Dirt: Worldbuilding, Pt. 2
Participation is essential to a world's longevity.
Terry Nguyen, Dirt’s senior staff writer, on worldbuilding as a collaborative exercise.
This is the second installment of Dirt’s series on worldbuilding. The creation of fictional worlds with unique settings, histories, aesthetics, and characters is pervasive in the media we consume. The concept of worldbuilding is relevant to our franchise-dominated content landscape, which is rife with worlds and extended universes. Worldbuilding, as a marketing strategy, is also harnessed by celebrities, brands, and all kinds of content creators. These worlds straddle the physical and the virtual realm, occasionally blurring together fictional elements with real life.
In my essay Worldbuilding Pt. 1, I assess how worldbuilding is employed by entertainment franchises and brands as a means for inexhaustible story expansion. This essay considers worldbuilding as a collaborative, participatory exercise — within fandoms, virtual role-playing games, and community-driven NFT projects.
WORLDBUILDING PT. 2: Collective Authorship
In 1983, the writing group Invisible Seattle embarked on a project that would culminate, years later, in a collaboratively written novel. That summer, the thirty members of the group, the so-called “invisibles,” roamed through Seattle, gathering citizen anecdotes, man-on-the-street interviews, and overheard conversations for literary fodder. Then, they convened to write. The goal, according to the media scholar and digital artist Scott Rettberg, “was to produce a novel authored by the city itself.” The story was edited and remixed into different “versions” by group members, and the novel was eventually published as a paperback in 1987.
Invisible Seattle became “one of the most successful experiments in collective narrative [that] took place well before the widespread adoption of the internet,” Rettberg wrote in a 2005 paper titled, “All Together Now: Collective Knowledge, Collective Narratives, and Architectures of Participation.” While the group’s objective resulted in a published literary product, its ethos of collective authorship prefigured the rise of collaborative fiction projects on the internet. These literary endeavors are also a precursor to the participatory worldbuilding found across digital culture today — within fandoms, virtual role-playing games, and more recently, community-driven NFT projects.
This kind of collective worldbuilding seems to stand in contrast to the top-down nature of franchise worlds, which I covered in part 1 of my series on worldbuilding. The nature of “collective” participation and the aim of a project’s creators can vary greatly. There also isn’t quite a clear dichotomy between worldbuilding that is collaborative and that which is corporate. Collaboration doesn’t preclude commercialization. And participation — whether driven by a project’s fans or members — is an essential element to any long-term worldbuilding project. “All media types now want to be participatory and interactive,” Leigh Alexander, a narrative game designer and consultant, told me. “Content producers want to create a long-term experience for the viewer. They want the viewer to be a participant.”
Rettburg categorized the participants of collective authorship projects into three types: conscious, contributory, and unwitting. Conscious participants are active worldbuilders, like the members of Invisible Seattle. Their contributions have a direct impact on the world’s lore, characters, or plot. Contributory and unwitting participants, on the other hand, have a peripheral, more passive impact. They “may not be aware of how their contribution fits into the overall architecture of the project, or even of the nature of the project itself,” he wrote. Fans of franchise-produced or brand worlds, for example, fall into this group of “passive” participants. Their contributions are minor footnotes in a world’s canon.
But within the greater content ecosystem, fans are “active agents collectively determining the validity of the ‘official’ storyline.” Their engagement matters more than their canonical contribution. Audience participation ensures the posterity of a franchise world. The Harry Potter series, for example, has canonically come to an end, but thousands of fans are still writing fanfiction, producing artworks, and even offering theories about the greater wizarding universe. Through these actions, they are contributing to the world by focusing on minor characters from the main story or lesser-explored canonical events. This level of fan engagement helps to justify franchise expansion: J.K. Rowling, with the backing of Warner Bros., initially had plans for a five-film Fantastic Beasts run, an unofficial prequel series featuring new characters set in the Potter universe some centuries ago. (The fate of the franchise is now reportedly in limbo, after the third Fantastic Beasts film barely broke even.)
Beyond the scope of fandom, however, participatory worldbuilding isn’t always recreational. Some projects are constructed with a plan to turn an eventual profit. The world, when monetized into intellectual property, can be expanded into all kinds of media. (IP rights have been a point of emphasis and contention in the Web3 space.) While not-for-profit projects do exist, it seems increasingly rare for participatory worlds to avoid commercialization, especially when attention is the primary currency of the internet.
The mechanics of worldbuilding, as I’ve previously written, are now relevant to all kinds of content producers — advertisers, start-ups, consumer brands, and even individuals (who are effectively brands) — competing for eyeballs within a congested content landscape. It’s a tactic to keep audiences immersed in the product or the character (which is essentially a product) by way of a broader narrative world. In the case of Meta’s metaverse, the virtual world is the product that the company is trying to sell. Whether the world is entirely fictional or rooted in realism is beside the point: The consumer’s attention (by way of their participation) is all that matters.
