WorldLab: Optimizing Collaborative World Building

Writers, artists, game designers — storytellers of every sort — have long utilized the power of world building. Now educators are utilizing it too. Constructed universes are powerful and flexible frameworks for designs to emerge from. You can read about world building and its applications here and here; today, we’re discussing WorldLab, a design process for collaborative world building.

There are countless world building tools available online. Last summer, I found myself digging through checklists and toolboxes, trying out platforms and software, and reading books by world builders. Each tool offered or implied a different approach to constructing a world, many of which were contradictory or niche in focus. I was searching for a system to guide world building from start to finish that not only provided tools but also explained how and when to use them and took an evidence-based approach to structuring world building toward productive and creative results. Nothing like that existed. So, two months later, I created the first prototype of what would become WorldLab.

First, I identified other systems that had elements similar to the one I would build, what those elements were, and how those other systems differed in approach and/or goal from the WorldLab project. The main two systems from which I drew inspiration were Microscope RPG by Ben Robbins and Rilao Remote Viewing Protocol by the Situation Lab.

Microscope is a world building game in which a small group of players work together to sketch in and flesh out the history of a fictional world, structured around a timeline. The basic unit in Microscope is time. Players can move forward or backward in time freely, but constructing the world is always done through inserting Periods, Events, and Scenes into the timeline. This time approach, accompanied by several other aspects of the system, pushes the world toward narrative; connecting events, finding out “how history got from point A to point B,” drives the game forward.

Rilao Remote Viewing Protocol is a card-based world building game used at the University of Southern California in 2014 to guide a 300-person audience through the process of creating Rilao, a fictional island in the Pacific. Presenters first brief participants, providing a high-level overview of the geographical and cultural position of the world they’re to about to create. Then participants divide into small groups, and each group focuses on a formative period within the 150-year history of the world, making “observations” of cultural practices, people, and objects that they could witness on an imagined trip there. These observations are the “basic unit” that world builders using Rilao Remote Viewing Protocol manipulate. Next, each group receives the work produced by another group and “[illustrates] them with images, stories, and other kinds of media.” At the USC event, to conclude, each group finished by uploading its work to a website, updated in real time, to be later published as a book.

These two world building systems and several others heavily informed the creation of WorldLab. In particular, I drew five takeaway questions for analyzing world building systems:

  • Is the world building collaborative? Like most forms of design, world building is more effective when done collaboratively than alone (see USC’s World Building Media Lab). If the answer to this question is no, the next three questions become moot.
  • How large is the collaborating team? The size of the collaborating group shapes the role of a collaborator.
  • When do the world builders create content in relation to one another? Collaborators can work one at a time or simultaneously, also affecting the role of a collaborator.
  • Does the system prioritize experience or product? A system must balance two goals: creating a fun experience (being a game) and creating productive end results (being a tool).
  • What is the basic unit of content? A system must have clear basic units for users to create and modify that determine the product of the system.

Microscope and Rilao Remote Viewing Protocol answer all of the last four questions differently.

Microscope is collaborative, and the scale of that collaboration is small (2–5 players, optimally 3–4), so each player has a large voice in the creation of the world. Players take turns, meaning that one player and that player’s contribution receive full focus at any given moment. (Microscope, by design, avoids democratic decision making, as it leads to bland results, but also ensures that no one player can make decisions for the rest.) Microscope is first and foremost a game. Numerous great world building projects have emerged from the system, but its objective is primarily to support a fun and exciting experience and secondarily to produce a solid end product. The basic unit of Microscope is time.

Rilao Remote Viewing Protocol is designed for many collaborators, split into small groups, to work on a single project. The groups work simultaneously. This means that each player has a small voice in creating the world and that no one player can reasonably know what all the rest are creating. The system is primarily designed to create a product, a world displayed on a website and in an internationally published book. The basic unit of Rilao Remote Viewing Protocol is an open-ended observation.

I designed WorldLab with one, overriding goal: to make world building as efficient as possible while reaching the most creative and effective results possible, for a predetermined, specific use for the world building project (a novel, a school project, a game, etc.). With the first several prototypes of the system, I experimented with different approaches to those key questions. Each subsequent prototype scrapped most of the previous one. Then I had a realization. As with many game developers, the play testing process I followed drew elements from agile methodology. For the third prototype, I looked into agile development, design thinking, and other processes that encourage creative, fast-iterating, human-centered solutions and then incorporated elements of those methodologies into the world building system itself. Roughly, the system takes this process —

  • Understand your audience and its needs.
  • Clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Generate many solutions.
  • Create a prototype by selecting and combining solutions.
  • Test your solutions.
  • Repeat the process above, iterating until you reach a final solution.

— and then adapts it explicitly to the end of making worlds, like so:

  • Define the end goal for your world building.
  • Clearly state the world’s premise, a foundational set of truths about the world, an initial “what if.”
  • Ask questions about the implications of the facts established about the world (starting with the premise), and generate many answers.
  • Select and combine answers to establish as true within the canon of the world.
  • Eliminate inconsistencies.
  • Repeat the process above, iterating until the world’s canon is large and detailed enough for your purposes.

The last six prototypes have more or less retained that structure.

WorldLab is designed for teams of 3–6 collaborators. Each team member has a large voice in the construction of the world and is responsible for maintaining the quality and consistency of the world. While larger groups enable faster and often more creative generation of ideas, a requirement for a large number of creators is prohibitive for most independent world building projects, and maintaining consistency and non-contradiction is difficult at larger scales. (An optimal approach would likely be a small team crowdsourcing creative answers to world questions.) Team members propose world content simultaneously but take turns selecting and rejecting most proposed content, choosing and combining the best. This generates multiple possible “solutions” from multiple perspectives; avoids overly democratic content creation, as Microscope does; and maintains the whole team’s awareness of every piece of content. WorldLab is a design process, and its primary goal is to produce creative worlds quickly and effectively, with an end use and audience for the world in mind (e.g., a soft-sci-fi mini-series intended for middle-aged sci-fi fans). The basic unit of WorldLab is the piece, a (normally) one-sentence statement of something that is true in the world that answers a question. Pieces can stand in for events and units of time, “observations,” or another structure that best supports the project’s goal.

The WorldLab system is still in the midst of testing and development, and there’s a dedicated web app in the pipeline. As of the 9th prototype, however, I’m proud to announce the process to be functional and ready for public use. If you’re a game designer, writer, interactive designer, educator, or world building enthusiast, consider using WorldLab to power your next project.

All feedback is welcome.

World builder. Design thinker. Student. Writes on education, creativity, and culture.