The Politics of Worldbuilding
(Adapted from a talk first given at the AdventureX narrative games conference in London in 2017. You can watch a video of the original talk here.)
Abstract: All art is political, whether or not you intend to “make a statement.” If you don’t create with a clearly articulated perspective in mind, your work is likely to reinforce a host of tropes and implicit assumptions you hadn’t even considered.
I’m a game designer, writer, and editor based in Brooklyn. I do a bunch of things, but my primary interests are in narrative design and worldbuilding, with a particular fondness for adventure games.
I’ve worked at a few different indie studios in New York, on projects ranging from little mobile puzzle-platformers to big multiplayer online games to narrative adventures.
In 2016, I started my own company, Paperback Studio. I offer a range of services from narrative consulting to copyediting, but what I really love is the diversity of games I get to write for.
Now, please enjoy this image of “worldbuilding.jpg” while I say a few words about why I wanted to give this talk.
It was inspired by my work teaching and critiquing the works of novice worldbuilders, as well as looking at the works of professionals, and recognizing some trends and common pitfalls.
This talk isn’t meant to be prescriptive or dogmatic, or to chastise anyone for doing worldbuilding “wrong.”
It’s meant to give you something new to think about and some ideas to help you when you sit down to create your own worlds — with the ultimate goal of more unique, diverse, delightful, inspiring, welcoming worlds for us all to play in.
All right, so let’s get right to it. Why do we have to talk about politics?
Because all art is political. Whether the artist thinks so or not.
This has always been true, but in the current highly charged climate even more so. Walking down the street is political. Just breathing is political.
Game developers especially have been getting attention for, well, getting attention. There’s a lot of scrutiny, a lot of drama, and increasingly a lot of abuse for what used to be a largely blissfully apolitical activity.
On the positive side, many developers are now being more mindful and thoughtful about the kinds of experiences their games offer, and trying to make a positive impact on the world. But many are also afraid to speak up, cause a fuss, become visible, become a target.
You’ve probably heard this line before.
Typically just after someone gets in hot water for something they made.
It usually comes right on the heels of this one.
What it really means is this.
If you’re not setting out to craft an intentional message, you’re probably broadcasting one, or several, unconsciously.
When the politics of your work go unexamined, they tend to uphold the status quo.
Or reflect cultural stereotypes.
Or your own implicit biases.
I’d like to tell you a story about teenage dragonriders.
Way back very early in my editing career, I beta-read a story written by my junior-high-school boyfriend. (This is not his art or mine, by the way, although goodness knows we both had notebooks filled with this stuff. I should probably give Anne McCaffrey more credit for my career trajectory.)
So the story was about this clan of teenage dragon riders, who lived together in this fortress. I dimly recall they had some kind of supernatural or maybe telepathic powers — and they also all magically stopped aging at 19, staying young forever.
Now, you can probably identify this as the imaginings of a bookish teenage nerd who likes to escape into fantasy novels and can’t even imagine life after high school. I mean, he wasn’t even holding out for drinking age!
This particular perspective limited the appeal of the work to a very, very narrow audience substantially similar to the author. I.e., him, and me, his nerdy bookish girlfriend, and that’s about it. And even I thought it might be nice to be in my 20s someday.
But I doubt it ever occurred to him just what an odd detail that was, or what a radically strange world it would lead to.
There’s a bit by comedian Andy Kindler from Dr. Katz that has always stuck with me. He says, “We did some focus groups and we found out that my target audience is men, my age, who are me.”
“That seems to be the group of people who are most into what I’m doing.”
The elements of an imagined world reveal something about the perspective, and perhaps the limitations, of the author. If we’re not careful about intentionally constructing our meanings, unintended revelations pile up.
Worldbuilding is a form of rhetoric. When we actively use our worlds to construct meaning, that’s a rhetorical exercise — arranging elements in a particular way to make a point or produce a specific reaction in the audience.
Ian Bogost makes this point in his excellent book, Persuasive Games.
He’s talking about the rhetorical uses of simulation in mechanical game systems, and would probably take issue with my even mentioning him in this context. But I’d argue that the same principles apply to authored narrative content, as well.
Particularly when you’re talking about building an imagined world, which is after all an accounting of the systems underlying the surface narrative layer.
