How to Build a World

Storytelling like that of Ursula K. Le Guin or Hayao Miyazaki reveals how real-world politics is similarly an act of collective “world building.”

A world made of glass, where a drug called “shatter” runs rampant. A world where a secret sect of writers writes the canon of reality into being. A world where a new act has been passed that allows the raised dead to labor under contract indefinitely. Such imaginative leaps can seem disconnected from reality. But, in fact, the process of fictional world building offers a unique, real-world opportunity: to understand that politics, in a broad sense, is an ongoing negotiation about the shape of collective life; to understand that all worlds are built and affected by humans, and, therefore, the power of agency of all stripes is in our hands.

Such agency is a core lesson of the university seminar I teach on critical world building. Before making their own worlds (built of glass or populated by the undead), students study existing “storyworlds,” including Cherie Dimaline’s future land variously called North America and Turtle Island (among other things), Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, Hayao Miyazaki’s spirit world, Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X, and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Wreath and Landfall. The class thinks about what lessons these texts offer regarding genre, medium, scope, and timeline. The students then use the classroom as a workshop space. They discuss and compose collaborative metanarratives for their own storyworlds, writing on the governance, economics, social relations, and cultural priorities of these worlds from a neutral point of view.

Thinking through these real-world problems of collective governance in fictional-world forms yields some interesting insights. Consider a simple question I might pose to a student (or, indeed, a real-world city planner): Where are the closest available sources of affordable food in the city? The real world is built through distributed decisions and systems, while fictional worlds are built when features are described. In fictional worlds, some features are decided. A collaborator proposes: In this world, the people meet in peace at rivers, for the waters sustain everyone. Other features are emergent. Another collaborator adds: Yes, and when people meet away from the rivers, deeply harbored mistrust may lead to conflict.

Such speculations are fruitful. But the results are even more useful when it’s not a single student dreaming a world, but a whole group of students building together. Indeed, collaborative world building offers the further possibility of assessing the ways worlds exist among people. The collaborative process confronts worldbuilders with their habits and assumptions about the world. A collaborator asks: Why assume that people in this world of rivers will come into conflict or that they will harbor resentment? Asking questions of worlds built together—be they either “fictional” or “real”—produces more coherent, cohesive, and robust worlds. Collaborative world building allows people to project a negotiated version of imagined reality.

To convince you that world building offers a useful framework, let me share my intuition about the three texts on my desk: Trent Hergenrader’s Collaborative Worldbuilding for Writers and Gamers, Jennifer Gabrys’s How to Do Things with Sensors, and Emanuele Lugli’s The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness. One could imagine a version of this essay that centered sensors or measurement. I center world building here because I understand it best. Together, Hergenrader, Gabrys, and Lugli offer a trio of devices to aid our navigation of world building:


  • A framework provides some common ground from which to assess one’s predilections.
  • An instrument gauges and creates worlds.
  • A measurement tests one’s senses of the world even as it maintains a veil of objectivity.

Each device, each work probes the ongoing effects on our collectively imagined worlds. We already build the real world together, through our actions and inaction. Thinking about fictional world building—using frameworks, instruments, and measurements—can help us to understand how we might build better ones in the here and now.

World builders encounter possibilities through negotiation with themselves as much as with one another.

Tension lives at the heart of the process of collaborative world building. How can a group of worldbuilders ensure that they are imagining the same world?

First, start with a framework. That’s what Trent Hergenrader recommends for groups beginning to discuss the governance, economics, social relations, and cultural influences of a given world. To someone who revels in the possibility of a blank page, these frameworks might feel confining, while to others, the blank page can be terrifying. In the courses I have taught on the subject, this framework works because it offers worldbuilders something they may not have on their own and will not have as a group: somewhere to start. They begin by asking: Who is the audience for this world? Where are we, and what crucial events have shaped this place? Here, genre, tone, and scope become useful waypoints in opening conversations.

