As virtual landscapes and experiences become increasingly corporatized, artists constructing intentional realities through digital worldbuilding offer urgent alternatives for our collective imagination. Worldbuilding refers to the process of creating a new or imaginary world, both its physical environment and the social structures which will govern narrative and gameplay. Working with games and time-based media, artists are harnessing the possibilities with virtual worldbuilding to center marginalized and underrepresented narratives, while calling attention to urgent conditions of the present and near future.
Set in 2042, Chong Yan Chuah’s TOWKAY’S HORIZON warns of a future where Malaysia’s nationwide food supply has fallen into the hands of a privatized monopoly. Here, residents are made to trade their data and digital cache for survival on enteral feeding tubes at the kopitiam, where the neighborhood coffee shop has been transformed into a server farm. Keyboards, consoles, and VR headsets are scattered across the tables and floors, in place of where food and plates would have been. Walking through the kopitiam, the viewer discovers individual residents’ information and data flashing on monitors installed above, many of whom are modeled after real people in the artist’s communities in present day Malaysia. In building this world, Chuah stretches current uncertainties in the nation’s food security, the failing global economy, and the rapid rise of techno-capitalism to demonstrate the dystopic reality that may befall upon us if we allow current trends to persist.
While TOWKAY’S HORIZON prompts us to consider the future we are moving towards, Xafiér Yap’s 2nd Puberty translates and brings attention to the debilitating reality that individuals who live with gender dysmorphia already face. 2nd Puberty is a 2D pixel role-play game where the player follows a FTM character to accomplish various tasks. As the player attempts to move through the space, they are suddenly met with hip dysphoria. The player is then presented with common battle mechanics, such as “fight” or “run”, as Yap draws comparisons between dysphoria and a video game enemy or monster that the viewer would have to overcome in a swift kick. Yet even if the action is successful, the dysphoria is only transferred to another body part and continues to hinder the player’s ability to complete the game. 2nd Puberty simulates the challenges of living with gender dysmorphia, especially in societies that strictly enforce heteronormative gender roles and norms, much like the ones many of us inhabit and even have a hand in upholding.
As much as virtual worldbuilding is a channel to formulate new environments that challenge our social and physical realities, the technical ware and infrastructure that are required to power such exercises present challenging barriers for many artists. Frequent power outages, unstable internet access, and the general unaffordability of digital software for many from the global south make it difficult for artists of varied backgrounds to achieve the high production quality and seamless rendering that large artist studios or production companies do.
Indonesian artist, Rimbawan Gerilya, chooses to embrace these limitations and focus on the storytelling. Like Chuah, Gerilya’s works are imbued with scenes and symbols from his everyday life in Indonesia, contributing towards a broadening of what virtual worlds can encompass of our diverse lived experiences when most video game characters and virtual avatars continue to be white, cis-gendered persons and in environments that take western cultures as the default. In an artist profile published on Rhizome, Gerilya recognizes this importance, and adds, “because I did it, it gets made, then at the very least, there’s something to talk about.”
Worldbuilding, especially within the infinite horizons of the virtual land, can be a strategy to challenge existing structures and to reimagine another kind of world. Instead of serving corporate visions and replicating our unjust world, we can construct scenes that hold up a mirror to our societies or even to develop new spaces for polyphonic ways of being.