New indie board games build worlds without capitalism or colonialism

By Kaelan Doyle Myerscough, OCAD University

Thinking through alternatives to life under capitalism, the vestiges of colonialism or the catastrophic impacts of climate change is hard but necessary work. But could it also be play?

The tabletop role-playing game scene — perhaps epitomized for some by high-profile games like Dungeons & Dragons — has expanded in the past 10 years. This scene has become a haven for independent and marginalized game developers.

There are games by Indigenous developers that imagine uncolonized futures and games by queer developers about queer love. Tabletop role-playing games cover a rich tapestry of subject matter from to networking under capitalism to life as an immigrant.

More recently, a new genre is emerging: world-building games, in which players imagine other societies, places, worlds or cultures through play. World-building denotes the creation of internally consistent fictional worlds that prompt audience participation and speculation. Interestingly, the term “world-building” also has a place in political activism, where it involves grassroots strategies to help communities imagine possible futures.

World-building games challenge players to imagine radical alternatives for social and political organization. They represent a compelling way to rethink our own world: by inhabiting and thinking through a world in which things are different.

As a researcher of the politics of world-building and a game designer and instructor, I am interested in intersections between world-building, game-making and political imagination. I count my own games One Hour Worldbuilders and City Planning Department as part of this emerging genre.

While the world-building games I discuss can be played in person, online play using video or text conferencing via platforms like Zoom, Slack or Discord has allowed tabletop role-playing gamers to create online communities of game designers and players.

Rules generate ways of seeing the world

Game scholars and designers use a concept called “procedural rhetoric,” first developed by technology studies scholar and game designer Ian Bogost, to describe how games propose political arguments through their rule structures. According to Bogost, structural norms encourage specific forms of engagement and interaction, thus shaping players’ perspectives.

As other scholars, like game studies professor Bo Ruberg and human-computer interaction researcher Katherine Isbister, have elaborated, game rules can also encourage players to enact emotional states through play. Emotional experiences can encourage them to see our world differently after the game ends.

When players co-create a world

The trend of collaborative world-building began with games like Apocalypse World. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, which revolves around a game master who prepares scripts and encounters for players to experience, Apocalypse World discourages the game master from pre-planning the story of the game. Instead, players co-create the world through their in-game interactions.

Apocalypse World, created for a post-apocalyptic setting, has inspired nearly 100 tabletop role-playing games in other milieux that use similar mechanics, like the fantastical Dungeon World, the cyberpunk The Veil and the queerly angsty Monsterhearts. So many have been created that they are now known collectively as “Powered by the Apocalypse” games.

World-building games draw on the principle of co-creating worlds. Rather than tell the story of a single group of characters inhabited by the players (as is the case with Dungeon World and Powered by the Apocalypse games), world-building games focus on the histories of places over the course of centuries or millennia. Instead of centring heroic narratives, world-building games emphasize messy historical trajectories, everyday perspectives and the processes by which places begin, change and end.

Four players play The Quiet Year.

Voice of the city

Many world-building games eschew player-inhabited characters. In the map-making game The Quiet Year, for example, players stage discussions in which they voice the concerns of community stakeholders — but they do not state who they are, and often shift perspectives from round to round.

In the city-building game “I’m Sorry Did You Say Street Magic,” at key moments players must embody what the game calls the “voice of the city” that encompasses the perspectives and experiences of the space.

In Downfall, players narrate the death of a civilization through the eyes of three characters involved in its destruction, but players take turns inhabiting each character rather than controlling only one for the entire game.

By the end of the game, every player sees the story play out from all three perspectives. These games encourage players to empathize with the perspectives of others, specifically those who are impacted most by instability, unrest and cataclysmic events.

Traversing history

Some world-building games ask players to leap back and forth through history and examine how societies remember and forget their histories. The 2011 game Microscope focuses on a timeline: players write down the beginning and end of the timeline and then take turns focusing on different eras in the middle, which might be separated by decades or centuries.

The 2019 game The Ground Itself likewise asks players to think historically, but uses prompts and questions (for example: “What secrets are kept in our place? Why are they kept? By who and from whom?”) to help players imagine the texture and feel of the same place at different moments in time.

World-building games can also involve drawing maps that express social and power relations. “I’m Sorry Did You Say Street Magic” specifically tells players not to think geographically. Maps in The Quiet Year often become chaotic, tangled webs depicting important events and ongoing projects. These mechanics discourage players from imagining spaces as static and indifferent to cultural shifts. They encourage a focus on how social, economic and political relationships map onto space.

Alternative futures

These mechanics encourage players to think about alternate futures and radical possibilities. To effectively build worlds, players must be able to question their assumptions about our world, to consider other perspectives, to think about power, and to contend with the eventuality of their world’s end. Emotionally, they are encouraged to find pleasure and fun in diversity, messiness and confusion.

World-building games help players envision other possible forms of social organization while demanding that they account for complexity and inequity.

It is no wonder marginalized developers are at the forefront of the world-building game genre. World-building games represent a powerful way to engage with questions of structural inequality — with the problems of capitalism, colonialism and restrictive gender norms — and to experiment, play with and embody solutions.

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