Worldbuilding is, in effect, brand-building — an experience constructed for participatory consumption. What form that participation takes has evolved over time. Until recently, the physical realm has been considered the most immersive medium for participation. These “multisensory encounters with a fictional world,” according to the media scholar Henry Jenkins, were meant to entice consumers. From popular consumer brands to entertainment franchises, destinations were built for people to visit, and products were integrated into the landscape. “LEGO has been able to break into the top tier of theme parks with attractions designed to promote their building blocks,” Jenkins wrote. “The World of Coca-Cola remains one of the most popular attractions for people visiting Atlanta.”
These days, fewer brands are interested in building out a costly physical exhibit or theme park, when the virtual realm offers rivaling rates of engagement. “IP holders are trying to capture people’s attention with a variety of media,” said Alexander. “Consumers have more of an appetite for cross-platform content. They’d be interested in a video game that is a sequel to a television series.”
This cross-platform strategy has been adopted by celebrities with active fan bases. Celebrities — who are brands in their own right — already produce media, like artist documentaries, that are self-mythologizing. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have assembled offstage and backstage concert footage into feature-length films. The natural next step is to lord over a virtual “world” where fans can interact. The K-pop band BTS is a prime example of how celebrities can fashion themselves into characters, or avatars, with their own metafictional universes. The members have been the subject of multiple interactive video games and Korean variety shows, but the collaboration with the brand LINE FRIENDS took it one step further. BTS’s various personalities were distilled into eight cartoon mascots. This paved the way for fictionalized storytelling via animated shorts, without explicitly using the members’ names or likelihood. The BTS world can keep growing, with or without the members’ actual presence.
In some cases, the contents of a franchise or celebrity-constructed world can be grounds for collaborative worldbuilding. This depends on the format of fan participation. While most franchise worlds are made to appeal to or appease the consumer, fans aren’t considered collaborators, nor are there avenues for them to offer feedback. With fanfiction and role-playing games, however, fans (or players) become engaged in worldbuilding efforts, even if the “world” they are constructing is loosely based on an original franchise universe. By taking on this active role, a person becomes a conscious participant, no longer just a passive consumer.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite, are a ready-made medium for world construction and participation. In an interview with Coindesk, Cherie Hu, a music journalist and founder of the research platform Water & Music, referenced community-hosted Minecraft music festivals as a model for virtual concerts. She drew comparisons between Fortnite’s sleekly designed Travis Scott show and informally constructed virtual events. “Anyone can spin up their own Minecraft server and create their own world, [and] invite people in,” Hu said. “That's more where I see the future going, in terms of tools that enable more artists to make their own worlds. Minecraft isn't free, but in terms of access to building these custom worlds, it’s just much more accessible.”
More recently, creators have launched collaborative worldbuilding projects on the blockchain. Most abide by a “pay-to-play” model. To participate, contributors typically have to own a related NFT. While collaborative storytelling projects have existed decades before NFTs, the technology offers contributors a clear financial stake in the project. (For non-NFT projects, the legalities of profit sharing and IP rights are generally negotiated on case-by-case basis.) The value of an NFT — which corresponds to the value of the larger project — can also serve as an incentive for holders to stay engaged in the maintenance and ongoing labor that worldbuilding requires.
Contributors — or NFT holders — are encouraged to contribute fictional elements to bolster the world. They can write stories, create artwork, produce games and related media, or expand upon the lore. The collaborative nature of such activities are contrary to the traditionally extractive relationship between a fan and a franchise. Even when fans peripherally contribute to the franchise through fan-produced media, like fanfiction, there is no financial reward or recognition for their participation. With an NFT-based project, if aspects of the world are converted into IP for video games, comics, film, or other forms of media, the contributor could receive some profit share for their involvement. This depends on how much of the project they “own,” and shares are determined via NFTs. A NFT from a newly launched worldbuilding project could cost relatively little for an interested member to “mint.” Its value, however, could accrue over time, as more potential participants become interested in the project. From this perspective, enlisting in a worldbuilding project in its early stages is akin to being one of the inaugural investors of a startup.
There are a variety of NFT projects built on the Creative Commons license (CC0) that exist in the public domain. The project Loot, for example, began as a collection of text-only NFTs that anyone could mint. Each Loot NFT, or “Loot bag,” contains eight lines of adventure-gear description, including select weapons, body armor, and magical accessories. Holders were encouraged to use their minted assets however they wanted. The contents of each Loot bag were up for individual visual and aesthetic interpretation. People constructed their own Loot-based worlds, characters, and art, utilizing Loot as the open-source building blocks for their own projects. These community-driven contributions, in turn, strengthen the intellectual property of the greater “Lootverse,” in which users own and produce corresponding games and media.
