What even is worldbuilding, anyways?

In which I catch you up on the bazillion projects I'm working on, and make the case for critical worldbuilding.

Hi friends, and welcome to my monthly newsletter! I’m so glad you can be here at the very start of it.

I started this newsletter for two reasons:

First: to keep all of you up-to-date on my ongoing projects. My website is nice and all, but I can’t expect you to regularly refresh it in the hopes of an update (though if you’re doing that … thanks?).

Second: to have a place to think on a more regular basis about worldbuilding. For you, this means you’ll get at least one prompt or exercise each month to help with either an ongoing worldbuilding project or with your imaginative thinking more generally.  

Some of you probably followed me because you’re working on a worldbuilding project already. Great! But I wanted to speak for a moment to the rest of you, who might know me or my work but not much about worldbuilding. You might be asking yourself, what exactly is worldbuilding, and why should I do it every month?

So let’s start with that! (If you’re more interested in knowing what’s going on with me, feel free to scroll down to “Upcoming Projects.”)

What is worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is kind of a buzzword these days, so it can end up meaning a lot of things, from 3D modelling to “something having to do with video games” to set design. All of these things relate tangentially to worldbuilding, but they aren’t what I’m interested in.

For the purposes of this blog, and my work more generally, I define worldbuilding as “the conceptual, organizational and logistical process of creating an internally-consistent setting.” Put another way: worldbuilding is the work of creating a place where we can imagine ourselves, that inspires thought, attention and speculation, and that makes us look anew at our own world and our place within it. It begins with imagination, but often involves research, concept art, activities like mapmaking, and a lot of ironing out specific details.   

Most people make a setting for another thing they’re making – so for example, you might do worldbuilding for a book you’re writing, a tabletop RPG campaign with some friends, or a game you’re designing. But many people enjoy worldbuilding for its own sake, with no eventual creative goal. Which brings me to our second question:

Why should I do it?

Not to be hyperbolic, but: critical worldbuilding has completely changed the way I see my creative practice. I used to see my creative work as a deep exploration of a single idea or concept – as mostly conceptual or imaginative work, with a focus on creating expressive images and interesting takeaways.

I still do that work, but now, I treat the places in which my stories and artworks take place as worlds in their own right, with stories to tell beyond the ones I can express. I still begin by coming up with interesting core concepts, but now I ask myself difficult questions at every stage of the process: What exists in this world beyond the idea that brought me to it? Why do I want to tell this story in particular? Why are things in this world the way they are? Why do they look the way they look? How is this world different from my own, and what are the limits of my ability to perceive and understand it?

So if I were to sell you on worldbuilding as a practice, this is what I would say: fundamentally, worldbuilding is a way of thinking that centers curiosity and complexity. For everything from large-scale histories to small aesthetic details, you have to ask how and why things are this way, and you have to be ready not to know the answer. You also have to be ready for the answer to be complicated – worlds tend to be hard to understand, and probably impossible for one person to understand. But thinking this way opens you up to new and interesting questions, answers, ideas and problems. For me it has resulted in more interesting and evocative creative work, and it has helped me ask curious and complex questions of our own world, too.

I hope that my work and this newsletter can help you think more about your worldbuilding and how you might improve it! Now on to the other half of the newsletter: stuff I’m making and why you might like it.

Upcoming Projects

THIS WEEKEND: Wordplay Festival (November 21-22)

I’m thrilled to be speaking at the Wordplay Festival this weekend, November 21-22! Organized by the Hand Eye Society, Wordplay is an annual festival based in Toronto that celebrates the intersection of narrative and games.

I’ll be speaking about the relationship between worldbuilding methods and the kinds of worlds we build. I’ll also discuss some strategies and methods for building more nuanced, vivid and relevant worlds from a queer/anti-racist/anti-capitalist standpoint. If you want to know more about why I think worldbuilding is important, I

My talk will be streamed this weekend, and I’d love if you could make it! If not, I’ll send a link to the recording next month.

Check it out here!

Remote Realities Exhibition (ON NOW until December 14)

This summer, I completed a remote artist residency with Dames Making Games and Trinity Square Video, which culminated in an online exhibition (that just premiered last week!) titled Remote Realities. The residents were challenged to create an artwork that would reflect the challenges and possibilities of remote social interaction. For my part, I was interested in the potential of collaborative worldbuilding to create a sense of co-presence: when you build a world together, you can inhabit it together. The result is Worldbot: a Discord bot that guides players through a structured worldbuilding experience over the course of anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks.

