Why Your Narrative Design Team Needs An Anthropologist or at Least Some Anthropology

I’m an avid gamer and science fiction author in addition to being an anthropologist. So for me, worldbuilding is everything. A bad worldbuild immediately turns me off to games, and I know that as gamers become more sophisticated, many people are feeling the same. First of all, some of you may be asking, Just what is Anthropology? Well, for a quick answer, it’s the study of humans and cultures. Anthropologists like myself spend years studying culture, identity, and cultural systems. We also have a unique approach that not only helps with building a fictional world but is vital for creating a realistic and immersive world system. (For more on what Anthropology is, check out my YouTube series Anthropology in 10 minutes or Less)

Below are a few reasons an Anthropologist (or at least some anthropology) could augment the quality of your game and the experience of your gamers.

1. Holism.


The concept of Holism is a vital component in anthropology and is one of the three elements of Anthropology that make it unique from all other social sciences. Holism is the very real and applicable concept, that culture and identity are an integrated system, and that when you change one thing, it’s going to change everything. Think of the famous chaos theory concept, the Butterfly Effect, that the smallest changes can have a massive and unpredictable ripple effect outward.

What does this mean? Well, your fictional economic system, your family life, your political system, your religion, your ethnic system, your culture’s attitudes towards death, their biology, their environment, the kinds of things that they make, and more, are all deeply interrelated and connected. So when you’re building a fictional world, it’s important to consider these relationships and how they all relate to systems of power, identity, freedom, oppression, and so on. It sounds like a lot doesn’t it? It is. But it’s also why Anthropologists are essentially jacks of all trades. Our job is to understand how these systems operate and change. We look at the big picture of how societies operate as well as how biology and the environment impact us. Ultimately, culture is an adaptation to biological, environmental, and social forces. A holistic approach helps us understand those relationships.


2. More Immersive and Realistic Interactions and Game Changes


Creating a fictional world in game, film, or written form is a massive undertaking, and for gaming and other interactive mediums, considering culture can absolutely make or break a game. It doesn’t mean you have to get worldbuilding perfect, (very few games around have really truly holistic worlds but there are more with each passing year) but, it will also help you to think about the causes, and consequences of the actions of not only the NPC’s but the characters as well. Think about how much more interesting the choices in your games can be for characters if, their actions and choices early game create ongoing cultural changes. Imagine if allying with an NPC early in a game could have real, culture-wide consequences that ripple outward in interesting and meaningful ways (Not just who you get to be friends with later) What would look like? Well, that’s where an anthropologist could come in. We have more then a century of research on what culture changes looks like and how it manifests. For example, when I recently consulted for a major tech company, we talked about how the 1918 pandemic shifted our standards of beauty and made things like tanning popular, and altered our architecture to include more sunlight and open spaces in our buildings in the United States.


3. Anthropologists Are Intercultural Communicators


Our job as anthropologists is not only to study and understand cultural systems but to also act as intercultural communicators. We help different kinds of cultures and subcultures communicate and work together. It’s also why so many tech companies these days hire UX and Design Anthropologists because we understand elements of human behavior that a lot of other people miss. Anthropologists study human behavior and cultural trends and how people experience the world across cultures. So if you want to release an app in India, or China, or Germany, they will necessarily require different cultural considerations. Within a game with diverse populations, towns, and political factions, this becomes vital.

Remember that potential change I was just talking about early game as a potentially major change agent in this hypothetical game world? Your choice of who you align with or interact within the real world can have some hefty political ramifications. Early on in my field research experiences, I learned that not every group, even within a single culture is going to react the same way to change and some may or may not be able to communicate the impact of those changes effectively. One thing you learn really quickly when you go out in the field and work with people and do research is that even the most positive and useful changes you help a culture make will have all kinds of strange and unexpected consequences. Further, no matter what the change, someone is always going to be disenfranchised and will push back against the changes, even if they are beneficial for everyone but themselves. An anthropologist who has been in the field and studied culture for years of their life is going to help you think critically about what those changes will do and how different groups will interact with them.

