What follows are my notes, which make for a rough transcript, of my talk to the University of Kansas’ Digital Storytelling Colloquium from November 4th, 2020. The video can be found here.
I’d like to first acknowledge, during the crazy times of this particular election, that we are still on Native lands. Where I’m at, Chicago, was historically land stewarded over by the Anishinaabek, Pottawatomi, Miami, Ho-chunk, Sauk, Kickapoo and many others.
The stories and wounds of those people live with us now, and continue to affect the tomorrow that we’re building and could be building. The same applies to the lands many of you are coming to this from. How we come together to acknowledge the narratives of our debts and the struggles of all the people who, by choice or by force, made way for us to be here now, will profoundly affect the world our descendants inherit.
I am Allen Turner. I am owner of a one-person studio called Council of Fools through which I publish and play with little and big ideas. My day job is teaching game design at DePaul University and I’m the Creative Director of the DePaul Originals Game Studio, a burgeoning studio experiment which explores making meaningful entertainment games and assisting others in the exploration of play as a tool for learning and deep conversations.
Thank you for having me.
I want to start with a quote from Carl Sagan that I think is appropriate to what we’re all trying to do here.
“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”– Carl Sagan
That resonates with me, but I want to talk about imagination as one resource for worldbuilding and not the only focus of it. In addition, we need understanding and empathy if imagination is to take us anywhere nourishing.
There are a lot of ways to discuss worldbuilding. Most often people will directly approach it from a mechanical and practical aspect. Things like how big are landmasses? What races or what history is prominent? What’s the big twist that will keep people hooked and interested? What’s the brand?
That’s typically not the way that I approach it. I tend to approach it from the point of view of experiences. I will identify an experience that I want to engage people with, then reverse engineer to create a world as a metaphor that centers that experience in the interaction of the peoples and situations therein. But there is even more than that.
What is worldbuilding? Simply put, it’s the creation of a world. When I say “world” I know the first thing that many people think is that this means like a fantasy world or a sci-fi world. While we can certainly arrive at such results, I want to simplify that further and suggest that by “world” I mean experience, space, and permission/consent.
Combined with play, we use narrative, actions, and verbs to help give us context on the intersection of narrative/space/permission.
This is something that took me a while to arrive at, and I thought, since much of this colloquium is about storytelling, that I would tell you some stories about myself that will give you some context about why this is big for me.
What has gone before.
When I was a little boy I grew up in a household with a lot of troubles. There were moments of calm and joy but they were fleeting and were washed away by the moments of terror and pain that lingered and stung. Those painful moments threatened to terraform my internal ecology from one of unbounded curiosity to one of fear and anger. On a certain level it succeeded. Some bits stuck. Some bits left wounds that are still healing and sometimes will seep out into the world and catch me off guard.
It could have been much worse. I could have carried my parents pain and rage and twistiness forward another generation. What stemmed the tide was an interesting little coping mechanism that I feel was inherent to my nature, and which I further exercised as I grew older.
The thing, the mechanism, was storytelling. to be more precise, it was world building.
In the spaces in between sadness and hurt, I would create other spaces where I was awesome. Where I was safe. Where I was the architect of how things could be. I would be content to sit in a corner on my own and entertain myself for hours on end. Everywhere I looked there was a story, an adventure, a being/presence that I could give voice to and then it gave me permission to play in thanks for its freedom to resonate with the world for a while.
Everything was fair game for this worldbuilding.
I had a small collection of marbles which I imagined were planets. I would take the little twist ties that came with the garbage bags and turn them into people. We were destitute for a long time so those were my action figures. Tubes from the toilet paper and paper towels was construction material for my houses and cities. I loved blank paper and I had a weakness for scissors. These things often got me in trouble. I got many a beating because I couldn’t sit still and I was always getting my hands on things I shouldn’t and trying to make them into something new.
I learned to sew in order to save old socks and turn them into the stars of puppet shows after I realized that Lambchop had begun life as a sock.
When I was denied access to things to create with, I defaulted to my body. My hands could be any creature I wanted. And by “any” I mean usually dinosaurs. And by “dinosaurs” I really mean they were mostly T-Rex’s, Brontosaurs, Pterodactyls, and Godzilla.
And if they told me to sit still and be quiet, at the threat of woven ironing cords thrashing at my back and arms, then I could create whole songs and movies in my head.
I was this never ending source of narratives and places and characters and motion.
Winter of the Red Box.
I didn’t know it at the time but that was the best therapy.
