World building is essentially one of the first things you start doing as a child. Constructing fantasies and fictions - playing - is a way of reconfiguring the social rules around you to understand how people and interactions work and helps in constructing a vision of the world. As a kid I played Sim City religiously as probably the earliest outpouring of my love of world building.
All my projects involve some sort of constructed world. I'm not doing this for pure fantasy, like some films or novels, but because it creates a psychological playground where you can manage and frame difficult ideas to lend them a clearer perspective. Suspending disbelief allows people to engage more wholesomely with reality in some ways.
Good stories and fictions are always informed by reality. They're not just plucked out of thin air but are reflections and focused pathways into the world around us. By building a world to put complex ideas in, you can reshuffle them and make the more readable.
This is kind of how I see reality. There's a lot of things that are really happening that are often obfuscated or confused by the complexities of the world. It's hard to figure out, to an outsider, what's important and how it relates to other things.
Building a fictional world to place these things in allows you to become an editor of reality. You can amplify previously unnoticed things and remove a lot of the 'mess.' You have to be careful not to go to far. Your world must be believable, if improbable. If the world you've built is impossible then it's easy to dismiss and if it's too real, then it's hard to engage with properly.
You must also be very careful of 'topias. Both utopias and dystopias are fundamentally nefarious and misleading. They always have an agenda attached which tends to be leading people coming to them down a set chain of thought or belief. They exist together as a carrot and a stick.
Utopia, the carrot, is the unachievable dream. The promise of advertising and fantasies that are used to distract and sell impossible ideas. It's used to seduce and to sell.
Dystopia, the stick, is used as a constant threat of reprimand. The way things will be if you don't do x. It's used to opress, terrify and decieve.
The sweet-spot is the uncanny normal. A world that is recognisable and understandable, that we can relate to easily but where the rules are just slightly different. Where something has been changed. The familiarity drives the imagination into asking questions about what might have lead to these changes - the right kind of questions.
World building precedents were largely established in the seventies. Where two approaches were recognised.
JRR Tolkein is one of the finest examples of a 'top-down' approach to world building. Before he'd written a word of the Middle Earth saga, he constructed the history, the mythology, songs, language, arts, culture and history. He drew maps, family trees and designs for objects. Through this intricate universe he threaded the stories and it's through these that the universe is revealed.
Mervyn Peake is one of my favourite examples of a 'bottom-up' approach. The Gormenghast trilogy is allegorical and limited. We're presented a handful of characters in, mostly, one setting and from that we ourselves extrapolate the world out from the relationships, interactions and histories of this limited cast.
This, in design, is often referred to as diegetic prototyping. This involves the use of objects that clearly aren't from 'our' world. People are then invited to expand the world outwards and ask questions about the kind of world where this type of object exists.
Stanley Kubrick is a great example of the use of diegetic prototypes. He invented the iPad in 1964 for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Through a handful of characters and the objects and routines on one ship-setting, we can build an image of the kind of wider universe that Kubrick envisioned.
Recently I've started to write an allegorical fiction for a new project. This story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I've considered it a fable. I want to provide a microcosm where the story itself is the diegetic prototype but one of our world, just seen through a slightly more compressed view.
This allows us to see a lot of those complex and hidden interactions and ideologies better. At a place or space where all the rules and ideals are compressed, it's easier to handle, see and manage the whole.
In the past I've worked at a lot larger scale. This timeline was part of a sprawling project around the history of power. I worked up a timeline that was a mix of real history and projected future. Combining the two to show their influence over each other and how through hindsight we can start to see why things have happened a certain way.
And this allows you to challenge the major consensus narrative, the accepted version of events.