The last week or so has been a bit odd as I’ve found myself, at the age of 36, finally getting into Minecraft for the first time. I suppose this is an appropriate time to get started – if we’re all going to be stuck inside all day, we may as well escape to a virtual outdoors (or, as the case may be, a gargantuan virtual mineshaft).
I started playing, naturally enough, because many of my online friends – mostly the community around the now dormant Idle Thumbs podcast – began playing. This all started last week when one of the erstwhile hosts of Idle Thumbs, Nick Breckon, streamed a tour through all of the previous Minecraft worlds, eight in total, created by past members of the Idle Thumbs community. It was strange and beautiful and a little sad touring through these dense and intricate worlds, filled with huge monuments, humble homes, and gratuitous in-jokes – like touring a city after the rapture, suddenly emptied of people but still in pristine condition, like looking at a photograph of a person who was born, who lived, who died, all a long time ago.
I’ve been taken by surprise by how quickly and strongly the experience of playing Minecraft has grabbed me. As with most people who spend their time attempting game development, I seem to seldom find myself able to make time to actually play them – and Minecraft has, somehow, become a big exception. While Minecraft is notorious for being compelling, many games with the same reputation tend to leave me cold – though in all cases having friends to play with helps. As with any instance where I find myself strongly compelled by an experience, though, I have to wonder exactly what need it is fulfilling – after all, when one keeps returning to the well it’s only reasonable to conclude that one is thirsty. There are a few reasons which are obvious and not really worth addressing in depth as they’re so commonplace – a sense of communal participation, a form of steady progress and outlet for creativity, a virtual place to relax where the outside world cannot intrude, much virtual ink has been spilled about these appeals – but obvious traits are the most readily emulated and made available in other similar games, so I’m left to wonder what it is about the community, the progress, the creativity, the relaxation that is unique to Minecraft.
One aspect of creativity in Minecraft that I think subtly creates the compulsion to play for long periods is how ugly and clumsy it actually is. I expect there are many builder games that have tried to follow in its footsteps and allow the player to build things which are more intricate and detailed, which offer more fine-tuned control and more powerful tools – but I don’t actually know of them, because why would one want to play something like that? The more powerful the tools get, the more detailed or realistic their output, the more we become bogged down by our desire to make things correct, to do a good job – and so, instead of focusing on what’s interesting to us and how to go about it, we end up focusing on what we’re doing wrong, and the mere possibility of quality becomes an anchor that drags us down and holds us in place. Minecraft creates a space where it’s possible to make something interesting and attractive, but impossible to make it representational or finely detailed – and, though it’s possible to get into some truly byzantine automation and functional structure, these are usually a means to whatever end the player has dedicated themselves to. I have discovered that I find it surprisingly appealing simply to be able to build at a scale that can be walked through, participated in – the degree of granularity in the 3d world of Minecraft is exactly the largest scale that can still allow for meaningful human-sized interactions. What has always interested me in games is the ability to create a space that a person experiences, create a tiny life for them to live inside their main life, and being able to quickly assemble a space, however crude, gives me a taste of that – one which I don’t have to spend weeks to manifest. Additionally, whatever I create is placed within the context of a greater world – if I spend weeks painstakingly modeling and texturing a convenience store, it’s a convenience store in a black void, but if I spend a few hours creating a convenience store in Minecraft it’s an anomaly, an incongruous white building in a forest or desert, and it takes on additional meaning.
For a game that’s considered ‘addictive’, though, Minecraft doesn’t do most of the things that games described as such usually do. There’s a character leveling system of sorts, but the levels are really more of a currency that you can spend to upgrade items, so in that regard just another resource like gold or iron – and, though finding materials and using them to make and upgrade gear is important, it’s not really the thrust of the game. While a full suit of enchanted diamond armor and tools will help you do things, it’s not much of a goal to be aspired to in and of itself – and, though the server I’m playing on has no consequences for death, under normal circumstances any of these resources could be easily lost by one severe mistake. Whatever I do I do for myself and my friends – not because I was told to do it, informed by the game that it is the goal, the correct way to play. Because I’m not being told what to do, what my goal is, what I should feel rewarded by, I don’t feel manipulated or exploited when playing the game – which is a sadly unusual sensation when playing games. That being said, there’s a newer version of the game which introduces the ‘minecoin’ premium currency for buying special cosmetics, so, uh… I can’t say how universal that freeing experience might be at this point.
Everything in the game is a means to an end, but it’s up to the player to decide what that end ought to be. Eventually, enthusiasm will wane. Eventually all of us playing the game now will lose interest, the server will be abandoned, and the remains will be preserved – and it will be, rather than a place we spend hours every day, just another dead Idle Thumbs Minecraft world. This, too, I believe is part of the appeal: There’s a lie I like to tell myself some days, that the things I build might outlast me, might reach further than I can comprehend and last longer than I can imagine. Just another reason to strive for perfection. Just another reason to create the very best I am capable of. There’s freedom in knowing that nothing here will really last – and that knowing that what I make, I only make because it’s what I want to make – not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.
At a certain point, one has to become comfortable with the idea of reaching an end.