It got real one particular winter however. My mom took me to a store, which was a rare treat because were weren’t allowed to go outside of the house except for school. My dad was real sick (war damage and poisoning from chemical warfare + diabetes made for devastating karma snap-backs it turns out) so I had to be the man (I was 12) to accompany my mother on this trek to the Walgreens on Blue Island to get some medicines and sundry items. In addition, it was almost my birthday so my mom told me while I was there with her that she’d let me get an action figure. So, first chance I got I wandered off and found the toy section. There were lots of toys hanging up and there was a close-out pile near the endcap. We were fairly thrifty so I took a quick look at the toys that were hanging on display and then I decided to check out the closeout stuff.
In the toy close-out pile, which was overflowing with cheap tchotchkes and knockoffs, I spied this red box that seemed bright in a pool of muted colors. I dug it out of the pile and what I found was a brilliant red gateway. In that gateway was a mighty dragon with red scales, lunging from atop its pile of gold. Between me and it, clearing the way, wearing armor that wasn’t very pragmatic was a warrior.
I could imagine the warrior looking over their shoulder and shouting at me, while blocking a blast of flame from the dragons mouth “Hey loser! Come on! Get in! We’ve got a world to save and we need you to do it.’
I had in my hands, the much feared at the time, Dungeons and Dragons, basic set.
I grabbed that box, held onto it like I had found the holy grail and quietly slipped it into the shopping cart. I thought I was fairly crafty in my approach, but mom noticed it immediately and told me to put it back. I begged. She said it was the devil. I said nope dragons. She said she’d heard that it make kids worship demons. I said nope you’re a good guy and you fight bad stuff. I had read an article about it in a magazine and it was like a choose your own adventure book.
The box was worn, and she figured I’d lose interest and it was on sale for $5.00 which made it cheaper than any of the action figures and it was almost my birthday. I pointed out that I didn’t really get anything on my last birthday (last few birthdays). So, she relented with a host of caveats about my behavior and the pain I’d receive if she saw something she didn’t like. All I could think about was getting home and opening it up.
In actuality, it was my mom who opened it up.
She was still sure it was dangerous.
She flipped through the books; saw lots of text; some pictures of dwarves and elves, and a lot of numbers. She grunted to herself about how it looked complicated and there was a lot of math (apparently math was more frightening to her than the devil). I was like, “see that’s not evil” and wanted her to hand it over so bad I thought I would pee my pants.
Eventually, she gave it to me and I whisked it off to a corner of the house and devoured it and my brain exploded.
My life changed that day.
I realized that I had, in my hands, the power to create worlds. WORLDS!
I quickly learned one of the first rules of creating world that are meant for people to interact with. You actually need other people. I needed people to play with and they were hard to come by when you were basically a prisoner in your home.
I asked my sisters, and they were like EW and called me weird (but they did that about most things so…). My dad ignored me as he watched Bonanza and cleaned the infections in his slowly eroding foot and had me look him up and down for other wounds and stuff.
Eventually, I talked my mom into playing one of the adventures. I did so under the auspices that she really needed to know that the game was safe. She sat down, I gave her a character, and she battled a giant spider and some goblins. She had no idea what was going on most of the time, but eventually pronounced that this was far to ridiculous and nerdy to be devil worship and told me to go play by myself.
That was the beginning of my love affair with world-building.
It was my boon companion through high school. I was a nerd who loved computers, sci-fi and fantasy stuff. I was thin as a rail and 6 feet tall and growing. High school was a culture shock and my games gave me this little bubble to retreat to. I eventually met my “dealer” in Algebra when a young man, Kevin, spied the tell-tale red books in my book bag and turned me on to the fact that there were more books and he had some old ones that we was willing to sell me for cheap if I wanted.
I saved what little lunch money I had to slowly buy off from him the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. He met another kid who had the old Chainmail boxed set and I bought that too. I begged food off of the other nerdy kids I sat with at lunch and showed them the fruits of my sacrifice. We were all enraptured by the possibilities. Those kids became my first adventuring party. We’d sit in the gym after lunch, during intramurals, and play adventures. eventually that bled into physics class and precalculus.
I had tapped a vein of unending permission to create and I was overflowing. I drew pictures of everything. I wrote stories and drew maps which filled my Trapper Keepers that were supposed to house my homework which instead ended up stuffed into books and wadded up in the bottom of my book bag.
While I was doing that stuff I felt alive and powerful for the first time ever.
So lets talk a bit about what was going on for me with this stuff.
RPG’s are Pozole for the soul.
So back to this idea that world’s are this confluence of permission, Space, and experience. It’s an important soup which is activated and really begins to cook once interacted with by a participant. My own engagements with learning how to create worlds for people to engage slowly opened my eyes to this as I began to recognize the changes happening in me and my perceptions along the way.
