Participation, Worldbuilding, and Genres

This is the first in a series of posts regarding shared story world design

The genre you choose for your SSW will have a direct impact on how people contribute and participate. Some genres lend themselves to participation better than others, so consider the advantages and drawbacks of each, especially if your SSW has a commercial element to it or your business model requires a high level of participation.

In general, a SSW set in our world (Earth) and time (the current year) offers the lowest hurdles to participation. No elaborate sets, special costumes, computer-generated special effects, or arcane knowledge of historic or imaginary cultures required. Just grab a mobile phone and go, in some cases! Mystery, drama, comedy, and romance fall quite nicely into the here-and-now landscape.

One step removed from current-day settings is the “urban” fantasy/science fiction category. “Twilight” is an example of an urban fantasy/horror world. It takes place in the same world we move through everyday, but it adds vampires and werewolves to the mix. “Harry Potter” is another example of an urban fantasy, though much of it takes place in the magical sphere occupied by Hogwarts.

Contributors need to learn a bit more about these kinds of worlds and their rules before contributing (for example, if you’re writing a “Twilight” story, you need to know sunlight doesn’t kill the vampires in “Twilight”), but the learning curve is fairly flat. In fact, the learning curve may be completely flat if the rules of the SSW are revealed directly in the stories (I’ll touch on world bibles/wikis later).

Fantasy and science fiction (“Lord of the Rings,” “Dune”), while very popular, often have higher bars to participation. They present foreign, if not alien, cultures – sometimes with new languages and extensive histories and mythologies. Even near-future science fiction has a learning curve, as the audience has to know about any gaps between “now and “then” (these gaps can be cultural as well as technological). The more world you create, the more work you are asking of contributors.

Here’s another way to think about this: how much work must a contributor do before they can begin the work of participating? How much research is required, how much world history/mythology must be learned before someone can begin to create a contribution for your world?

There is a direct correlation to the density of a SSW and its immersiveness. There is a similar correlation between a world’s density and the difficulty of audiences contributing. Look for a balance between density and difficulty.

The good news is that even for the densest, richest of foreign worlds, you can construct very scoped and tightly scaled sandboxes for audience collaboration and contribution. The design of that sandbox deserves an entire post, which it will get shortly, but for now, just consider how to increase audience contribution by decreasing the number of creative choices they have to make.

Some Questions to Consider:

  • What genre is suited for your story or world idea?
  • How does the world genre affect the ease or difficulty of audience-created content?
  • If you are crafting a large, dense world, can you create smaller, contained invitations to contribute that lower the bar to participation?

13 thoughts on “Participation, Worldbuilding, and Genres

  1. the more “effort” the more “reward”..and feeling of “ownership”… also for “transmedia process” the more “non typical city street” means theres more to “mediate freely” for the creators…financially and legally.

    there’s a reason that “transmedia study” arrose from the study of fringe, tribal, fanz groups and the IPs they viewsed…the LANGUAGES they co learned.

    Is there any TM IP that has gathered a “substantial” audience thats set in the “mundane real world”? Soap Operas?… maybe “All my Children” will make some new media TM plays when theyre relegated to the web… but thats to be seen. But arent they already set in “stylized faux worlds”…where way too much goes on in peoples homes..:) Dark Shadows and Port Charles btw– vampire soaps that basically did Twilight for Adults..decades before… but the worlds were second to the “characters journies” and i suspect that those “character journies” and “self indentifiers” were the real draw for those properties..


    1. Larry – FYI: I’m steering clear of transmedia for the most part on this site, as it’s ultimately a different animal from value co-creation models and shared story worlds (e.g., I can construct a value co-creation model that’s not transmedia). Also, there’s tons of great content about transmedia out there that I can’t top! : )

      But your comments about which is the bigger draw for audiences – characters v. worlds – is one I want to explore more in the future. I believe that while story and character are important, once you cross the line from a closed experience (i.e., passive consumption) to an open experience (i.e., active contribution), the role of world design takes on a new importance. And I suspect that much depends on the unique attributes of the experience itself. There is probably a spectrum of “right” models rather than a one-size-fits-all.

      What are your thoughts about story v. world as they played at in Starbase C3?


  2. Hi Scott,

    You mention fantasy and science fiction as having higher barriers to participation, citing “Dune” and “Lord Of The Rings.” I agree this is true, but it seems to me that these genres are precisely the ones that have very high participation rates. Think about the enormous amount of “Star Trek” fan fiction, as just one example. There’s a very high barrier to participation there in terms of history, culture AND characters.