I’ll be talking at length about Worldbot in next month’s newsletter, but for now, you can check out the exhibition, and my own contribution to it, here!

THIS FRIDAY: One Hour Worldbuilders Online

Last year, I designed my first worldbuilding game: a collaborative card game called One Hour Worldbuilders, in which players build a world in under an hour using a system of interesting prompts and structured questions. One Hour Worldbuilders is a great game for parties, road trips or hangouts with creative family members. I printed a hundred copies with plans to sell them at local conventions and even to bring a few to GDC.

Then COVID happened, and of course, there are no longer parties, road trips or hangouts with family, nor are there local conventions or GDC. Most of my printed copies are gathering dust in a suitcase in my closet, waiting for the day when I can table once again.

But luckily, I happen to have the coolest and most talented partner in the world! Andrew decided to digitize One Hour Worldbuilders as a small programming project, and now you can play it online with friends. If you like Zoom games and fun creative times with friends, I recommend it. It’ll be available as of this Friday here! Let me know what you think if you give it a try.

Playing History Podcast

This isn’t exactly worldbuilding related, but if you like games and weird history, you might like the podcast I just started with my partner, Andrew Tran! In each episode of Playing History, we discuss the history and social context of a popular board game. We’ve released two episodes so far: the first is about how Clue popularized the murder mystery genre, and the second is about the relationship between Ouija boards and modern technology. We release new episodes at the end of every month – our next one is about Snakes and Ladders and colonialism!

So far you can find us on Spotify, Apple or PocketCasts – or check us out here!

Worldbuilding Exercise: The Beginnings of a World

Since a few of you are probably new to worldbuilding, this exercise is designed to begin a new world which (if you’d like) you can continue to think about as I send out this newsletter each month. This is adapted from One Hour Worldbuilders, which uses themes taken from our own lives as the core concepts for worlds, instead of genres – so instead of starting with “I want to build a fantasy world,” which comes with a ton of baggage and unquestioned assumptions, you can start with a core concept that structures the power dynamics and themes of your world.

So let’s jump right in. You’ll need a six-sided die or a random number generator and also a piece of paper and a pencil.

First, write down the scale of the world you’re imagining. You can make something as small as a village or as large as a galaxy, but I recommend something about the size of a city. Write down one or two descriptive words at the top of the page. If you need inspiration you can use any number of the following:  

City, village, town, island, archipelago, peninsula, outpost, trading post, waypoint, station, satellite, settlement, ship, camp, nomadic group, zone, oasis, ruin.  

Next, roll the die, and based on the result, write down one of the following:

  1. A fear or anxiety you have

  2. A feeling you have to deal with every day

  3. A memorable feeling or emotion that you felt recently

  4. A personality trait you are proud of in yourself

  5. A personality trait you used to have, but no longer have

  6. A personality trait you wish you didn’t have

You will use this concept as the basis for your world. Roll the die again to decide its role in your world:

  1. Someone came to power in your world because of this feeling or trait.

  2. The previous power structure in your world collapsed because of this feeling or trait.

  3. This feeling or trait is mocked and detested in your world.

  4. This feeling or trait is essential to survival in your world.

  5. Your world is bitterly divided into two groups: those who have this trait or feel this way, and those who do not.

  6. In your world, this feeling or trait does not exist (or people act like it does not exist).

Whatever you roll, ask: how did it come to be this way? What was gained or lost in the process? Why does it continue to be this way? Is the current state of affairs stable or fragile? What happens to people who have this feeling/trait? What happens to those who do not? How do people acquire or lose it?  

Finally, roll the dice once more to imagine and describe one person within this world:

  1. Someone who helped make your world the way it is now.

  2. Someone who has your feeling or trait, but in the extreme.

  3. Someone who has never felt this way or had this trait.

  4. Someone who remembers what things used to be like, and regrets that things have changed.

  5. Someone who remembers what things used to be like, and is happy things have changed.

  6. Someone who tried to change the world and failed.

Whatever you roll, ask: why did they do what they did? Why do they feel the way they do? Where do they live now? What do others think of them?

Next month we’ll build on this foundation and imagine some specific people and places who live in your world.

That’s it for this month – stay safe, and see you all in December!