4. Diversity Is A Strength, Especially if You Want An Immersive Fictional World

There’s a lot of discussions these days about representation and diversity, and rightfully so. The gaming community has been grappling with being more inclusive, not only in the makeup of companies but also in gaming content itself. The reality is, the lack of diversity in your game or film, or writing project is actually just simply, bad writing. The world is diverse and complex, your game should be too. But what do you do if you want to write a game about groups or cultures that are unfamiliar to you? Well first, do some background research at the very least. But ideally, you should reach out and work with different cultures and groups that you are portraying (yes even if they are an analogue… actually, especially if they are an analog). An anthropologist can help mediate these conversations and help all interested parties get around some of the communication traps and internal biases that we all have. Without doing the research, might inadvertently create a stereotypical culture that disenfranchises a real culture and create a headache for your gaming company. Remember, bias is not a comment on your character, it’s just the blind spots in your knowledge and it’s an anthropologist’s job to figure out, how these biases get in the way of communication across cultures.

The more complex and diverse your world is, the more immersive it will feel. You want your gamers to feel like they just stepped into an actual world with diverse characters with different skills, hopes, dreams, and inclinations don’t you? If you understand diversity, this becomes so much easier.

5. Imagination Isn’t Always the Same Across Cultures


There’s a problem with a lot of the fantasy novels. They are all the same. So many just take lifted D&D mechanics or they take place in the same European-based cultures that surround 15th– 17th-century technologies. There are some notable exceptions, but you see in the fantasy fiction world, time and time again, the same recycled tropes and storylines. A lot of gaming RPGs suffer the same fate. They don’t offer anything unique or interesting. Personally, interesting game mechanics just aren’t enough to really capture my attention for the long haul. I need an interesting story and world and characters that I care about. The reason things have become stagnant in a lot of media is that we have limited ourselves to the imagination of just a few cultures and traditions. The world is full of amazing, diverse, and unique perspectives to consider in creating fictional worlds, whether based on something real, or something totally new.

Until relatively recently, creating digital games was really only available in a few cultures around the world. But in the past decade or so, that’s changed. Consider the game Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in the indigenous language. It’s a unique game that tells a story about the Iñupiaq culture. In fact, the whole game is in the traditional language with English subtitles. My favorite part as an anthropologist? Not only was the game created by indigenous people for indigenous people thus offering a unique experience, but the game offers interviews with Iñupiaq elders that unlock as you complete each level. This gives your gamers a richer experience and helps expand our imaginations and the possibilities of our future as a species. This is important, because as I said in my recent Ted Talk on this topic, what we imagine matters.

6. Anthropology is a Toolkit

All this above by the way is why me and my colleague Kyra Wellstrom decided to sit down and work on a book, just for gamers, fiction writers, and filmmakers that teaches core concepts in Anthropology. The book is called, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. We wanted to create a quick and easy guide for those who may not be able to hire an anthropologist for consulting on their projects and something that wouldn’t require you to dig through a bunch of textbooks to find answers. The book covers so many of the crucial elements of cultural systems because well, viewing the world from an anthropological viewpoint is a toolkit to better understand the how and why of culture and identity. With well over a century of anthropological research, we have a lot of answers and unique approaches to questions about culture. A little anthropology goes a long way.

Over the years I’ve been creating free resources for creatives to help them think about important questions in their fictional worlds, like cognitive mapping, notions of purity, the purpose of mythology, and more on my website. These resources include podcast episodes, recorded panels at cons, and a host of other tips and things to consider in your projects. I hope all of this helps you to build a better world.

Want to hire an anthropologist to consult on your game? Visit our webpage for more info.

Worldbuilding Part 6: Cognitive Maps, Magic, and Super Powers

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about what kind of biological costs superpowers or magic might have on the biology of the brain. We discussed the impact of cognitive maps based on different biological and environmental systems, and why these are things that might be useful to consider for building fictional worlds. The reality is, the one thing so often overlooked in fictional worldbuilding, is that different species, and different mutations (in regards to superpowers or magic powers) would have a profound impact on the brain structure and perception of the living person/creature. So, it’s worth at least considering a few elements in how a cognitive map, and how a special ability or power might not just impact individual characters, but also fictional cultures as a whole.

You might be asking, well, what is a cognitive map?

To quote a 2012 academic article titled, Movement: Search, Navigation, Migration, and Dispersal:

“A cognitive map is an internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels. Animals that use cognitive maps can “visualize” the landscape and solve orientation problems by referring to these maps. While it is generally accepted that birds and mammals can form cognitive maps, and that the hippocampus is the most important part of the brain in their formation, considerable controversy has centered around whether other animals, such as honeybees, can form similar maps.”

