audiences need to be as participants of the SCD. 

As an example, Dr. Khaled describes a conversation with a research assistant who was uncomfortable with testing NEO//QAB out of a feeling that it wasn’t ethically right for him to participate in the SCD. He felt much more comfortable in testing the SCD when Dr. Khaled asked him to play as someone who had to critically analyze the app. NEO//QAB is now presented as an app submitted through the fictional distribution platform PocketNet, where audience members are tasked with verifying whether the app could violate PocketNet’s publishing guidelines. Dr. Khaled notes that this fictional role demands critical analysis and makes it less likely for audience members to experience ideological clash. 

Borrowing terms from the world of LARPing, Dr. Khaled suggests that SCDs make use of the opposing and complementary qualities of ‘bleed’, in which emotions are transferred between the player and their character, and ‘alibi’, in which actions considered taboo in the real world are understood as acceptable in the fictional world. For SCDs that don’t produce ideological clashing, audiences can be immersed in the SCD’s fictional world. If the experience is just familiar enough that the audience can figure out their role and what functions they can do, they can experience some degree of bleed For SCDs with fictional worlds that deal with more difficult assumptions, however, it’s crucial to provide the audience with a stronger alibi, as with PocketNet and NEO//KAB, to allow them to acclimatize to the SCD. 

Reflection questions: Besides the terms Dr. Khaled borrows from LARPing, what other play-related concepts can be useful for furthering critical response to SCDs? What onboarding processes might be useful to help audiences engage with your own projects? 

Rilla Khaled 

Dr. Rilla Khaled

Dr. Rilla Khaled is an Associate Professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montréal. She is the Associate Director of the Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Research Centre. Her work focuses on how playful media can improve daily life, and spans designing award-winning games, creating speculative prototypes of near-future technologies, working with BIPOC communities to materialise inclusive futures, establishing foundations for recoverable, materials-based game design research, and articulating boundaries for experimental uses of AI.