The real world, in all its total complexity, is completely incomprehensible. It’s a truism that any map that contains every detail of the terrain would be useless, since it would be the size of the terrain itself. So a map, like any representation, is a rhetorical simplification.
Just like every real world historical account has some underlying theory or framing device that dictates its focus — geographic determinism, Marxism, great-man–theory — so does every fictional history. Doubly so, because you get to choose not just how to present the facts, but even what the facts are.
Look, here’s another “worldbuilding.jpg.”
So. You want to build a compelling, well-thought out world with intent, that doesn’t just reflect your own implicit biases and assumptions, with awareness of the statements you’re making. How do you go about actually doing this?
As a worldbuilder, you need to create a simplified, comprehensible sociology, economy, ecology, geology, cosmology, etc. etc., choosing the elements that are the most important or relevant to the message of your work.
This can go deep. For one of the projects I worked on, the sci-fi digital card game GalaCollider, I have a document in the story bible called “The World of GalaCollider” with headings like “Space” and “Time,” and a timeline of the universe starting at the Big Bang and going to 4 billion years in the future. Your projects may have different requirements for levels of detail.
There are a few different levels. Geography and ecology is where we usually start — especially those geographic determinists among us. Draw a map, make some squiggly lines for coasts and rivers, and inverted Vs for mountains — done! World! Right?
This is the map I made for a multiplayer online game, Guns of Icarus Online, by the way, and that’s literally how I started, from the land. I stitched together satellite images of terrain, then looked to see where settlements and cities might spring up, what resources they’d have access to, how trade routes would flow and civilizations would form. Very bottom-up.
This is a lot of fun, and it’s easy to get stuck on this level, sketching squiggly coastlines forever. But there’s more.
Next up is a simulation of the physical conditions and material resources. Where does stuff come from? Where does waste go?
This doesn’t mean actually running this simulation in your game, or detailing every aspect — but just enough to know that it makes logical sense, or at least is plausible. If you have a massive city in the barren desert and don’t have natural resources and trade, tribute of conquered peoples, magical power sources, sci-fi replicators, or something to explain how they get food and water and fuel, you might have some work to do. But don’t spend too long on this level, either.
Next, political, economic, and class systems. (Hey! back to politics!) This is where things get more interesting. How are these systems organized? How did it come to be that way? How did geography and historical events give rise to these systems?
More important, how are things in your world different from the real-world systems we know? What interesting combinations can you make?
Maybe feudalism with representative democracy?
Next, culture, arts, philosophy, theology. What are they like? How are they different from our own world? And why?
And I do apologize for using this all-old-white-men club as a stand-in for the concept of arts and culture. You see the problem of iconic representation? Nothing says “philosophy” like a beardy Greek guy.
Anyway, these levels are all intertwined, and feed back on each other. Reflect on how they’re related in the real world, and let that inform your fiction.
Worldbuilders are polymaths. Building imaginary worlds demands a lot of real-world knowledge, and a lot of research.
In a sense you are what you eat, so pay attention to your media diet. And don’t let other games or fictional worlds be your only models. Your source should be life, in all its complexity. Consume voraciously.
In fantasy and speculative worldbuilding, this often means reaching towards other cultures, other times and places, for inspiration.
But this comes with a certain risk of committing that old-fashioned, newfangled sin, cultural appropriation.
Maybe that possibility scares you.
We all need to be mindful of the problems that come from simply transposing exotic “flavors” from other cultures without regard to the origin and meaning of those signifiers.
Before you borrow some pat visual motifs like “jungle tribal” to dress up your fantasy worlds, consider that those representations have a history in our culture.
Often a long and unsavory one.
The Ur-text for this idea is Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said deconstructs historical Western representations of this romanticized, exoticized “East,” what we used to call “the Orient.”
Whether or not you read the book, you should be familiar with this concept, because it comes up again and again. We’ve come a long way, but our pop culture and media are by no means clear of these problems.
This is why, when developing fictional places, you should very wary of…
The “fictional Middle-Eastern nation.”
(This is a location from the Transformers cartoon called “Carbombya City.” Population four thousand people, ten thousand camels.)
Or, the “generic Native American tribe.”
