Teaching Innovation: The Use of Useless Worlds

"World building" is a powerful tool once realized only by storytellers. Now it's on the verge of transforming education.

Three hundred audience members at the University of Southern California left their seats. They stood up, gathered into small groups, received decks of colorful cards, talked, and wrote. The groups comprised members from fields spanning education to urban planning and game development to linguistics. Over the course of the ten-hour workshop, a website filled up in real time with writing, photos, and artwork with as much diversity as its creators’ backgrounds — all describing the island nation of Rilao, which, strictly speaking, does not exist.

Built from the DNA of multiple real world cities, the Rilao Project is a vast fictional world initiated and developed by the USC World Building Media Lab and world building classes at USC Cinematic Arts, Media Arts and Practice . . . Rilao is a fictional city that is meant to function as a narrative laboratory for the future, building organically from defined rule sets and massive collaboration. While Rilao has the conditions and elements of a real city, its fictional status allows us to imagine possibilities that aren’t governed by city planning, political constraints, etc. It is a space that dares cities, institutions and industries more broadly, to dream. (World Building Media Lab, USC School of Cinematic Arts)

Creators, innovators, and educators around the globe are in the process of discovering a tool once largely seized upon only by storytellers. That tool is world building.

What Is World Building?

In the context of world building, a world is a space in which people, places, objects, systems, ideas, and feelings can exist. Worlds can be more or less separate from, secondary to, our own, primary, world, or exist within it.

The universe of Harry Potter is an example of a secondary world. It contains not only the stories and characters of J. K. Rowling’s novels, but also house elves, quidditch, Hogwarts, holiday celebrations, atmosphere, feelings, and ideas — all the implied possibilities, pieces of context, and implications that lend themselves to further storytelling. George Orwell’s 1984 is another secondary world, but one that has more directly entered the primary world through its impact on popular consciousness around totalitarianism, surveillance, and language. New York City can also be understood as a world, one so iconic that it has inspired its own reconstruction in the forms of novels, movies, paintings, and YouTube videos beyond number. Of course, New York is also a world you can visit, live in, and physically and culturally affect. In other words, it’s a firmly rooted piece of the primary world.

Taking the concept of worlds a step further, we can understand every physical, social, and cultural environment as a world. World building is the process of designing or changing a world, and we’re doing it all the time without realizing it through our interactions with others.

If you’d like a longer introduction to the concept of world building, you can read my earlier article here.

From Media to Education

Until the last several decades, world building was largely viewed as relevant to authors, specifically fantasy and sci-fi authors creating worlds without any clear, direct impact on society beyond entertainment. Then game designers realized the potential of world building for creating immersive, interactive experiences. From there the use of world building began spreading through other forms of media — visual art, cinema, virtual reality. Simultaneously, academia became increasingly interested in understanding world building in relation to literature and storytelling, perhaps in part as a result of shifting attitudes toward speculative fiction.

The benefits of world building to media are clear: a novel can support a story, a character can support a series of novels, and a world can support any number of characters. World-centered thinking can also provide an additional, useful lens for understanding and contextualizing those characters and their stories. The Marvel franchise is a prominent example of world building at work, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe tying together initially unconnected storylines into a relatively unified whole.

But the power of world building doesn’t stop with media. We’re now living in the next phase of the maturation of world building, and education is the next frontier. World building is a powerful tool for three ends that are increasingly crucial to 21st-century education. Those are:

  1. motivating learning,
  2. teaching creativity,
  3. and preparing innovators.

These specific uses correspond to three broad functions of world building:

  1. engagement,
  2. thought experiments,
  3. and lived environments.

We’ll explore each of these functions in turn in relation to how they apply to education and innovation.

World Building to Motivate Learning: Worlds as Engagement

World building is inherently engaging when meeting its own goals. Here’s a definition that helps illuminate the reason for this:

Definition A: World building is the process of creating frameworks (worlds) for stories and other designs to spring from and inhabit.

Put differently, world building is about discovering and constructing creative spaces that you want to explore and that not only contain current things, ideas, and content but suggest further creations, typically including narratives. (All the movies, TV shows, books, and games in the Star Wars franchise cannot encompass the whole of the world of Star Wars. That world will continue to suggest new characters and plotlines and is the reason for the incredible number of Star Wars productions and spinoffs.) Those creations then become part of the world framework and open new paths of interest, leading to yet more creations. And so on. The more engaging a framework, the more expansively and intricately it will be built; the more a framework is built, in general, the more engaging it is, by virtue of having more potential “hooks” for expansion.

