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An Introduction to World-Building

An Introduction to World-Building

When we think about world-building, we often think about novels, movies, or video games that transport us to fictional realms. However, world-building is about much more than just creating imaginary worlds. At its core, world-building is a practice that encompasses systems design and a deep understanding of our world.

Rachel Joy Victor has been practicing the art of world-building for as long as the term exists. She carved her identity and practice as a student under legendary production designer Alex McDowell at USC. She designs for various applications, from multiplatform narratives and immersive experiences to tools and platforms to spaces and cities. Rachel draws from her computational neuroscience and spatial economics education to facilitate the creation of data-informed emergent experiences where world simulation and cognitive architectures intersect.

To truly understand the art of world-building, we need to delve into the systems that make up our society. By studying concepts such as economy, history, and the intricate web of systems that shape our world, we can understand how they all interrelate and intertwine.

Here’s an abbreviated conversation with Rachel:


How do you define world-building?

There are a couple of different ways I define it in my work. There’s world-building at a broad systems-based level: how does this world’s internal logic make sense? How do we design the governance, culture, and all of these different fictional story worlds or future speculative worlds we’re creating?

So that’s one piece of it. Then there’s the spatial piece of it where we make all these decisions of the systems, but then how does it affect, um, You know, the way we design virtual or physical spaces? Um, and then there are more tactical pieces. How do we build those virtual worlds to support storytelling across different mediums?

Or how do we design data systems so that if you’re in a fictional story world as a physical space, the world responds to you, and you can interact with it on a story or narrative level?

If I’m someone who wants to get into the field, how do I go about doing that?

The original foundation for me was computational neuroscience as an undergraduate student.

I later did a program in spatial economics for my master’s program, and both of those things were helping me approach world-building from different angles. The one angle, the neuroscience side, I was thinking about how people participate in a world. How do we understand the world, and how do we build a realistic world from that perspective?

Then, the spatial side helped us think, helped me think more about how we build out the space and the data related to space and all of that.

There are some resources on the world-building-specific side of things. Although, it’s fewer than I recommend because many of them have an explicit gaming focus. And world-building goes beyond gaming specifically. But, my main advice to get into world-building is to read as widely as possible.

And to be curious about as many things as possible. Because world-building is really about, at the end of the day, systems design and understanding our world. So the more you can understand the systems that are a part of our world, the more you read about the economy, the more you read about history and how history and our perspectives on history have changed, the more you read about the different systems that are a part of our world and the way that they relate to each other and the way that they intertwine.

So many different inroads to understanding can shape your knowledge of how the world operates. All those things are part of your implicit knowledge, and it is easier to pull those things up and build worlds that feel more real.

The more you can understand the systems that are a part of our world, the more you understand how they relate to each other and how they intertwine.

How can you think of world–building in an everyday context? So, let’s say you’re riding the subway or the bus in Los Angeles. What are the types of questions or approaches to thinking about that space? What kinds of questions might a world builder think about when engaging with a physical? I want to give something concrete.

That’s a great question because I think that’s an exercise. I like giving people a lot as you’re going through the world if you start to break it down.

For everything you see, what systems feed into it or led to it being there? Right? Like, so if you’re seeing a telephone pole, what does that mean? What are the implicit systems as a part of their systems of energy systems of communication? What is it facilitating and enabling, right?

So, if you start to break down each piece and think of the systems that feed into it, you begin to realize that there is this near-infinite kind of role of systems, but it helps you think about how everything is interrelated more.

So think about the behavioral scripts, for example, that are a part of taking the bus. Behavioral scripts are kind of the ways that our brain quickly breaks down habits that we have to swiftly enable us to interface with the world so that we’re not taking everything as new input. So when we take the bus, there is a sequence of actions. We wait at the bus stop, and when the bus comes, we check if it’s our correct bus right.

World-building is to think of the human element, right? The human element is the person. As worldbuilders, we’re designing the world top-down, but humans and individuals are the people who live in the world.

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