(Apparently the “cultural consultant” who was responsible for developing Chakotay’s Native American background on Voyager was actually some kind of fraud who falsely claimed Cherokee ancestry in order to land writing gigs? At least the show’s producers tried by hiring a consultant in the first place…more on that later.)
Oh, or how about the “Unnamed African Country”?
(Literally the setting of Far Cry 2.)
If you’re ever tempted to create a locale like one of those, ask yourself this. If the story were based in your home country or generally a place you knew well, would you be equally likely to invent a fake generic city, state, or region as the backdrop?
If yes — then great! Maybe you legitimately want to explore a counterfactual scenario or some particular world-changing element that requires a fictional setting.
If not, why not? Wouldn’t you instead be keen to use your regional knowledge to add detail and local flavor? Make your setting feel very specific and authentic?
So why invent a fantasy place that’s “inspired by” a real culture, but not really?
Is it because reaching for the grab-bag of pop-culture theme tropes is easy, and it sells?
(Ok, enough picking on WOW.)
Is it out of ignorance of cultural specifics? A desire not to offend people from this real culture by misrepresenting?
Or because you need a handy, thinly-disguised fictional villain?
Creating anonymized, exoticized locations can be itself offensive, suggesting that any actual cultural nuances are trivial or meaningless…
Or openly acknowledging that the intended audience won’t care or know the difference.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani has a bit about Call of Duty where he points out that in scenes set in the real-life city of Karachi, in Pakistan, the street signs are in Arabic — not Urdu, the actual language of Pakistan.
This should not be an intractable problem.
As Kumail says, “They were literally like, ‘What language do they speak in Pakistan?’ ‘I don’t care.’”
Whether you’re using a real place, or using real-world elements as inspiration for a fictional place, there’s one clear solution to many of these ills.
DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Don’t reach for the grab-bag of pop-culture tropes — go for the source. Be like Buffy and hit the books.
And if you’re drawing on a cultural background that isn’t your own, another thing you can do is consult with someone who is familiar with the culture.
Hopefully not one like that guy who worked on Voyager.
We wove a lot of different cultural references into the world of Guns of Icarus. The idea was that it was a post-World-War-One alternate history where generations of war and upheaval had led to mass migrations and mingling of cultures, with new, syncretic civilizations arising from the mix.
This is reflected is in the place names, which draw from cultures across the globe. For one corner of the map, I reached out to an internet friend of mine, a Canadian of Romanian descent, who helped devise some Romanian names and concepts for a number settlements in the Mercantile Guild faction.
Another faction, Yesha, drew heavily on Chinese language, iconography, folklore, and visual styling. We had a number of members of the team who had that background and could contribute to the worldbuilding by supplying appropriate names and authentic cultural references for this faction.
We were fortunate to have those resources within our team, but there are times when you need to look outside for help with issues of representation. Fortunately, there are people out there who are willing to serve as cultural resources, who can review and provide feedback on your work. Sometimes this is under the guise of a professional consulting service. I urge you to involve outside voices in your development process, and — this is important — to PAY THEM.
And just be willing to open yourself and your work to critique, and to hear other points of view.
But whatever happened to write what you know?
Well, it’s maybe not the best advice for creators of fantastic and speculative worlds.
Try, instead, to start from what you know, and then build on it. Imagine alternatives. Research outside your own experience.
And yes, we definitely need more creators from marginalized and underrepresented groups representing their own perspectives and cultures.
Offer support, amplify their voices, empower them to take part in the process, make space for them whenever you can.
But when it’s just you, making your own work, you don’t have to stick to a steady stream of autobiography, based exclusively on your own background and experience.
Especially if yours is the dominant culture. Then you’re just adding to the mass of work already reflecting the same narrow perspective.
Don’t be afraid to stray from your lane, make mistakes, rock the boat. It can be challenging in this current environment to open yourself up to criticism by stepping outside the mainstream. But if do it mindfully and respectfully, it’s so worth it.
Gene Roddenberry, a white man, put an African woman with a Swahili-inspired name on the bridge of a starship —
…and inspired generations. Because representation matters.
When you’re building new worlds, not even the sky is the limit.
So let’s all try to extend our horizons, peek outside of our bubbles, and create some truly new worlds for us all to enjoy.