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I don’t know how much discussion has been on a topic like this already, but allow me to explain.

The term "world-building" was first used in the Edinburgh Review in December 1820 and appeared in A.S. Eddington's Space Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory (1920) to describe the thinking out of hypothetical worlds with different physical laws.

Well, that’s very broad, and I must admit so is this site. Sure, the definition has evolved some, but It’s still very close to how it was back then.

This site probably holds the record for most generic stack exchange website ever created. As a result of this you can basically ask any question you want and probably get an answer. Which of course I have no issue with, it makes the site unique, but sometimes it seems like what is considered to actually be worldbuilding is poorly defined.

Now recently I’ve been looking into simulations attempting to approximate a universe, in a rough way. To give you a idea of the concept, here is a piece of software that reflects the idea fairly well. TIMU by buddhaman.

Now that the context is set up, what actually is worldbuilding? Making a fantasy land filled with magic for a book certainly is. Creating a sci-fi dystopia for a movie is too. Designing the hazards for a post apocalyptic wasteland in a video game surely is. But what about creating the design of a universe simulator? It’s definitely a world in a sense, definitely not real, and definitely something that you are making. How far does worldbuilding go, at least for the purposes of asking a question on this site?

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  • $\begingroup$ Easy answer: it goes as far it needs to! Prediction: 2052, a WB user named creaTOR4004 will open a Meta post complaining that worldbuilding has moved so far beyond the merely intellectual, the merely imaginative, and that WB.SE is still stuck in the past. They shall propose that literally building a model universe ought to be included. The nice thing about this particular creative artform and intellectual pursuit is that it's definition is expandable. We can easily assume vast swaths of technical and artistic endeavour. So long is isn't story based! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 16 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas funnily enough, in an earlier version of this post, I did touch on the creation of closed systems that are basically a world in a sense. Ended up not including that. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jul 16 at 19:10

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I remember the Real World Question debate (and we still have problems with it). The basic issue was this: do we want to become the dumping ground for every question every other stack is unwilling to answer?

While we're willing to embrace a great deal, a fair number of us clearly stated, "no!"

The Internet already has forums for anything-goes Q&A (Reddit, Quora, etc...). We want a Stack with standards. And while we're still striving for perfection, we've done a pretty good job creating reasonable limits.

As you read through this list your knee-jerk reaction may be, "that's not a list defining 'worldbuilding,' it's just a list of our Stack's expectations and rules." You're absolutely correct! And you're absolutely wrong. What we consider "worldbuilding" is very much limited by the rules.

  1. Is it your world?

We already have policies in place about whether or not a querent has the right to ask questions about a world that isn't their own. If you're asking about somebody else's world, or even the Real World, it's not your world and therefore inappropriate.

This should be distinguished between a real-world question asked in an effort to help build a fictional world of your own creation vs. a question about the real world for the purpose of better understanding the real world. Yup, it's a royal pain in the patootie to clearly discern the difference—but it does and should exist.

If you're asking a question about a world that is not yours, it's not worldbuilding on this Stack, unless a specific exception has been declared in Meta.

  1. Is the question specific?

We live with the reality that we have both our set of rules and Stack Exchange's set of rules. Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum. Ideally, we're helping people solve specific problems in their worldbuilding efforts. Practically, we entertain questions of a worldbuilding nature even if no world is presently being built. But in either case, we don't allow brainstorming or infinite list of things questions.

If you're asking for help overcoming a specific problem, or overcoming a specific lack of knowledge, that is inhibiting your ability to build a world, that's worldbuilding.

  1. Are you asking about your world... or your story?

We draw the line at story-based items vs. world rules that are universally applicable to any story. As an example, "Given the following list of gases, particles, and stellar conditions that make up and affect my atmosphere, what color will my atmosphere be?" is on-topic. "My community uses rocks for money and they paint them, what color paint should they use?" is off-topic.

Asking about your story is never worldbuilding. We're here to help you build a world, not tell a story.

  1. Finally, we're supposed to be more than physics-lite.

We certainly do get a lot of real-world questions! But that's had a consequence—too many people want to restrict answers to real-world physics. What's funny about this is that our understanding of physics constantly changes! And yet people want to believe (almost with a religious fervor) that today's understanding of physics or science is all the understanding there is or will ever be and therefore all answers to any question must meet that limitation.

