Worldbuilding & Mythbuilding

When imagining the manufactured environment of a world, one has to imagine its interplay with culture and myths.
1 Jan 2014

The practice of worldbuilding is nothing new — Plato’s Atlantis (in Timaeus, 360 BC) is in fact one of the earliest forms of constructed ideal societies. It has since become common in cinema, literature, theater, or game design. 

Worldbuilding means creating worlds with their own sets of physical rules and technologies, specific environments, and inhabitants. But not only: worlds needs culture. Or rather cultures, as there is never such a thing as one unique and unchallenged belief system. That includes ideologies and rituals loaded with symbolic meaning. This additional process is known as mythbuilding, or as J. R. R. Tolkien put it: ‘Mythopoeia.’ Good mythbuilding always accounts for power structures, prejudices, and biases. 

Togeth­er, all these ele­ments make rich and com­plex worlds. Any action must com­ply with their rules, not with those of our real­i­ty. While design­ing futures, we can relo­cate to these worlds and myths, and explore them from the inside. They act as sand­box­es where ideas can be test­ed and dis­sect­ed from var­i­ous con­texts and perspectives.

Con­struct­ed worlds are invalu­able tools for strate­gic think­ing. They serve as game­boards of sorts to pre­pare, test, plan, and imple­ment ideas of the future. By agnos­ti­cal­ly imag­in­ing pos­si­ble out­comes to var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions and let­ting dif­fer­ent spec­u­la­tive ele­ments col­lide, world­build­ing offers qual­i­ta­tive insights that can lat­er be turned into visions, strate­gies, and action. 

In a way, world­build­ing is to fore­sight what par­ti­cle col­lid­ers are to physics: a tool to merge raw mate­ri­als into some­thing unex­pect­ed and instruc­tive. It doesn’t replace oth­er parts of the prac­tice, but com­pletes them by pack­ag­ing find­ings into a big­ger box where dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties can coex­ist and be con­front­ed. World­build­ing is a holis­tic approach, where dif­fer­ent paths can be test­ed and errors are wel­come. It is a space for look­ing at things that could hap­pen and dis­cussing their implications.

Once a world has been built, arti­facts of inter­est can be iden­ti­fied and pro­to­typed. They are chunks of futures made ‘real enough’ through design and cre­ative writ­ing in order to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate vision both inter­nal­ly and to the pub­lic. Pro­to­types can lead to use­ful dis­sensus and pro­voke feed­back in ways oth­er strate­gic assets can’t.

While world­build­ing is a great tool to build sce­nar­ios and aid in strate­gic plan­ning, it also is very time demand­ing. Not all projects need to have entire worlds and lores cre­at­ed before they are turned into future arti­facts. In fact, the reverse process is an equal­ly valid one: where iso­lat­ed arti­facts and phe­nom­e­na are imag­ined first to probe a sim­ple idea of the future. Just from aes­thet­ics, signs, sym­bols, and tex­tu­al lan­guage, from the actions objects sug­gest or the prob­lems they solve, the world and cul­ture can emerge with the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion fill­ing in the blanks. This is nowa­days referred to as “soft world­build­ing” in con­trast to the Tolkienesque max­i­mal­ist approach of “hard world­build­ing” where no fic­tion­al stone is left unturned. More often than not, world­build­ing starts with a soft approach before con­sol­i­dat­ing through accumulation.