“Imagine Star Wars or Game of Thrones, but instead of being owned by Disney or HBO, the project is directly steered, developed and owned by a community of builders and creators and participants,” said Timshel, the pseudonymous co-creator of the Loot-based Genesis Project, in an interview with the Bankless newsletter. Loot is, by this description, a decentralized fantasy franchise. There was no one person in charge, “no firm to unilaterally make decisions about the IP,” wrote Decrypt’s Andrew Hayward. “[Loot] perfectly fit the permissionless crypto vibe; a public good for collaborators to treat as a narrative starting point.”
The open-source nature of CC0 NFT projects has spawned an ecosystem of derivative games and projects, contributing to an ever-expanding interactive universe. Familiar characters or assets are bridged into different settings — sometimes entirely different games. While similar to Disney’s “transnarrative” strategy, in which characters are interspersed throughout various media, most projects don’t cohere around a central figure or storyline. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the world itself.
A project’s longevity depends on members’ collective intent to participate and flesh out the world’s intricacies. In some instances, rising value on the NFT market might incentivize holders to rapidly expand out the world. Hype, however, can stunt a project, or expose it to buyers who treat it more like a financial investment, rather than a collaborative, time-intensive endeavor. Open-source projects aren’t immune from NFT boom-and-bust cycles. A project could be launched with purely collaborative intentions, but when participation is hinged upon fluctuating financial assets, the outcome might not be decentralized or democratic.
Investors could have expectations of rapid returns, which might be counterintuitive to meaningful creative production. And major NFT collectors and well-known investors can influence the market or scoop up hundreds of a project’s assets at a time, which lends them a greater financial stake in the world. In some cases, people have bought into a project with the intent of selling their NFTs on the secondary market for a quick profit. As Decrypt’s Hayward pointed out, the outlandish sums that some paid for Loot at the height of its popularity (“8 figures,” as one investor bragged) eclipsed its groundbreaking potential.
Major entertainment companies and talent agencies have signed on influential creators who’ve developed their own Web3 projects, likely licensing them for IP expansion. Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin has raised a $24 million round of Series A funding in May to develop his science fiction franchise Duskbreakers, which currently exists as a profile picture NFT collection.
Omega Runner, a sci-fi NFT worldbuilding project, has plans for a comic book and a video game, and is spearheaded by a coterie of Hollywood-adjacent producers and directors, including Bryan Unkeless, the producer of The Hunger Games and I, Tonya, and Bryce Anderson, a production executive at Clubhouse Pictures. The project was co-created with Metaversal, a Web3 investment and venture studio, and the creators have been explicit with their franchise ambitions. The world can “hold a comic story, a merchandising story,” but also be grounds for a video game, a feature film, or a television series. “The further we can push the story along and make it more fully realized, the more we can conceptualize the world, the more that we have a community and fanbase behind us … that is only going to help us later when we pivot it to more traditional modes of telling the story, from a strategic, financial, and creative perspective,” Unkeless said on the podcast Overpriced JPEGs.
Most NFT projects are still in the very early stages of worldbuilding, despite their espoused franchising ambitions. Some, like the Bored Ape Yacht Club, might have a clear visual identity, but are lacking in a compelling narrative direction, or, to quote the game designer Teddy Dief, “a viable human component.” Before films and games can be produced, elements of the world — from its lore and history to its culture and social structures — need to be developed. The production timeline for successful franchise-oriented media can also span years.
Take, for comparison, the Orion’s Arm universe, a multi-authored science fiction worldbuilding project launched in 2000. Hundreds of people have since made contributions to its encyclopedia or produced relevant artwork and writing. Orion’s Arm has published six books and digital zines, and various role-playing games have been in gradual development. This slow pace of creative production might seem a bit baffling, but the gradual, consistent output is necessary to the maintenance of a recreational project. Orion’s Arm has managed to persist because of its contributors’ longstanding dedication.
In his 1947 essay “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that a creator should “hope that he is drawing on reality,” to shape the qualities of his world. Given capitalism’s hold over our lives, even the most idealistic, community-led worldbuilding efforts are privy to the sway of market forces. It’s naive to think otherwise. Still, projects like Invisible Seattle and Loot prove that inventive and imaginative results can emerge from collaboration, producing works that defy easy categorization and commercialization. Collective authorship offers an alternative framework of creation within our repetitive, IP-dominated landscape. Consumers don’t need to fully reject franchise offerings, but perhaps they can find creative reprieve and representation within worlds that they can contribute to. — Terry Nguyen