More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium. The world is bigger than the film, bigger than the franchise — since fan speculations and elaborations also expand the world in a variety of ways. –Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture(2006), p. 114
The Origins of World-Building
The origins of the term world-building belong to the nineteenth-century, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, the term world-building can be traced, if we are to take the OED at its word, to the 1820s.
However, the current understanding of world-building belongs to the twentieth-century, where scientist A.S. Eddington, in Space Time and Gravitation: An Outline of General Relativity (1920), suggested that world-building was a kind of speculation about the universe and its laws, and it happened to be a perfect way to conceptualize the rather difficult concepts surrounding General Relativity and other scientific advances. Others, particularly artists and hobbyists, latched onto the idea of world-building, exploring secondary worlds, universes, and even renditions of our own world, through their creative works. Some heavy-hitters include the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, but they also include individuals who have enjoyed fame posthumously, like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
These secondary worlds/universes have given millions of fans tens of thousands of hours of entertainment, but entertainment is just the beginning. Fans have also been engulfed in late-night arguments about the importance of certain Klingon language or the importance of the color blue in a particular scene. Fans have even dared to continue where their favorite franchises have left off, exploring their favorite worlds/universes and filling in the gaps with satisfactory world-building and/or fan fiction, much to the chagrin of the original creators.
World-Building as Hobby
This is not (technically speaking) an article on the origins of world-building. Instead, I want to examine world-building as a serious hobby, a contender that has soaked up long hours and creativity unparalleled in many hobbies — although I could be wrong in my assertion here. Anyways, I digress. I also want to explore the why of world-building. What makes it such a time-consuming and utterly engrossing hobby shared by thousands, if not millions, across the globe? Furthermore, is there a connection between meaningless work in our daily lives and the need to build something that feels more tangible than what we (supposedly) create in the real world?
World-building has been a hobby of mine for the better part of two decades, spanning my youth, my college years, and even my years as a young professional. I’m not alone in this. If you explore the world-building communities found on the Web, you will find everyone from teenagers to young professionals to seasoned retirees, all looking to explore worlds or universes that have occupied their imaginations. They share their work on subreddits, blogs, wikis, and even on Facebook. It is the universal appeal that makes world-building such an engrossing hobby. Further, the hobby tends, usually, toward friendly discourse between members, meaning there are few barriers to entry and collaboration. This can have beautiful results, which have baffled scholars and outsiders for decades. To those looking from outside in, they see a whole lot of wasted potential or something that is merely part of the capitalist machine, turning out product as unpaid prosumers.
Prosumer: A consumer who adopts an active role in the design of the products he or she purchases, or who purchases component elements of products in order to build or administer his or her own goods and services. — Oxford English Dictionary
World-building and fan culture have indeed been marred by masculine toxicity and outsider misunderstandings, among other things, but they have also provided a rather diverse group of people a place to speculate about their fan-favorite worlds or even their own worlds together. For example, the Star Frontierscommunity was rather warm and welcoming to a younger me, allowing me to be a part of the community’s efforts to revive that particular tabletop RPG universe and expand upon it through collaborative world-building efforts. One of my fondest memories from world-building and fan culture, which often go hand-in-hand, happened to be participating in speculative arguments with senior members of Wookiepediaabout the finer matters of the Star Wars Expanded Universe — that is, before Disney decided to systematically draw and quarter the EU with their mandates concerning the expanded universe of their newly purchased universe. One of the greatest crimes against fandom and world-building was Disney’s unanimous decision to kill off what had taken decades and tens of thousands of hours of work to create. In other words, Disney killed off the ownership fans had over their favorite universe. I think that’s the most important takeaway here: Fans create meaning within a world or universe, and, therefore, they come to own this world or universe, as if this were their own creation. Ownership is important, especially in an age where ownership has become more and more meaningless.
Although it is true that the hobby of world-building is indebted to those giants who stood before all of us, developing and speculating on secondary worlds and universes, the hobby is really indebted to the weirdos, the geeks, the nerds, the people putting late-night hours into developing extensive wikis or world-building projects. Further, world-building, as we know it, is not a spontaneous event, something that appeared out of nowhere. Instead, world-building has a long and rich history, stretching back to the Golden Age of pulp fiction and comic books, to television show and movie franchises we all know and love, to the digital products we play, consume, and cherish.
World-Building and the Imagination
To me, and those who share this hobby in common, world-building allows one to explore the farthest reaches of the imagination. This is entirely attractive to those of us who live in a world where the imagination is often squashed or laughed at. (If you’ve ever sat in on a soul-crushing meeting — you know the ones — , you want to retreat into the imagination.) However, flights of fantasy are for the weridos, and, if one continues the argument down its logical path, the imagination is to be feared, for it is outside of the control of the state, the family, the company, and even society. If we add the toxicity of many political environments across the globe, it is no wonder people retreat into their imaginations and into their favorite worlds or universes, whether they are proprietary or not.
A bullshit job is one that even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist. That if the job, or even the whole industry, were to vanish, either it would make no difference to anyone, or the world might even be a slightly better place. — David Graeber, The Economist (2018)
In other words, what I’m arguing is that world-building, and the various fan cultures it is often associated with, isn’t some capitalist brainwashing or conditioning to make people productive, even in their downtimes. Instead, world-building appears to be the byproduct of a very real human need to create, to escape, and to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Although considered dangerous or even wasteful to outsiders, it is, in fact, neither of those things. World-building is an attempt to create and find meaning in a world where meaning and creation are becoming less and less important. How many of us can say that we did something meaningful today? How many of us can say we created something tangible or seemingly tangible with our minds and our hands? If you answered, “yes,” to the above questions, you are most likely in the minority, and world-building might not appeal to you. For those who answered, “no,” to the questions above, consider world-building. It’s the (un)likely hobby of millions of people, and it’s growing. If you don’t believe me, consider performing a simple Internet search on world-building.