    As you say, some genres lend themselves better than others to participation, and I wonder if the barriers are somehow necessary to motivating participation. Larry said “the more effort, the more reward.” I’d have phrased it in terms of exclusivity. If anyone can participate without much effort, there’s less recognition or status accorded to those who can/do participate.

    I think too that the alien nature of these worlds is a barrier, but it might be the very thing that makes the worlds so interesting to explore further. I often come back to a fascinating book by Pascal Boyer, “Religion Explained.” Boyer is an anthropologist who has studied the cognitive processes involved in systems of beliefs, and whether or not you believe his explanation, in the book he presents some compelling insights into how certain supernatural ideas are fascinating to us because they trigger cognitive systems in the brain. I’ve wanted to explore this idea in terms of fan participation for a long time, but my thoughts on this subject aren’t mature enough yet to develop into any sort of coherent thesis.

    Anyway, I think you’re right, it’s all about balancing density and difficulty, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in this series to see where you’re going with this.


    1. Laura – based on a recent series of email exchanges I had with some ARG designers, I think we should tread carefully when discussing participation. The measuring is in the definition, so it would be prudent to ensure we’ve defined “participation” before making sweeping statements (I think I just found the topic for a future post, too…!).

      On that note, there is a difference between fandom in general and the kinds of more guided and directed participation that a shared story world supports. Specifically, if the contributor isn’t overly concerned with continuity and canonicity, they can easily step into dense worlds like Star Trek and write a short story. Combine a highly popular entertainment franchise with no limitations on what constitutes participation (i.e., any fan-produced content qualifies), and you will get a lot of fandom. A lot.

      The hurdle to participation I was addressing is the requirement for audiences to understand enough of what came before them in order for them to contribute going forward where there is a desire if not a need for maintaining canoncity and coherence (I’ll be addressing these two subjects in a post shortly). In this situation, it’s incumbent on the contributor to “do their homework” if they want to increase the chance of having their contribution accepted. For franchises like Harry Potter, which is only seven novels, the homework can still be immense.

      However, even for very dense worlds, there are methods for lowering the hurdle of participation for newcomers and casual audience members, something I’ll cover in the future.

      Thanks for the tip on Boyer, I’ll have to dig into his research. I completely agree that the alien-ness of these properties is often core to their popularity. We are, after all, seeking entertainment, distraction, a brief respite from reality, as it were – is it any wonder that properties flaunting reality have a high appeal? : )

      But at the end of the day, I can’t help guarding myself against blanket statements regarding fan participation. The more I peek into the studies of fandom, the more I realize it’s anything but a homogenous demographic, and the reasons for fandom are quite diverse. Why I like Star Wars may differ wildly from why you enjoy it. My reasons for writing a “Gears of War” fanfic piece (i.e., the motivation for my creative expression) may similarly differ from your reasons for doing the same.

      Thanks to you and Larry for your thoughtful comments!


      1. Just had a quick couple of thoughts while reading your comments – that there is a difference between fans that play in an existing storyworld (do anything they want and usually do the opposite), and fans who contribute to the storyworld (adhering to its rules). These are two different urges and have a different cultural functions. The former has been prevalent.

        Also, regarding your comment on world design taking on a new importance above character in facilitating participation. I find “tribes” (for want of a better term) crucial to participatory world design.



      2. Christy – thanks for your comments! I like the idea of tribes, and you’re absolutely right that there will always be fans creating outside of any and all official spaces/rules (and that’s a good thing).

        I’m encouraged by the fanthropological approach some are taking in entertainment (looking at you, Kristen Olson), as it recognizes the non-monetary value fans can co-create.

        And congrats on the launch of your latest project, “Authentic in All Caps!”


      3. Hmm, I didn’t realize I was making blanket statements. At least I didn’t mean to, since that’s not something I usually do, and I agree that fan participation is a complex and highly nuanced topic.

        Perhaps I wasn’t careful with my terminology either since I wasn’t thinking as much of Star Trek “fandom” even though I said “fan fiction,” which was certainly a mistake, as I was of Star Trek franchise novels. Since I know someone who has actually published one, I know that it’s not a no-rules, anything goes novel that gets accepted.

        I think the Harry Potter example is an excellent one and is completely in-line with my thinking. Anyone who is already a big fan of this series has already done his homework, immense as it is.

        Great topic. I wish I could subscribe to the comments to be notified when people add to the discussion here though.


      4. Laura – you didn’t! 🙂

        In my replies to these comments, I have caught myself responding with something that falls along the lines of “well, it’s like this…” without qualifying my statement. I was commenting on my own inadvertent blinders-on approach to these topics, not your comment.

        And I just added a plugin that should allow you to track comments on all posts – great suggestion.

        By the way, which Star Trek novel did your friend write?


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