Collaborative World Building Explained

Post-apocalyptic world

I was asked by a student reporter to write something up that explains my world building class. I have no idea what the final article is going to look like or how much of this will be used, so I’ll put the description here:

ENGL 386 – World Building is an outgrowth of my work on how role-playing games produce collaborative, interactive narratives. I teach another course, ENGL 543 – Game-based Fiction, where students spend the semester either collaboratively build a fictional world from the ground up or add to a preexisting world, and the fiction they write later in the semester must take place in this shared setting. I’ve taught variations of this class that have been post-apocalyptic futures, alternate histories that incorporate steampunk technology, and fanfiction where students add to preexisting worlds, like George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros from Game of Thrones. In that course, students spend the entire semester in a single world, figuring out that world’s “rules” and how society operates, and what that means for their individual characters. I started thinking that it would be interesting to try to build multiple worlds in a single semester rather than just one, and thus the World Building course was born.

One of my students described the course as “critical theory meets creative writing” and I couldn’t have said it better myself. Critical theory is the analysis of culture and the social, historical, and ideological forces at play in a given place in a given time. This is to say that the “world” of Rochester is experienced different from the world in Lagos, Nigeria or Yokohama, Japan, or even New York City. We might even say that the “world” of RIT in Henrietta is different than the “world” of downtown Rochester. So the questions we get at are: How big is a world? How do we define its borders? What forces are at play in the world, and how do we describe them? If these social forces help constitute a set of “rules” about how the world operates, are these objective or subjective in nature? How do the rules of a given world help influence the experiences of different types of people who live in it? These are the questions we cycle through as we analyze fictional worlds from short stories, movies, and even games and then build our own.

Most writers view fiction writing as a solitary occupation, just a lone writer and his or her keyboard and a flashing cursor on a white page. My approach blows up that notion quite deliberately. In this course, writers have to work together and agree on how their collaboratively built world works. The economy of the world must be connected to its government structures, which are in turn tied to its social and cultural values. All of these things tie together and influence each other in strange and unpredictable ways. In order to gain some consensus on the fictional world, students must first come to an agreement on how our world works. That move, between the fictional representation of the created world and our own individual perceptions of our shared reality, requires students to think critically about their own world views, and then attempt to resolve those ideas in fiction. It’s critical thinking with a creative output. Rather than writing an essay reflecting what you’ve learned, you write a short story.

The challenge is trying to incorporate 20 students’ ideas. Not everyone can get what they want, and I remind them constantly that coming up with a definitive, objective answer is not the point. They only need to have a rough idea of how the world works, and the characters in their stories can have divergent attitudes or beliefs. The whole process is shot through with subjective perspectives and, again, thinking through those perspectives is the most important part of the process. We only got through two different types of worlds–a post-apocalyptic future and a deep space setting–as a class, but for their final project they’ll get in smaller groups of 4-5 students where resolving some of the differences of opinions might be a bit easier.

Overall, it’s going very well from my perspective. As we read and write, I think it’s becoming clear that in every world there are all these competing social forces at work, and different types of characters feel them differently. When we talk about how a world is represented in a work of fiction, we often must consider the viewpoint from which we learn about the world, and that gives us insight into the belief systems and motivations of lots of different narrators. My hope is that when my students leave class and build or contribute to fictional worlds, they’ll bring this critical sensibility with them and remember to think through lots of different subjective viewpoints when establishing how their world works.

The course counts toward RIT’s Digital Humanities and Social Sciences BS degree and I hope to see more DHSS students enrolling in it. There is so much going on in the class already, it’s easy to overlook the fact that large-scale collaborative projects like this are facilitated by digital technology, specifically wikis and online mapping tools. Digital technology is changing the way people produce and consume narratives, and sole authorship is increasingly giving way to collaborative efforts. If you look at the Marvel universe or Star Wars, those have grown far, far beyond Stan Lee and George Lucas. In fact, their contributions are minuscule compared to the amount of material out there, and that’s not even including unauthorized fan work. I find it fascinating to think about how narrative is changing in the twenty-first century, and I think DHSS students will get a lot out of thinking about the connections between digital technology, critical thinking, and creative work.

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