Baloney!

Worldbuilding is so much more than can be justified by the limitations of science. But the opposite is true, a great many people want to embrace the fictional, the silly, the outrageous! But for some reason, they want that whimsy to be realistic. Too many people don't understand the difference between realistic (which can almost never be answered, "yes!") and capable of suspension of disbelief (which can almost always be answered, "yes!").

Worldbuilding embraces imagination, creativity, and a certain feel that can only be described by the word "maverick." Worldbuilding is an act of imposing structure and order where before there was only chaos. It embraces the whimsical equally with the punctilious. Sometimes the goal is to force that whimsy into the limits of the Real World. But at all times our goal is an answer that allows others to suspend their disbelief.

So, what is worldbuilding?

On this site, worldbuilding is any creative act that later permits a story to be told in any form (your alternate-universe simulator is just another way to tell a story). But we do limit that act. For the sake of standards and to appease our Stack Exchange overlords, we have rules. And our definition of worldbuilding necessarily sits within those rules.

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The definition I use

Tour center header

Worldbuilding Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for writers, artists and others using science, geography and culture to construct imaginary worlds and settings.

It's from the big grand tour page, and this is detailed a bit more in the help center :

World building includes geography, culture and creatures for the world, not to mention magic and planetary physics, in short, everything from the physics underlying your reality to the entire universe you want to build.

In both, I highlighted the words which I find very important. Personally, I like to just say it's the art of making imaginary worlds. Yes this is all and already largely enough.

Built worlds and created universes have to be imaginary and fictional, and in most if not all cases, worldbuilding has an artistic purpose. World quality is generally dependent on its internal consistency, hence most people build worlds using existing knowledge in other domains as it's much easier to keep things coherent that way. Yes, much, much easier ^^. Understand though that this knowledge is not worldbuilding alone, it's a tool to make one.

What I consider as worldbuilding

  • Creating a seemingly coherent geography of a fictitious kingdom
  • Checking if a creature makes actual physical sense beyond looking nice.
    • Being "realistic" as in "close to our reality" can be an artistic goal. Realism often helps an audience to anchor to the world, to the story using what they already know or believe.
  • Making up a world which is carried by an upside-down pirate ship, supported by four turtles eating spaghettis.
    • While it can be a goal, you don't need to build close-to-reality worlds if that's not what you want.
  • Building a world where physics rules change every minute moment
    • It's not often considered as good world quality (in comparison, real-world physics are constant), but it's still worldbuilding.
  • Creating an alternate history, where WWII's peace treaty was signed before the first nuclear bomb was dropped.
    • Even though you came from some real-world background, the first divergence in real-world history starts the imaginary world, your imaginary world.
  • Developping the strategic consequences of removing artillery from battlegrounds.
    • As long as it's about military culture, and not the choice general X makes at some battle (see what I do not consider as worldbuilding).
  • Making up the historical events of an invented world.
    • Though it's very easy to confuse individual and group actions in these. Only society-sized actions are worldbuilding (and this makes them very hard questions to ask here).

What I do not consider as worldbuilding

  • Real-world knowledge alone.
    • If I know adding milk slowly to the flour while mixing helps in making flawless pancake batter, or that there was an war named after a flower, that's having knowledge in cooking or history. Even if it's useful to know when creating worlds, I'm not actively doing so, and thus it is not worldbuilding.
  • Programming a top-notch roleplaying videogame with a whole universe in it.
    • Yes, you're making something which contains an imaginary world. But you're making a representation of it, not the world itself.
  • Designing Facebo... Meta's virtual metaverse.
    • This is creating a real-world world. It's digital, yes, but it's technically real computer data which people can interact with and within.
  • Baking moon-shaped gazelle ankles biscuits.
  • Wondering how to make people happy forever.
  • Choosing what a character will do or feel.
    • Even if said character has a world-sized ego, they're too small to be a world. A character becomes a component of a world when it becomes a society. In other words where individual, chaotic actions can be averaged and predicted in regards to sociology, psychology or ethnology (or other social sciences).