Different animals have different cognitive maps. Different kinds of sensory input changes how a particular species would navigate their environment. Say for example a Mantis Shrimp, which has the most complex visual system of any creature on this planet, would have an entirely different cognitive map than a human. Why? Because humans have 3 photoreceptors in their eyes, a Mantis Shrimp has 12-16 depending on which variety of mantis shrimp you’re talking about.

Now imagine for a moment, a mantis shrimp took an evolutionarily leap and became as intelligent and as self-aware as the human species, but still had that same complex visual system. Naturally, their cognitive map would be far different than humans.

Well, one sci-fi author by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, played with this idea (though not specifically mantis shrimp) in his books, Children of Time, and it’s sequel Children of Ruin.

Children of Time and Children of Ruin

Without giving too much away, Tchaikovsky’s books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, ask the question, what kind of civilization would a spider, an octopus, and a kind of fungi analog build if they were genetically engineered to evolve human level, or greater intelligence. The answer? One that is a hell of a lot different than humans. But, at the same time, a creature, regardless of its cognitive map, still has to solve the problem of energy, or rather how do you build a large-scale civilization and economic system that could support a large population with different cognitive maps. So even though their maps might be different, to build civilization there would be some overlapping concerns.

For example, (and again I am not going to give away too many spoilers and ruin these amazing books for you) Tchaikovsky, at the beginning of Children of Time, introduces a jumping spider that has been accidentally introduced to a virus that will artificially accelerate its intelligence. The spiders, with completely different senses, biological imperatives, and priorities, build a civilization throughout the book. This civilization is based on a creature that not only builds a web but uses it as a primary means of communication. In this particular species, the male is much smaller and is often eaten after mating with a female, and thus, their world also includes a component of significant gender inequality, where the larger female spiders control civilization. Tchaikovsky, uses these differences to highlight how difficult communication would be with a species with a fundamentally different cognitive map than humans.

2 The production of speech sounds

So it’s something to think about. If you have giant intelligent snake people in your fictional world, you would have different cognitive maps.

Oh and also, another bone to pick about video game worlds like the Elder Scrolls, Argonians and Kadjit would never, ever be able to mimic human speech, and certainly not English. This is also a problem with the Planet of the Apes series. Biologically speaking, the physical apparatus of a mouth, nose, throat, tongue, teeth, pharynx, larynx, and other parts create a specific kind of instrument from which certain sounds are produced by humans. It’s why some animals make noises that humans could never mimic. So an Argonian speaking English would be akin to trying to get trumpet noises out of a violin, it’s completely impossible. Of course, with your fictional world you can certainly do what you like, but understand that even other primates can’t mimic the same sounds humans make. It’s why Koko the Gorilla, and Kanzi the Chimpanzee, both used sign language and/or soundboards to communicate with humans because they physically can’t produce the sounds for human language.

Different Cultures Have Different Cognitive Maps

In the book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett discusses the Piraha tribe who live on the Amazon. Though he never explicitly discusses cognitive maps, at one point in the book, he takes some of the men from the Piraha, to a Brazilian City. While there, the members of the tribe are almost hit by cars, and have, what are basically anxiety attacks about being in the city. They really hate it. Why? Well first, Everett then talks about his own experiences in the Jungle for the first few years. In one story, he talks about a python hanging from a tree that the Piraha spot without a second thought. They try to point it out to him, but he can’t see it no matter how hard he tries. He talks about several other instances when he just wasn’t able to see or experience the things the Piraha tribe were, and he had, what was basically anxiety about it similar to the men’s experiences in the city.

One of the things that cultures do, is map their environment as they learn to navigate it. So, if you’re suddenly dropped in a new environment, say, as a Piraha person in a city they have never been to, or an Anthropologist, who grew up in a suburb and suddenly finds themselves in the dense jungle, the cognitive maps you have used your whole life will no longer function properly and you will struggle to adapt until you can construct a new cognitive map (which can take years for completely foreign environments). This is in part what creates culture shock for people who travel to other countries and cultures.

Remember, a cognitive map, is a mental picture of the environment around you. Over time, these maps become a part of our subconscious assumptions of the world and structure our biases. Different cultures are the result of different environmental conditions, and thus will have a different cognitive map as a result. Now, of course, the variation in which these maps can come in, is limited by human biology, but it’s work thinking about as you are building fictional worlds, that different cultures will have different perceptions and priorities based on the physical and cultural conditions on the ground. Of course, this certainly relates to my YouTube episode on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and is worth considering, how this also impacts language.

