Worlds enough

This week’s theme is world-building. For definitional purposes, this is, well... designing and representing a 'world'.

The term is used a lot in fantasy and science-fiction, because those are the genres where the creators have free rein to indulge themselves in universe-level speculation. If you'd like to spend some idle hours watching the sausage get made, go spend some time at r/worldbuilding, where 300k+ budding deities discuss their creations. It is amazing: no detail is too small.

It is, in fact, fantasy and SF are often rated for their ability to create immersive, cohesive, and imaginative worlds. That is: settings that are believable and consistent, while still being entertaining. 

Tabletop games also praise the virtue of world-building. Going back to the hobby's wargaming roots, the objective is often to create interactive models of reality - as realistically and conveniently as possible. Video games followed suit. Great gaming has never been solely about the mechanic, it has always involved the setting: creating a environment that reacted to, prompted, or simply encouraged the player. Often in very subtle ways. 

But... we world-build whenever we represent any world, not just secondary or imaginary ones. Yes, creating a language from scratch is impressive, but so is accurately representing the world around us. Whenever we 'capture' the world, we make a series of decisions about what we choose to show. This too is world-building.

In one of those reviews that we should show people who want to know how to write reviews, Andrew Griffin writes about a racing game in The Independent:

This year, [Forza Horizon 4] lands in Britain, which is also the home of developers Playground Games. It is rendered with loving care – sometimes a little too much, so that the rough edges are sanded away – and becomes a fitting location for one of the best driving games ever.

The real Britain, of course, hasn't had it easy in recent years. The leafy villages of long drives and 4x4s have come to stand for the anti-metropolitanism of Brexit; Edinburgh, the map's biggest city, has also become associated with the hard-fought arguments of Scottish independence. There is absolutely none of that in this game, which seems to have taken its inspiration from tourist brochures and John Betjeman rather than the real state of the country today. It is the best outing that Britain has ever had – in the sense that it has never been so lovingly realised, but also in the slightly more dangerous sense that it has never been made to look so good. 

What we choose to not show about our world is meaningful, a political act. I use the term 'world view' a lot in my work. I'm not going to lie: it sounds squishy. But it has surprisingly strong roots, and, does a very good job of capturing the sense of a 'personal reality'. Not the objective, factual, knocks-on-a-nearby-rock world, but the way in which an individual interprets all that stuff in their own mind. We bring a lot of filters and interpretations to the reality around us. That's what keeps us sane. But these filters also mean that, when we create or represent the world - when we world-build - we have a tendency to replicate not the world, but our world view of it. Sometimes the results are painfully obvious - for example, advertising's many quintessential 'everytowns' where everyone is all white. Or, the case of Forza Horizon 4, the filters are more subtle. 

World-building can be as simple as changing the colours on a map. Or it can be as as nuanced as microbes. For the latter, ecologist Adam Kranz wrote for Pornokitsch about how fantasy writing 'needs more parasites':

On the other hand, the recent movement toward gritty realism in fantasy has been constantly hectored about its failure to depict the prevalence of everyday diseases like dysentery in medieval life. This has always struck me as a bit unfair - there are, after all, dozens of vastly important elements of historical causality and daily life that authors habitually neglect.

What we chose to include in our built worlds is also important. Especially when an inclusion becomes normalised. As noted in the link above, the threat of sexual violence is a popular trope by which creators show the 'realism' of their historical or historically-inspired setting. That's certainly one way about it. Or, see my beloved Georgette Heyer, who got her cue from Jane Austen.

Heyer’s novels also set in a 'realistic' historical world. And, indeed, at moments of high drama, there are men absconding with women and riding off in carriages and dodgy inns and whatnot and yet... The threat is solely reputational, and never physical. The threat of violence deemed necessary in some worlds is completely absent. Yet they're not necessarily lighter fare. Here, we're closer to Kranz's turf: in Heyer - again, from Austen - if you are caught in the rain, you will come down with a life-threatening illness. The risk to one's health that comes from everyday weather; the whimsical, underpinning physical fragility of life - is Heyer's means of adding verisimilitude. Taken like that, her books are actually pretty dark stuff. Is the mortal danger posed by bad weather any more or less 'realistic' than the omnipresent threat of sexual violence in say, Game of Thrones? Probably not. It is simply a choice of the world-building. But, as with all choices, there are unforeseen and meaningful consequences.

Which is a long-winded way of saying: we are constantly surrounded by 'built' worlds, and even the ones without dragons are often fantasies.

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Further reading:


NESTA are offering £20k grants for practical experiments in how "we can make the most of collective human intelligence and machine intelligence to solve our complex social challenges". Bradford Literature Festival are looking for a Programme Manager. Ebury have opened submissions until the end of 2018. The Newham Bookshop is having an auction on 21 October to cover the cost of their move (only two doors down, whew).

Remember, if you're doing something creative and inclusive, drop me a line, and I'll mention it here.