Hergenrader’s process provides a chance for worldbuilders to discover and discuss their curiosities. The structures they work with act not as firm principles but as heuristics—things worldbuilders can disagree with in order to discover what compels them. Worldbuilders encounter possibilities through negotiation with themselves as much as with one another. Though Hergenrader’s book addresses itself to writers and gamers, his lessons will interest anyone concerned with narrative, management, or politics.

Collaborative Worldbuilding for Writers and Gamers emphasizes the importance of failing forward through this process. When worldbuilders clash, they are encouraged to treat conflict as a source of information.

To return to the example of the river world, the disagreement about whether resentment and violence spring from rivers provides an opportunity to share experiences and hear one another. In this way, collaborative world building is as much a process of discovering one’s expectations and triggers as it is of leaving space for others to do the same. The facilitator’s role here is to encourage the world builders to understand rather than lament their disagreement. These moments are opportunities for synchronization: Is my sense of the emerging world the same as yours?

Groups who slow down and work together until everyone is on the same page will be rewarded by a cohesive and ultimately coherent world. In essence, Hergenrader’s structures give worldbuilders a chance to agree about the importance of cultural influences in their world and, more importantly, offer a chance to engage in often fraught conversations about environment, gender, race, sexuality, and social class. We all already engage in world building by agreeing or refusing to discuss such things and by acting accordingly. Frameworks provide a space to have such conversations, with the meaningful distancing of an imagined world as a focal point.

In early 2013, Jennifer Gabrys began the Citizen Sense project. Through the development of what it calls “citizen sensing” practices (using instruments; specifically, sensors), the project aims to provide context for, and raise questions about, democratized environmental action.

Such instruments, in Gabrys’s terms, are not only world-describing, they are “world-making,” meaning that they are “constructive and performative of the worlds that they would detect, measure, and act upon.” The sensors Gabrys builds transform understanding to create the worlds we know. Unlike the frameworks negotiated in collaborative world-building projects, these real-world frameworks are largely the emergent result of culture and political economy.

One of the early projects relied on the Air Quality Egg (AQE) sensor kit. The AQE enables a do-it-yourself approach to detecting carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide; it makes the invisible legible through the collection of data. Instruments, such as the AQE, allow for encounters with the frameworks of the real world.

As with collaborative world building, encountering sensors in Gabrys’s Citizen Sense project is as much about encountering one’s own knowledge, expectations, and capacities as it is about generating data and learning what to do with it. Gabrys gainfully theorizes the work of instruments, which she describes iteratively as “the tools, devices, and contraptions that are constituted as they do work in the world,” making “undetectable phenomena evident,” tuning “us into other registers of experience,” and attaching “us to perspective practices that remake our sensory worlds.”

Gabrys’s instruments provide data, but that data, too, needs to be parsed. For instance, collective data gathered by the AQE allows citizens to confirm something they may already know very well: the air is not suitable to breathe. What Citizen Sense and projects like it demonstrate is the quantitative extent of that pollution and, crucially, how it is distributed. As Gabrys makes clear, such questions can be raised only by someone who was already asking them. It means one thing to look at the top emitters of carbon dioxide by country and another by industry.

When citizens set out to deploy sensors, they encounter the ways that sensing and reporting are contingent on capitalist market relations. Gabrys cites Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s oft-raised phrase, “What is to be done?” which she reformulates as “how to … ?” or “how to make … ?” or “how to best live on, considering?” Citizen Sense is a world-building project that aims to transform the way people think about themselves and their lived environments. Gabrys encourages those with curiosity to develop and refine questions through the iterative process of making sensors and taking readings. Like a character or reader exploring a new world for the first time, she fosters new modes of engagement with the built world.