Creating was a permission space for me and the process of world building gave me access to a process for making bonds with people and with myself. I had a million characters in me and I wanted to give them all a place of purchase in the space that was mine. It was a direct conduit it to the nourishing juices of fantasy. I got to be noble, or wicked, or talented, or dexterous and all sorts of other things.
It all gave me permission to give myself permission to imagine. And while this was awesome I rapidly recognized that much of my existence didn’t really show up in the rules and allowances for the game.
I was trying very hard to fit the mold it set but I realized there was something more. I quickly outgrew D&D, as a young person, because of all the restrictions its structure placed on how I was allowed to imagine.
As soon as I got my first real job working at a local YMCA as a youth worker, I spent my extra money buying more books and more games.
So that’s the permission point.
When we engage in world building, the first thing we must do is make space. That, to me, is the most magical part. In whatever situation you are in, you can open a portal and instantly create this psychological pocket dimension, which you have to then populate with stuff.
But in the instant of creation it has this wonderful blankness that beckons you to lie in and wallow about in for a moment. It’s not unlike getting your first apartment. Wallowing in a space is very much, to me, about attuning to it. Feeling what it has to offer and feeling what it needs.
Many times when we start out worldbuilding we do so by using templates, and we already have tried and true narratives that we fill those templates with. The templates almost require that you fill them with other templates. But that grows hollow after a while, and your voice and your story begin to affect the kind of spaces you make. You know this because when you make spaces that resonate with your voice then there is a certain kind of hum that wells up from inside. It is a YES!
When I abandoned the worlds that were offered to me and began to really make my own, it really resonated. When I listened to what fantasies made me feel seen, I peppered the worlds I made with them, and the hum was loud.
When I began to listen to what made people who played and interacted with things in my world excited, and then design in ways that made more room for them and their fantasies, I would resonate so intensely it would make me feel weepy an electrified when I saw them engage with it all.
In making spaces, I was holding spaces. The boundaries of what world building meant had changed for me.
There was little in the way of orders. When we played, we were constantly asking each other for permission and for clarification and most importantly, for me, everyone was asking me for consent.
I had previously lived in a world where I had no sovereignty. All decisions were made for me, and about me, and I didn’t feel I had the authority to say no to my parents and relatives and teachers ever. If I did, then I was hurt either physically or emotionally with words.
Here, in this world creation space, there was the need to seek consent for every single step. Clarification came with every piece of the narrative. That made me feel powerful and altruistic.
All those who were playing with me were experiencing the same things from the other side of the coin. They were exploring and being surprised and being seen and that made them feel mighty and trusting. Much of this is inherent to the way that roleplaying game work. But even a video game does this to a certain extent. You have a set of verbs/actions that showcase the world. They are all that you can do. The player regularly asks what happens if I do this. Trust is lost between the player and the designer when they explore and expect allowance or resistance, but the game, or the world breaks instead.
Consider the space in between panels in a comic book. As Scott McCloud points out in his book “Understanding Comics”, we, as readers, are participants in the story in those spaces. We actively create the action that ties panels together. We also translate multi-temporal action within a panel so that we understand the narrative unfolding. We are given room and permission to do so through the conceits of sequential storytelling.
You can really see it when you watch two comic aficionado’s argue about a seminal comic. Part of the argument stems from them each having their own translations and ownership of the narrative. It becomes personal to them because the experience was personal. There was a relationship of trust between the creator, the delivery mechanism, the narrative equity of what has gone before, and the lenses and experiences of the reader. Those all come together to create the story.
While there are those who laud their power and control when in a space of world-building, what I was experiencing was freedom and a definite joy in giving freedom to explore.
I continued world-building in so many ways and, over time, I grew more mindful about the magic that I was weaving and playing with. Beyond what was happening for me, there was so much to dive into to understand when things went right and when they went wrong. I’ve explored world-building as a teacher, game designer, dancer, writer, musician, parent, relative, and even as I slowly slip into spaces of eldership in my overlapping communities.
I was finally able to take stuff that was going on inside of me and make it accessible in a way that let me be seen by other people. Even though they didn’t necessarily know that was what was going on.
In relation to that I found I was really good at horror. I had spent so much of my life being uncomfortable and scared as a child that I could easily transpose that into moments of dread and sadness in different mediums with different assets.
I had a relationship with long dread, isolation, and panic. I was connected to the threats that arise when we look away from another person who is struggling and suffering. I had a relationship with the voices that arose in depression that picked at you and whittled away at one’s sense of worth. So, building lots of small moments that overlapped into big moments was not only my instinct, it became central to much of the work that I do now that gets people to look at their own narratives and build new relationships with them.
