Counterfactuals — Reflections on the Workshop by Tyler Coburn


For the past year, I’ve been thinking about counterfactuals: thought experiments that imagine alternate paths events could have taken. These exercises disrupt our habitual ways of thinking about the world—the “deep slumber of decided opinion,” in the words of John Stuart Mill. By imagining other histories, we arrive at presents different than our own. One may show how much worse things could be, while another could model equitable, reparative, and restitutive policies that we should strive for in the future.

The history of Ukraine, like the histories of many countries, invites counterfactual speculation. What were the Ostarbeiters owed, and were German reparations sufficient? How might recent history have unfolded if Ukraine didn’t denuclearize in the 1990s? How do we draw the line between fact and counterfact when some organizations countering disinformation, like StopFake, have political ties? In framing my workshop for CCI / Sorry No Rooms Available, I provided supplementary readings about these topics, making clear that the subject of counterfactuals hits close to home.

The workshop occurred over four sessions, with small groups assembling to play out different counterfactual scenarios. Gaming is a dynamic means of reworking history—particularly the style we employed, which is adapted from Ben Robbins’s Microscope. A form of “fractal gaming” that encourages nonchronological play, Microscope allowed us to build worlds from the scale of periods and events down to intimate scenes, where participants improvised as different characters.

Our games had vastly different scopes. One imagined that Carpatho-Ukraine, an autonomous region created in 1939, lasted until 1946—not for a mere 24 hours. While the early stages remained within the realm of plausible diplomacy and warcraft (an agreement between Hungarians and Carpatho-Ukrainians, Voloshyn and Hitler negotiating on a hunting trip), later stages took on magical-realist qualities, including the participation of mushrooms and militarized trout.

For another game, the group ingeniously combined all of their members’ counterfactual prompts:

What if
the suffragettes didn’t gain the right to vote and
Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated and
Warsaw wasn’t rebuilt after World War II but was left as a monument of war and
Khrushchev stayed in power until 1991 and
the Chernobyl disaster never happened?

In building connections between these prompts, group members reimagined the 1908 Siberian Asteroid Event as a “first contact” between Communist aliens and exiled Bolsheviks. Through their negotiations, the Bolsheviks gained a powerful source of alien renewable energy, freeing them from having to later build nuclear plants like Chernobyl. To help oversee the Bolsheviks’ revolution and subsequent state, the aliens sent an emissary in the form of Khrushchev. Alongside all of this, the group imagined a massive decrease in the male population, in the early-20th century, which partly explained the assassination attempt on Ferdinand and set the stage for World War II to be fought for a different reason: a disagreement about how to restructure society to repopulate the world with men.

As you can tell, it’s difficult to summarize these games, so I encourage you to look at the accompanying graphics. My hope is that this approach to counterfactual history might be of interest to you—something you could take up with your friends on a Sunday afternoon, like we did. Even when things get magical and otherworldly, these games are a way to run along and against the historical grain, making one feel more accountable to the past and present.