What does this mean for world building as an educational tool? Framing learning within a world framework lends context and purpose to content being learned and autonomy to the learners. In self-directed learning environments, those qualities are central.

“Scenario” or “mission” framing is a longstanding way to make projects more engaging for students. Take, for example, problem solving using environmental science or social psychology or engineering to sustain a fictional Mars colony. The scenario is fun, yes; potentially interactive, like a game; and grounds the learning experience. But take the fiction further, and the magic begins.

Extending from a scenario — a largely linear “plot” — to a world with clear knowns and generative rules amplifies the grounding effect by creating a deeper context for learned content and provides feedback for student decisions, suggesting additional routes to explore and allowing for high levels of student autonomy. Perhaps students have a set of initial resources at their disposal and know, or must discover, the effects on those resources of success or setbacks for each possible solution in their Mars mission. What approaches to the mission best use those resources? What additional research is required by those approaches? What alternate missions, unexplored or merely implied, might replenish the resources required for assigned tasks? Just as a world can support many characters’ stories, it can support many learners’ autonomous scenarios.

AHB Community School is a K–8th grade alternative school in Austin Texas. Every Friday, the school offers an optional Friday enrichment program, Game of Village.

Each game has a setting with a geographical location and historical time period as well as a minimal storyline introducing a conflict. Villagers (students) make three-inch-tall Peeps (avatars) out of various materials.

Game of Village is a hands on role playing game designed to de-mystify the adult world . . . Through play, we design, build and bring to life, an historically accurate scale model village. We explore a range of building techniques, histories, social studies, governments, civics, cultures, applied math and more. Collaboration, cooperation and creative problem solving are all daily fare in Village. Villagers open businesses, apply for jobs, attend college, participate in their local government and more. Each game is inherently unique and arises from the imaginations of the players themselves. For this reason Villagers may play year after year, learning more about themselves and the world around them as they play. (Game of Village)

The director of Game of Village, Cheryl Kruckeberg, describes the program in more detail here.

Using world building as engagement works just as well throughout adulthood as it does with children. The Interactive PlayLab is a company that taps into the engagement potential of world building, designing interactive performances, which the PlayLab defines as “any experience in which the ‘audience’ become co-creators of a fictional narrative.” The company’s goal is to “[transform] everyday life through serious play.”

Play is a powerful process. It is a means by which we “try on” the roles that we may adopt. Children have license to play. As we grow older, we come to think of the roles we are playing as “who we are.” The opportunities to play new roles seem to be fewer, occurring mostly when a new role is thrust upon us, like becoming a new parent. The capacity to discover new facets of ourselves through play exists at any age, but the older we get, the more it seems that our “license to play” has been revoked. Wirth Creative believes in the power of play and creates experiences in which individuals rediscover their capacity to play, in ways that are both illuminating and empowering. (Interactive PlayLab)

The PlayLab creates a range of digital and mixed-media performances and interactive fictions layered on top of real-world locations such as Austin, Texas. While playing in new environments, participants get out of their everyday roles, are allowed and encouraged to explore choices and themes they wouldn’t otherwise, and are invited into an environment where they can grow personally and creatively.

Programs like Game of Village and the Interactive PlayLab leverage the contextualizing and generative power of world building. As one aspect of a world framework emerges, it asks others to be expanded. The potential of world frameworks, however, does not stop at engagement — it creates bridges and it reframes.

World Building to Teach Creativity: Worlds as Thought Experiments

The core process of world building entails and teaches creative thinking. Let’s return to our definition of world building:

Definition A: World building is the process of creating frameworks (worlds) for stories and other designs to spring from and inhabit.

Here’s an alternate definition:

Definition B: World building is asking and elaborating on a question through answers and further questions.

The process of making (and challenging) assumptions and then finding, formulating, and answering questions is central to creativity. If you can be good at those things, you can be highly creative. World building differs from general creativity in that worlds are designs with the specification that they be able to house additional designs. The questions, ultimately, are the goal, and the answers are extensions of a thought experiment rather than direct solutions to a problem.

Answering and the work it entails is a powerful, straightforward way to develop and practice creativity. It requires and trains three key skills:

  1. asking productive questions,
  2. providing answers,
  3. and making connections.

