The Importance of Imaginary Worlds

The Importance of Imaginary Worlds An imaginary world exists in the meta-space of our imagination. It is a collection of beliefs and narratives that form a consistent mental model. Anything that can be summoned up in the cognitive realm is a world that could be. That was. That might be. That won't be.

The Importance of Imaginary Worlds

An imaginary world exists in the meta-space of our imagination. It is a collection of beliefs and narratives that form a consistent mental model. Anything that can be summoned up in the cognitive realm is a world that could be. That was. That might be. That wont be.

Our physical realm limits us by certain rules known as physics.

But we have evolved an evolutionary tool to better navigate the physical world, a cognitive realm that is not constrained by these rules. We have evolved to use this cognitive realm as a tool to survive and thrive.

  • We can replay memories, to not eat the purple berries and model cause and effect.
  • We can ignore all the noises of the forest to concentrate attention on one animal to hunt, simplifying the raw data.
  • We can forecast the upcoming rain by gathering clouds.

Worlds that could be. That was. That might be. That wont be.

They are worlds we have imagined; they are imaginary worlds.

When you mention imaginary worlds, most people think of ‘Hogwarts’ (Or the one where Gwenith Paltrow makes the train….) But worlds of all types exist only in the space of imagination.

Memories are a type of imaginary world. They are reconstructed and, although based on fact, are not perfect and are therefore imaginary worlds.

Your mental model of how a clock works or how a colleague got to work today are stories made of partial information that your imagination fills to create unexamined imaginary worlds.

My household budget spreadsheet is a simulation of a world lived in by my grocery cart and the local burrito joint.

To get weird…. your total experience as a human is a kind of imaginary world. Your brain’s way of presenting to you the best screenplay it can from the outside raw information delivered by your sensory organs.

So yes, imaginary worlds are all simulations of imaginations in all their iterations. They perform serious tasks such as simplification, sense-making and forecasting.

Dang, Imaginary worlds can ignore the laws of physics! And we can also use them to practice the future and rewind time!

Powerful magic. Why don’t we use them more??!

I think the reasons are:

  1. People lose the skill to imagine well.
  2. People don’t know how to make imaginary worlds work for them.

First, imagination is a raw primal energy that begins in a vacuum and has no momentum. It has the weight of creation on its shoulders and with an unpracticed mind, sputters directionless space dust out of the void with the expectation of failure.

But when given the right hand-holds, an imagination can lead to a Cambrian explosion of ideas and worlds. We can express this as:

Structure + Imagination = Innovation

In the evolutionary sense, handholds come out of the environment and are immediate survival-only responses.

> See sabre-tooth tiger (handhold)

> Imagine being eaten (imaginary world creation and simulation)

> Run (decision-based on the use of imaginary world)

But in deliberate imagining of more complex situations, we struggle to generate useful handholds of our own to bring creativity.

Asked to paint a painting, the non-artist will ask themselves “What of?”

When asked to paint a cat, they start with a rudimentary cat, like a robot (callback joke)

When asked to paint not a cat, that is when they create something really interesting.

To create more complex imaginary worlds, we need better handholds and we need to practice it.

Second, we need to learn how to make imaginary worlds work for us. If people spend time in the cognitive realm, it is usually not proactive, intentional, designed or productive.

Imaginary worlds are a big, intimidating blank canvas. A pluripotent stem cell that could become anything, so we need to sculpt and design it. This is adjacent to the idea of mindfulness, but we will narrow this concept towards designing useful simulations (narrowing to talking about tabletop exercises) within the cognitive realm.

Because literally anything could exist in the cognitive realm, we first need to know why we are there playing around. Defining the aim of spending time in the cognitive realm (or at the table in a make believe scenario) is the first step.

Once we understand the aim of this imagining, we need rules that will act as guard rails and guidance for us.

We are mortals from the physical world navigating a tool that doesn’t friggen even bow to physics.

These worlds can house people, cultures, and civilisations that can live a fully rich existence and face hardship and decisions that carry real moral weight. But to be useful, they need to have some credible resemblance to our world as we know it.

The rules of simulating realistic worlds need to follow our inherent mental model of how the world currently works when determining outcomes. We have to believe there is a just and fair system in the imaginary world to enable immersion, believability and representativeness.

Properties of rules that best create environments for immersion include:

  • Strength (Rules that do not break)
  • Flexibility (Rules that account for any situation we try)
  • Invisibility (Rules that fade into the background).

Something along the lines of:

Maths + Luck = Comeuppance

Where some level of physics rules and skill (the maths) combined with random chance (luck) resolve all things in the known universe. This is the simplest and only game mechanic we probably ever need when making imaginary worlds work for us.

(this is also the core principle of basically any TTRPG resolution mechanism. Think skill checks in DnD)

Lastly, we need immersion.

Rules simply bind the world to useful limits, whereas Immersion is the ingredient to fully capture the value gained that would be otherwise lost in non-utilisation or suffer from world leak/representativeness. Let me explain:

Immersion suspends the puppetry of us in this imaginary world, so when we think about the situation and take action, we act the truest form of ourselves in the imaginary world for simulation fidelity.

ILI5: The more immersed we are, the more respect we pay to the world, and act without bias that we are in an imaginary world

(This limits world leak, which I would define kind of like meta gaming where you have a bias to the physical realm).

This allows us to take our imagined world outcomes and apply them to the real world. (representativeness)

It is easy to achieve immersion fidelity with simple imaginings, like being eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger (this is a representative simulation of the physical world, enough for us to take this simulation seriously by taking action > and running), but this gets harder to achieve with more complex imaginary worlds.

In summary:

  • Imaginary worlds are defined as all the things that could exist in the cognitive realm, outside of the physical realm.
  • They can be for fun but mostly serve as tools for things like planning and remembering.
  • Imaginary worlds enable us to circumnavigate our physical world by escaping annoying things like the time-space continuum and physics.
  • Because of these properties, they are infinite, overwhelmingly unbounded and directionless.
  • This turns people off their usefulness and scope.
  • However, we can better utilise these powerful worlds.
  • People can create better imaginary worlds by practising imagination and designing better hand-holds.
  • People can design better imaginary worlds by:
  1. Thinking more about the aim of being in the cognitive realm
  2. Design rules to use constrain the imaginary world
  3. Achieve high immersion for better simulation fidelity and take-aways.

TLDR: People need to utilise more tabletop games as a serious tool, dawg.


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