Word of caution

You're asking on worldbuilding meta stack-exchange with the "on-topic" tag, therefore I picture you ask this question to know when you're on-topic on this website. Then please note that not all worldbuilding topics are... On-topic here. Asking for opinions or about very broad concepts, starting discussions, and in general not having a worldbuilding problem to solve is off-topic here, even though it's technically worldbuilding.

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  • $\begingroup$ “ Asking for opinions or about very broad concepts, starting discussions, and in general not having a worldbuilding problem to solve is off-topic here, even though it's technically worldbuilding.” Ehhh, is it really “off topic” though? None of those are topics. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jul 15 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ And sure, you can make a list of what topic is on topic or not, but can you really define where that boundary between the two is? Not to mention that any such list would have to be practically infinitely long. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jul 15 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, a question can be about worldbuilding, and not be a suitable question for this site. That’s different from it being off topic though. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jul 15 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @TopCode (misquoted previous comment) Opinions, very broad concepts, discussions and no-problems can be about worldbuilding, but being off-topic as a topic in the sense of a forum topic, as told here : "Questions must be specific as well as answerable. If you are looking for discussion, brainstorming, or an overall process rather than specific questions and answers, the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange might not be a good place for your question." (from the "on-topic" help page). It's just a different kind of off-topic :). $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Jul 15 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ As for the boundary... Well the definition gives it. If you're making an imaginary world, then it's on topic. If you're making anything else, that's off-topic. Like when defining the boundaries of any subject, the details are always up to one's understanding of the individual terms. The list I give is to help see the nuances between what is and isn't part of the "world" and "imaginary" definitions, without overextending too much in grey areas :). Grey areas which anyway would be seen by enough people to be considered off-topic here, as you only need 5 people to close a question ^^. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Jul 15 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ “but it's technically real computer data which people can interact with and within.” So you wouldn’t consider anything interactive to be worldbuilding? $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jul 16 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Topcode Developing a game isn't building a world but may require that you build one. If you develop a random map and history generator you're not building a fictional world but you are when you run it. Same way building an assembly line isn't building a car. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jul 16 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings you are looking at the bullet point above the one I am referencing $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Jul 16 at 6:08
  • $\begingroup$ @TopCode For the meta's metaverse, you're creating a virtual world, but it's deeply anchored within the real one : "Characters" are real people, and all the data making the exact content of this world is stored in the real-world. It's even worse compared to making a videogame : In the videogame, you make at least a depiction of the fictional world, a window to peak into it. This is not the case here. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Jul 16 at 7:40
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By its very nature worldbuilding is a very broad subject. If we define worldbuilding as "establishing some fact about a fictional world", then because everything we, see, do, think, or experience, is some fact about "our world", worldbuilding can encompass the totality of the human experience.

Want a world where entire multiverses spring from the daydreams of children? Build it. Want a world where there are only 2 dimensions? That was done in 1884, but go ahead and build your own. Want a world like this one except your teenage crush didn't break your heart. I'd recommend moving on, but if you want to build it you can. You can have different laws of physics, or no laws of physics at all. The differences from ours can be minor, subtle, fantastic, or grounded in reality, it all falls under the worldbuilding banner.

Some worldbuilders may choose to self impose restrictions on their worldbuilding. "grounded in reality" is a common one I hear bandied about. But there are stories countless fictional worlds that are impossible in one way or another that are loved by billions of people. A good story set in a world will be loved because of it's fantastic elements, not despite them.

As for this site, we're only focused on supporting a small subset of what can be done with worldbuilding. We're a questions and answers site, not built for discussions or brainstorming. By nature of being a Stack Exchange site our mandate is to become a repository of the best answers, even if that means rejecting some questions about worldbuilding. Questions that are too broad, opinion based, or unclear, aren't permitted here. Neither are questions about characters in a world, or questions that ask us to build a world for you.

If you look at question closures on this site very few are for not asking a question related to worldbuilding. Most closures are related to the form of the question not being conducive to the sort of answers that stack exchange sites are designed to attract. Just because anything can be about worldbuilding doesn't mean that we permit you to ask anything you want here.

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