The how-to guide and the project of citizen sensing generate another reformulation of these questions that twists back from the pragmatist formulation toward the Marxist emphasis on learning what human activities led to our present: What have we done? In the specific case of Citizen Sense, participants may be able to determine the extent of pollution on a city street, and yet they may lack the functioning tools and experiential knowledge to do something about it. They know the problem, can detect the problem, yet its resolution evades them. Thus, the problem transforms from one of knowing to one of doing, which is the ultimate aim of Gabrys’s project: to transform curiosity about the world into a determination to change it.

In taking measure of measurement, one needs to be precise with one’s language, to rephrase and rearticulate, to proffer the same lessons from various angles.

The origin of modern measurement lies in a world-building project that could also be described using the language of citizens and instruments. Emanuele Lugli shows readers the enforcement, negotiations, and politics that make the supposedly practical assessment of objects in space a centuries-long project of world building.

Because the built world exists, Lugli’s study makes plain the ideological dimensions that undergird the empirical fantasy of measurement. Lugli gives a fragmented historical narrative of medieval Italy that begins with the widespread adoption of the meter and works backward in time, chapter by chapter, to uncover the governmentality that subtends the supposed neutrality of measurements.

Lugli offers readers such immensely satisfying conceptual formulations as “labelling various tools by the same word is the first gesture in creating an illusion of uniformity, which ultimately repeats errors.” It is as if, in taking measure of measurement, one needs to be precise with one’s language, to rephrase and rearticulate, to proffer the same lessons from various angles.

In “Metrological Blurs,” Lugli describes how errors of transcription, conversion, and calculation—the emergent yet occluded factors of any attempt at world building—are introduced. For instance, the Roman palm was considered to be 249 mm in 1811, Nicola Carletti rendered it as 226 mm in 1775, and Lugli measures it as 268 mm on Giovanni Carafa’s map at the British Library in 2016. Lugli pauses to ask, “Was my cheap plastic tool gauged imprecisely? Had the paper shrunk over the years?” He acknowledges that “Visconti and I measure different impressions of the Carafa maps, using standards produced in different centuries which are only nominally the same.” Thus, he concludes that the palm is not a standard but a range that exists across objects: “In a paradoxical twist, the very tools thought to provide the foundations of accuracy were all different.”

In the world of measurement, too, schools emerge and paths diverge. In “Measureless Art,” readers learn that one faction of scientists and technocrats sought to fold measurements “into the surface of the earth,” and another of artists and architecture critics presented measurement “as a sterile activity that was to be excised in order to recuperate a truthful experience.” Each worked to “expel measurements from cultural consciousness,” whether by treating measurements as “integral elements of the natural world or dismissing them as technicalities”; both passed over the political dimensions of measurement, which would in turn “validate the power structures from which they are thought to derive.”

We have long sought to make the standards and measurements that shape our world vanish from our senses. As Lugli writes, “Measuring does not enact order, but it is the process that interlocks various practices, enabling forms to exist across them and through society. Measuring links ideas and institutions in a seamless way. And it does so because it constantly joins the source of legitimization to its destination.”

Though standards change, the built world shows traces of decisions and hints of practices still detectable; instruments confirm suspicions and, given the right questions, generate compelling information; frameworks offer a chance to explore our thoughts, explain them to others, and be understood. Together, these devices might transform a lingering question into a conscientious, justice-seeking practice: how to build a world.



I would like to acknowledge the critical world building of the students whose worlds I used as examples to open this piece: Shannon Avery, Isabella Cordoso, Heather Marshall, Melissa McColeman, Sarah Perkins, Gabriella Peters, Abigail Rhodes-Marriott, Jason Saunders, Albana Stafa, Dunc Ronald Urquhart, and the rest of ENGL/CUST 4703H. I also consulted Gretchen Bakke, Barbara Bell, Danielle Bourgon, Alexandra Carruthers, Jesse Cohn, Katherine Meloche, and the fantastic editors at Public Books in shaping this essay. This piece was written from the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat people.


This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakkeicon

Featured image: Pedra da Gávea, Brazil (2018). Photograph by Noah Cellura / Unsplash