February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Shared Worlds | The Gaming Life

Where creative writing, art, and game design come together

Shouts of joy erupted from a group of teens when they were told that they were going to the local Barnes & Noble bookstore to buy Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the Twilight series (Little Brown, 2008). Were these youngsters members of a book club that met at the library or a group of diehard vampire fans? No, they were students in a World Building class called Shared Worlds (http://sharedworlds.wofford.edu/default.aspx) that took place during a two-week summer residential campus learning experience this summer at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Shared Worlds is an innovative creative writing program where diverse high school students from around the country (and one student from Japan) worked together with authors and instructors “to create entire Worlds, complete with history, economy, language, and culture. Students wrote in those Worlds, shared those Worlds, and applied those Worlds to fiction, art, and game design.”

World Building, the process of creating an imaginary World, has its roots in science fiction and usually involves fantasy as well. Shared Worlds founder and director Jeremy Jones got the inspiration to develop the class when he taught in high school. Two students in his class were avid readers but didn’t have a lot of friends. He created a reading group that began with just two students and grew to more than 40 members. “There was a complete social hierarchy inversion. Everyone saw how much fun this group was having and wanted to join,” says Jones. He also acknowledges that “putting kids like these together that are voracious readers, not only deepens their interest but gives them knowledge that they are not alone—there are other kindred spirits out there that share similar interests.”

I visited Wofford during this camp session to observe the 19 teens and the instructors first hand. During the first week, the youngsters met in groups to create science fiction-fantasy Worlds. During the second week, they wrote short stories and novel excerpts set in those Worlds. Among the instructors and guest lecturers were sci-fi/fantasy writers Jeff VanderMeer (City of Saints and Madmen) and Tobias Buckell (Sly Mongoose), Ekaterina Sedia (Alchemy of Stone), and Will Hindmarch (game developer).

Mini lectures were given by Wofford faculty on topics in English, art, geography, astronomy, history, philosophy, and government so that students could become more informed about developing their World. The camp members took field trips to places such as a local millhouse so that they could experience different environments they might want to incorporate into their stories. Jeff VanderMeer, the program’s assistant director, was an integral part to the Shared Worlds camp and helped students develop their individual stories about their collaborative World.

Will Hindmarch, game designer and publisher with White Wolf Online (white-wolf.com), taught in the latter half of the session by introducing the participants to storytelling games or Role Playing Games (RPGs). He posted on his blog as a follow-up to the camp, “most surprising to me was just how little these kids were actually motivated by games. This was a group of readers and writers, foremost, and that’s pretty wonderful” (http://wordstudio.net/thegist/?p=287, August 11, 2008). One of the purposes of having the students turn their fiction into the playable space of a game was so that “their World became convincing enough in detail to be immersed in the environment. Inventing details such as what people are like, what smells they encounter, how believable their space really is are all important to its development,” said Hindmarch. By creating these details, the World becomes inter
active, not just something to be read or viewed.

Seeing Will conduct his part of the workshop was a bit like watching a ping pong match. He asked each group to define playable spaces/levels within their imaginary World and describe them in great detail. Next, the students had to create and assign points to the obstacles within these spaces, and devise a means of escape. They sketched an outline of this scenario while working as a group and shared it with the rest of the camp after 15 minutes.

For example, in the World created by the first group, the initial encounter took place in the Solar Council Building. There was a fire on the roof, but there was a power outage and the sprinkler system didn’t work. All the people had to go to another floor to try to escape. Will told the group that the circumstances of play must be believable, though not necessarily realistic. The students in Group 2 then “played” the game that Group 1 developed by asking questions and determining how they could reach the goal. While the students did construct on the spot and verbally, each team had written notes from the instructions Will gave them to construct playable spaces. Rolling the dice took place when the game needed to move forward and a choice was available to the players. If they rolled correctly, they could escape and enter the next level to achieve the ultimate goal of the game which was defined by the participants.

One group of teens created a World named Elppa. According to the Shared Worlds wiki (woffordsharedworlds.com/2008worlds/bin/view/World1/Elppa), it was a “scientific world thrown into chaos.” The World created by the second group was named Equinox and began in 2089 when the United Nations decided to create a kind of Noah’s Ark in outer space to save the inhabitants of the dying Earth. The characteristics of each World can be found on the Shared World wiki, blackholly.com), author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children, scheduled to appear as a visiting author. Possible tracks will include fiction, game design, visual arts, and creative writing (sharedworlds.wofford.edu/. If you are interested in conducting a workshop at your library or school or want to discuss how to incorporate World Building into your classes, contact Jeremy Jones at JonesJL1@wofford.edu.

Kelly Czarnecki is the technology education librarian of ImaginOn, a collaborative venture between the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, NC, and SLJ‘s The Gaming Life column editor.


Librarian Elizabeth Saxton introduced a World Building workshop at the Cleveland (OH) Public Library. She explains her success with the program:

At my branch, I conducted a World Building program as part of an ongoing teen writing program. Every month we looked at a different writing related topic including poetry, character creation, and journalism. The goal of these programs was to encourage teens to improve their writing skills in a low pressure, non-academic setting using subjects that interested them. Many participants were enthusiastic fantasy readers, and several more were gamers, so I decided that a World Building exercise would be a good fit. I was also able to recruit some of the young men who had been participating in our gaming tournaments to take part.

We opened the program by discussing “built” Worlds that the teens were familiar with from pop culture including the Harry Potter universe, Hyrule from the Zelda games, and Star Wars. I then asked the group to work together to create their ideal World. We used some of Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy World Building Questions from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Web site (sfwa.org/writing/worldbuilding1.htm) as prompts. There was surprisingly little controversy over their decisions; the teens agreed or were able to compromise on the essential points.

The youngsters were very proud of the World they created—a large city surrounded by a rainforest. In their perfect World, the voting age would be 12 and smoking would be illegal. Education was the main indicator of status in their society. Citizens would be able to marry at the age of 16, but were not allowed to have children until they were 21.

In the future, I would like to try this program with separate groups of males and females and follow it up with a discussion comparing and contrasting the Worlds created by the two groups. Another follow-up program would be to look at different types of maps and have the teens create maps of their Worlds.


Dogs in the Vineyard A role-playing game (lumpley.com/dogsources.html)

Once Upon a Time A storytelling card game for ages 8 Up. (boardgamegeek.com/game/1234)

The Return of the Sword by Jason M Waltz (Cyberwizard, 2008)

Run Robot Red A role playing game (Wicked Dead Brewing Co.) (wofford.edu/sightsAndSounds/)

Things We Think About Games by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball (Gameplaywright Press, 2008)

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