In our initial, scenario-style lesson frame, students in the class work toward a mission to sustain a colony on Mars. Problems arise within the scenario, the students learn skills to overcome those problems, and they are (hopefully) excited and engaged while they do it. To extend that scenario to a world, we created a set of knowns that students could ask questions about, affect, and base decisions on. The grounding and contextualizing effects of being placed in a world allow for more creative solutions than learning in a void — this is a part of what we mean by the “generativity” of world building. Still, however, students could only ask those questions, manipulate resources, and make decisions in-world. That is, as if they were characters living in that world. They’re world building, but in a highly limited way.

To make learners a full part of building the world alongside or independently of instructors means shifting students’ choices in answering questions about the world from actions (e.g. “We increase each family’s fuel ration.”) to assertions (“Fuel is scarce in the colony since the incident in ’68.”). Students are enabled to ask the questions — any questions — that form the core questions of the world and the assumptions it makes. The answers can come from outside research or experience, emerge from the established world framework, or, nearly always, from both. Regardless, the learners become the direct source of answers. Full ownership of the world is in their hands.

The primary role of instructors becomes to facilitate collaboration among learners and steer the world building project toward asking productive questions. Finding the right questions is perhaps the most difficult task in world building. (For this reason, despite all the specialized and elaborate tools created by writers, interactive designers, and world building enthusiasts, simple checklists of world building questions are a mainstay of world building resources.) With a large number of creators, this task becomes doubly challenging and important. Ideally, all questions about a world could be explored. But, as each question leads to several more, this quickly becomes impossible. Instead, for an effective world building effort, instructors and students must work together to create a system, a central plan, a way to focus all creators on a common set of questions, with a system for how to select answers.

There are as many ways to carry out world building as there are world builders. However, in creating a productive system, particularly in collaborative world building, the general principles of good design apply:

  1. Empathize with your audience and understand its needs.
  2. Clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve.
  3. Generate many, innovative solutions by challenging assumptions.
  4. Create a prototype by selecting and combining solutions.
  5. Test your solutions.
  6. Repeat the process above, iterating until you reach a final solution.

Over the last year, I’ve been designing and testing a general system for collaborative world building for the web app WorldLab. The steps follow the design process above but connect it explicitly to making worlds:

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

Projects at the World Building Media Lab do an excellent job of balancing student-led work with a clear path and set of outside resources provided by faculty. Both the process and the product bring out creativity. Here’s one example of a world built at the Media Lab:

In early 2017, the [World Building Media Lab] began a major collaboration with the USC Bridge Institute at the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience in USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, with additional support from Havas XVIII, to create a fully experiential virtual world in a single cell, using metaphors of the complex systems of a city. The goal is to use storytelling and world building to present scientific detail in ways that are engaging and approachable for both laymen and experts. By creating a virtual Cell as a City, based on the structure and function of a pancreatic beta cell, we will allow people to explore a rich biochemical world while engaging concepts, pathways, and implications through narrative, all backed by scientific rigor.

The World in a Single Cell project brings together a broadly interdisciplinary team of scientists, storytellers, artists, programmers, and conceptual thinkers, all with a proven track record of creating the next wave of content and experiences. This project has healthcare, educational, and STEM aspects and outcomes, as well as providing an opportunity to further empower women moving into (and staying in) the scientific education and training pipelines. This project can also flip 180 degrees to look at ways that nature’s pathways and processes might inform and be applied to future city design. We also envision that our “Cell City” can serve as an extensible framework/platform where other scientists can add their results, expand details, and connect related work.

Our long-term goal is to create a rich and diverse world that scales from atomic to cell to organ to human. Immersive media like virtual reality provide a unique portal into systems both large and small, and when combined with narrative elements based on scientific rigor, promises to enable a new generation of education, research, and collaboration. (World Building Media Lab, USC School of Cinematic Arts)

Through planning and expanding a world framework, learners practice creativity by asking productive and open-ended questions, finding answers, and sorting through knowns, drawing on both outside learning and the information internal to the world framework. One effect of this inquiry-driven process is that it ignores arbitrary boundaries between subjects, disciplines, and individual media. To create well-rendered worlds requires and enables a more holistic — or more peculiar — approach than is taken in traditional learning environments. In these ways, world building trains learners to uncover connections and ask questions new to the primary world.

World Building to Prepare Innovators: Worlds as Lived Environments

World building underpins and empowers innovation. To understand why this is, let’s first return to the design thinking process:

  1. Empathize with your audience and understand its needs.
  2. Clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve.
  3. Generate many, innovative solutions by challenging assumptions.
  4. Create a prototype by selecting and combining solutions.
  5. Test your solutions.
  6. Repeat the process above, iterating until you reach a final solution.