Neurodivergence, The Brain, and Super Powers

There are more than a few problems with the way that Super Powers and Magic use are displayed in popular fiction. Now granted, these aren’t things that occur to most people (myself included until recently) and of course, part of worldbuilding is the suspension of belief. But if you are doing a hard magic system, something you might want to consider is the physical toll that superpowers or magic might have on the nervous system and the configuration of the brain.

By definition, someone with super powers or the ability to wield magic would necessarily be neurodivergent. This term means, essentially, that the person’s brain would not work the same as the average population (Of course if your goal is to make a world where the norm is magic users, they would have normal cognition for that world).

I myself have a form of neurodivergence called Prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness. This means that I am not able to hold faces in my memory the way that most people can. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with large crowds, but once I discovered I had the condition, I was able to create new strategies for moving and interacting through the world. You could say, in fact, that I, had to have a different cognitive map to function. Neurodivergence comes in a lot of flavors, it’s most often associated with people with psychiatric disorders, autism, ADHD, and a host of other conditions that humans have in the modern world. Divergence doesn’t make anyone less of a person, but it does mean that their cognitive maps are different.

Take Albert Einstein for instance. There are many who suggest that he was neurodivergent. There is speculation that he might have had one or all of the following: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, on the Autism Spectrum, and possibly ADHD. There are a number of reasons for these speculations including his difficulty with social situations and his inability to function in traditional European school systems. But here’s the point, he was a super genius and that had a cognitive cost. His cognitive map was far different from the average human and the way he navigated that environment was different from most people. This, in turn, allowed him to tackle questions that most human beings could not, and he changed the world as a result.

Again, this isn’t saying that one kind of brain is necessarily better or worse than another, but that, in fact, different brains will approach problems and solutions differently. It’s one of the reasons that, I argue in my Ted Talk, that diversity is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal as humans. But be warned, I’ve met quite a few people who believe they are better or worse than others because their brain is different, that’s simply not true. It’s like arguing which fruit is objectively the tastiest. It’s pointless. But it is empowering to understand how your own brain works isn’t it?

So, back to superpowers. One thing you might want to consider if your character has, say, telepathy or telekinesis, is that they would in fact be neurodivergent. They would have completely different senses that were required for those abilities to function.

Here’s the thing, Our brain only has so much processing power, and can only handle so many kinds of sense perceptions. Contrary to popular brief, we use all of our brain. This idea that we only use 10% of our brain is utter nonsense. So if you’re adding in other senses or abilities, realistically, it would have to be at the detriment of other senses or brainpower. Keep in mind that the human brain uses an average of 20% of our daily energy.

Also, as it turns out, Human senses are a hell of a lot more complicated than just the five we’ve been told about in elementary/primary education. Check out this NYT article for a better explanation on why we have more than five senses, and why senses are a complicated spectrum of experience.

Different sense perceptions necessitate different cognitive maps. After all, cognitive maps are built from our sense perception. You use all of your senses to build a mental model of the environment around you. So if you could fly, that would necessitate different sense perceptions and thus a different cognitive map. Consider the Marvel character, Daredevil, who has the ability to see based on what’s basically sonar, but the cost of that ability, was the standard human trichromatic visual system that we experience. That gave him some advantages, but anyone who watches the Netflix series, or reads the comics, knows that it comes with some significant disadvantages as well. Though personally, I think the advantages are a bit unrealistic even though I definitely enjoyed watching Matt Murdock kick ass in the Defenders.

So if you have a hard magic system, genetically engineered super powers, or something similar, you might want to consider what things your characters would have to sacrifice in order for those abilities to be viable. Much of the world’s fiction is filled with examples of this done horribly wrong, but then, a lot of the time, imagination is about playing with the unrealistic isn’t it? Considering the above could be a really interesting way to build a different kind of fictional world. After all, one of the problems we face in fiction is repetitive stories, so perhaps different cognitive maps could help us ask different kinds of questions about ourselves and what’s possible.

Special Thanks to my friend Lyndsie Clark for inspiring this blog. Go check out her website.