Of course, I wasn’t initially doing this in a mindful way. I was just doing it as an instinctual outlet and conversation with my fears and fantasies.
I made the switch slowly as I became more and more aware of how such things allowed for the creation of big bonds.
After I made Ehdrigohr, that world took me on a journey that was about conversations on the human condition with people and less about the brand. When people would pull me aside at conventions and tell me about how they felt after they read or played the game and explored the world it would bring tears to my eyes. They didn’t talk about their characters the way the average D&D player did. They talked about their stories and their life experiences and how and where they saw it in Ehdrigohr. There was room for them there. It wasn’t perfect but it gave them a lot of room.
So, when you talk about and consider worldbuilding I encourage you to think about these things as you assemble your worlds. I’m not asking you to be didactic and spew dogma at people. I’m inviting you to make room for a wide range of people to gain access to the experiences that you are trying to make manifest.
Ask yourself, as you begin to pen your fantasies:
- Whose fantasy is this?
- Why make this fantasy accessible?
- Why am I the person to build this world and expose this fantasy?
- Is your goal making another rendition of a template that is defined by a collection of tropes?
- Is just a place filled with another kind of elf, or different zombies, or laser swords?
- What does it inform me about myself?
- Or are you detailing a core experiences and identifying the range of perceptions and points of access to it? If so, what are your core pillars and lenses that everything going into the narrative must pass through and be colored by? The experiential approach opens up a playground of empathy and vulnerability.
- Are there races and/or aliens or monsters? Are they just shorthand for racist, nationalist, and sexist tropes?
- From an experiential point of view, are there cultures and different types of embodiment that cause interesting restrictions, intersections, and conflicts that showcase a particular momentum toward the core experience?
- What are the conversations that come out of this work?
- What are the conversations you want to come out of it?
Then there is this idea of being “neutral” that some folks toss about when asked to be mindful of their creation process and what messages are contained in their work.
“I don’t want to be political or have to say anything of meaning. I just want to make a fun game”
That is a power fantasy, in and of itself, and a statement. You can’t be neutral. The fantasy of neutrality is hollow because your own stories always affect your work. That thought about being neutral is an answer to the question of who’s fantasy is this? The answer is that it is yours and that you’re not really making room for anyone but you and those that support you.
Check your lenses.
This idea that your stories and lenses are always there is a big one.
As a creator and a survivor of whatever you have survived (and we have all survived something), you have biases and life lessons that whisper to you and affect your creations. They are so metabolized by us that we are often not even aware of them. They have been great tools for us because they have kept us safe and in motion in one way or another.
Take the time to audit your experiences and pay attention to your patterns. Eventually you’ll see and will be able to relax and intensify them as needed. This is an ability that only comes from exploring your fantasies in the first place and flailing with them and failing with them a bit.
So again there is no neutrality. One way or another, you’re still making room. The question becomes, with your lenses, about who you are making room for. Are you making more room for the status quo, dogma, racism, or intolerance, or are you making room for a diverse perspective, nuance, and evolving stories?
So back to my soup ingredients. Another way to interpret them would be:
- Experience = perceptions and sensations
- Space = boundaries
- Permission = capacity act to on and receive action in a way that centers trust even if we are engaging subjects that are uncomfortable.
When we set out to build a world, we are creating an opportunity. This opportunity allows us to bring a person into a bounded ecology, give them permission to engage it and move in certain ways, and they give us permission to show them things that they can act on and move in certain way, and then we dance.
When I say “act” I’m actually referencing a range of things. Acting can happen when we’re reading or viewing or listening or doing.
Who do you see?
There is special thing that I see happens in the space of world-building. I’m going to call this Visibility. It this special piece that is important when we discuss world building from the context of inclusivity and survivance.
People in marginalized spaces are struggling to be seen every day. When we erase them in our works that is a violent act that they have to push back against to participate. That doesn’t mean that you have to write in every single type of person, but you can make room in your story that allows a marginalized person to explore your world and not feel as if they have to start by pretending to be you and assume engagement with a narrative from whatever privilege you have been writing from.
Don’t create utopias that assume a perfect world is an assimilation into a unified culture that centers patriarchal ethics and morals born from assumptions of Abrahamic traditions. There are so many other ways to look at the world.
I encourage all creators to find the blend that makes room for a wider range of experience. Be a good ancestor and dream up tomorrow worlds that help us all to find our place, our hearts, and catch our breaths.