That methodology allows for creative solutions that solve pressing problems affecting real people. World building is particularly relevant to three of these steps: (1) understand your audience and its needs; (3) generate many, innovative solutions by challenging assumptions; and (4) create a prototype by selecting and combining solutions.

Here’s yet another definition of world building:

Definition C: World building is the shaping of the experience — context — of a person or character.

This definition is different (at least in emphasis, if not in implication) from the first two in that it introduces perspective. In our original scenario, students took on in-world perspectives, making decisions and being led to information by the pressures exerted on characters within our fictional Mars colony (read Stant Litore’s book here if you’d like to explore further how worlds translate to pressures). We all have in-world perspectives in our lived environments, in the primary world. In the last section, we shifted to out-of-world perspectives, students making what-if assertions, following their curiosity about the world, and releasing assumptions.

When actively world building from either perspective — in-world and out-of-world — world builders’ attention and imagination are drawn down paths different from the well-trodden routes that are ordinarily accessible in daily life. Questions that aren’t normally relevant jump out, and answers spring from the framework. World builders’ creative intuition changes to fit the environment at hand, this other world.

There are creative advantages and disadvantages to each of the two perspectives, however. As an out-of-world world builder, you can freely define the experience of those in-world. But in-world world builders know that experience far better and know better its implications. This means that the ability to empathize with those in-world is extraordinarily important to out-of-world world builders.

The full power of world building comes to bear when you marry the two perspectives. For example, another project from the World Building Media Lab:

Dry City imagines a future in which water has been privatized, commodified, and transformed into currency in the wake of global economic disaster.

Inspired in part by the award-winning work of Kunlé Adeyemi and his architecture, design and urbanism company NLÉ, the 2015–2016 world building class of student architects, interactive media designers, musicians, engineers, urban planners, animators, filmmakers and artists chose to focus on the Nigerian city of Lagos and its neighborhood of Makoko in the mid-2030s due to Lagos’ rapid urbanization, Nollywood influence, booming economy, and growing population . . .

Following the [World Building Media Lab’s] world-centric narrative design methodology, the students collaboratively envisioned multiple interlocking and holistic aspects of this future world, deeply grounded in research into real present-day Lagos conducted through texts, videos, articles, and interviews with guest speakers from Nigeria, Lagos and Makoko and experts in various fields . . .

Keeping a human lens firmly at the center of the world build, each student developed a character and then envisioned a day in their character’s life, imagining everything from the contents of a character’s purse to their daily routine from hour to hour. This bottom-up speculation enriched the students’ understanding of Makoko, Lagos, and the larger world in 2036 . . .

These explorations use a wide range of media and platforms, including app prototypes, physical artifacts, photography and web-based graphic design, fictional blogs, a film festival and experimental social media storytelling. (World Building Media Lab, USC School of Cinematic Arts)

Dry City draws on the primary world with real stories, facts, and data; it asks vital questions: “How will rapidly growing cities adapt to water shortage? How will people live in those cities?”; it envisions and details a place so dynamic and intricate and engaging that we primary worlders can picture life there; it places learners there to empathize with and to extrapolate out the situation of the world’s inhabitants; and it asks new questions: “How should we plan cities for future water shortage? How should we plan communities in 2018?” Those and endless further questions. By the nature of world building, Dry City proposes “innovative solutions” that “challenge assumptions” and “prototypes” those solutions in a fictional, constructed environment.

How might we translate “answers” from Dry City into solutions that are relevant, applicable, and timely in the lived environments of the primary world? What insights can we gather by world building frameworks and viewpoints? What insights do we miss by sticking to the primary world? World building expands our imaginative capabilities and, when combined with empathy, prepares us to make real-world innovations.

The Use of Useless Worlds

World building began with the storytellers and quirky game developers. Then it spread across media. Now it’s moving to education as educators and companies realize what it is. It’s a way of creating frameworks that ask to be expanded and drive us to learn more. It’s a way of formulating a question, linking it to others, and teaching us to find answers. It’s a way to bridge lived environments and new perspectives, guiding us toward a better actuality. World building at its best — that is, when it asks questions that speak honestly to the issues facing our own world — trains us to ask what-ifs well, allows us to picture outwards, and sparks us into action. Then, world building transcends from imaginative entertainment to applied imagination.

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