Also, you want to know more about how to build a more realistic fictional world using real Anthropology? Check out my co-authored book with Kyra Wellstrom, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers.

And of course, if you are looking for more free worldbuilding resources, check out my webpage on writing advice.

Spoken Word: I’m Sorry to Interrupt (And I’m on TikTok Now)

Hey all, I recently started a TikTok Page where I talk about anthropology, history, worldbuilding, poetry and a few other elements of my life and experiences. But today I posted a brand new piece of Spoken Word there called, I’m Sorry to Interrupt.

Here’s the Video:

Here’s the text for those who just wish to read it.

I’m Sorry to Interrupt


I took a breath

I’m sorry to interrupt

Cause it’s time for me to deconstruct

What you just said

I have to make space

I have to write new words in this place

See

I took a breath

My heart was throbbing

And the pain was bobbing

Up and down my throat

It’s like, a perfect melody I wrote

And you just can’t play the right notes

And you struggle so hard to stay afloat

And you can hear them gloat about rigging the vote

But you just can’t devote the time and energy to spread an antidote

But you do it anyway  

So I took a breath

And I breathed some more

And you draw on every ounce of compassion out of your very core

Because before you open the sore

Before you start that war

Before you look for

A safe harbor to explore

Some common ground to open a door

You take a breath

And create some space

So that you face the anger and chase to replace

The commonplace assumptions from that deep dark place

Where we ignore that we treat people different because of race

And that history that we try to erase?

You take a breath

And then the question

You don’t know if that student will have any reception

To these new truths that will push up against their perception

There’s such a disconnection here,

So much fear of the things that they hear might be true  

But what I  am supposed to do?

Part of me wants to turn the screw

Part of me wants to make them rue the day they pushed through and cut off their classmates words intertwined in a shrew view that’s all askew that prevents them from ever having a breakthrough

Because they’re scared

So I take a breath

And I breathe some more

Because I know what I’m here for

And I have to push just a little more

Because I’m not sorry to interrupt

Live on YouTube! Build Better Worlds Chapter Reading and Q&A with Kyra Wellstrom and Michael Kilman

Good morning everyone,
Today, Kyra Wellstrom and I go live to read a sample chapter from our worldbuilding book and answer worldbuilding questions on YouTube at 11am MST. You can find the stream at https://youtu.be/QS3Yse-rv3g

The discussion will be recorded so if you miss it don’t fret! You will be able to find it at the same link. But if you can come live, we’d love to field your questions about worldbuilding and anthropology.

See you soon!

Build Better Worlds Cover Reveal!!!

Last week I posted a sample chapter from Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. The book is due out this fall and will cover a host of issues in worldbuilding from the perspective of Cultural Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology and Archaeology. By using the science to compare real life cultures and what core elements exist in them, the book talks about how better to create authentic fictional cultures.

Without further ado, here is the cover for the ebook version of Build Better Worlds. More info and the official release date coming soon!

World Building Part 4: Six Things To Think About When Constructing Myth In Fiction

Fantasy, Goddess, Mystic, Serpent, Snake, Woman, Myth

Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!

Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.

But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.

Note: You may want to check out Worldbuilding parts 1-3 over here

1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledge a culture uses to interpret reality.

Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.

Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.

When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.

2. Myths structure our idea of purity

Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.

Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.

Myths may or may not include the following

  • What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
  • What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
  • Marriage patterns
  • Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
  • Important dates
  • Important people
  • How we mark or think about time
  • What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
  • How many genders are there? Which one is in charge or are they equal? Are there more than two genders (recall part 2’s conversation about the Native American Two-Spirited system with up to five genders)
  • How was the world created?
  • Will it be destroyed? When? How?
  • What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
  • How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
  • Is there free will?
  • How many lives do we have?
  • What words are sacred/dangerous?
  • Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
  • What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?

You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.

3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power

Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)

Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.

4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality

Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.

In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…

5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity

Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.

And one final thing…

6. Myths are not monolithic

If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.

If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.

Happy Writing!

Oh and Also, if you like sci-fi check out my books!

17 Things I have learned teaching Cultural Diversity and Anthropology

Want more on Anthropology? Consider checking out our book Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers at Amazon.

This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last six years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.

I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.

1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.

2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.

3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.

4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.

5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.

6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.

7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.

8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.

9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.

10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.

11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.

12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.

13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.

14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).

15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.

16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.

17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.

I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.