Recently, a 23-year-old college student named Nick tried out a new pastime: building 3D virtual worlds.
He got his hands on Dreams, a game by Media Molecule that gives people tools to create digital scenes—anything from a room filled with items to an entire landscape you can wander around in. There’s a tool for sculpting objects and another for animating them, and a unique visual programming language to tweak things. Daunting! But soon he’d made some remarkable stuff, which he shared via the game’s online interface.
In only a few weeks, Nick became rather good at Dreams. I checked out one of his 3D worlds, in which you pilot a humanoid robot across a barren rocky planet, the whole place aglow in extraterrestrial moonlight. It gave me shivers—a tone poem of desolation. “With certain tweaks,” Nick told me, “I could get some rich lighting conditions to really wow the players.” Did he have any training in the field? Nope, “just a creative sponge,” he says.
For years, making immersive digital environments—for games or movies—was the province of pros. The tools were hard to use and expensive. But the story of media in the past 20 years has been one of creation tools becoming cheaper and easier to use, and then eventually going mass-market. Editing photos and video was once hard too, but now we do it as proficiently as we wield paper and pencil. As media scholar Katie Salen notes, “We’re culturally more literate with complex tools.”
With 3D design, too, there’s been a boomlet in software like Tinkercad and Sketchup, which lets hobbyists mess around with architectural and industrial design, and there’s Minecraft, where ordinary people can make and share lush, albeit blocky, environments. In many ways, people have tapped into the enjoyment of “world-building,” says media scholar Mimi Ito.
It’s easy to see this moving mainstream, much as image-meme culture did.
The makers of Dreams were, quite explicitly, trying to accelerate this world-building phenomenon. As Mark Healey, creative director of Media Molecule, explained, the team had included level-building tools in its first game, LittleBigPlanet, in 2008, then watched, amazed, as players created audaciously complex environments. “So with Dreams, we went the whole hog,” he says. Media Molecule’s tools are so powerful there’s a steep learning curve; the game comes with hours of instructional videos. It almost terrified me with its sophistication.
Players, though, aren’t intimidated. Within days of the Dreams launch, they’d begun crafting hallucinogenically ambitious stuff: forests of trees that look like they’re breathing, dimly lit nightmares, and even a functioning version of Super Mario Bros.
Which, really, is the most interesting part of the trend. People love world-building and see it as a new way to express themselves.
Maybe we could have predicted this. Today’s young adults grew up with 3D environments as a core element of pop culture. Minecraft‘s breakout success nearly a decade ago trained a generation of kids to be comfortable thinking and creating in x-y-z dimensions. It was social too, as Ito says: In Minecraft, kids often built collaboratively because, of course, ambitious things are hard, many hands make light work, and you could hang with your friends remotely to boot. “World-building became part of everyday creativity and communication,” Ito adds. Let me express my friendship by making you a brutal parkour field in Minecraft!
This same deeply social vibe persists in Dreams, where any part of a creation can be reused and remixed. Codi Hickish, a 26-year-old illustrator, used Dreams to make adorable 3D versions of her fuzzy 2D hand-drawn characters; they’ve now been reused in hundreds of other game scenes. One 19-year-old I interviewed, who is saving for college by working at McDonald’s, built a terrific Western-gunslinger Dreams game by repurposing objects and logic others had designed. It’s an open source scene, filled with courtly cooperation.
As more people become literate in 3D world-building, what will it mean for society? It’s easy to see this moving mainstream, much as image-meme culture did. What began as a bunch of teenagers using Microsoft Paint to mess around with cat photos in the early aughts had by 2016 become a powerful form of political rhetoric—Bernie Sanders with the Beatles (“DID SOMEONE SAY THEY WANT A REVOLUTION?”), Hillary Clinton as the Joker, Pepe the Frog as a fungible symbol for white supremacists.
Right now, world-building is limited by its walled-garden nature; you can only interact with someone’s creation inside the games themselves. But I could imagine these new forms becoming more easily shared outside those confines, at which point they’d metamorphose into a true public discourse—making virtual worlds a way to impact the real one.
This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.