Historian of the Left

Minecraft! Reflections by Two Scholars Who Should Know Better

– Co-authored with Jennifer L. Allen –

When the full version of Minecraft, a computer game by Mojang, turned one year old last month, we thought that it would be fun to share our experiences of and reflections on this thing that’s been haunting our dreams.

We should begin by admitting that we’ve only tried single-player mode; entering into a war of all against all in multi-player mode struck us as both potentially embarrassing and, frankly, terrifying. And that perhaps signals the first reaction that the game provokes in its user: fear. This is a so-called “sandbox” game, which means that its environment is open-ended; in other words, you can construct just about anything you please. But there are also certain rules. The first rules one learns are those governing the player’s own mortality. Some are quite normal: the threat of falling, drowning, and burning (as well as all manner of self-inflicted demise) is ever-present as you begin to explore your unfamiliar surroundings during the day. But this is also a “first-person-shooter” game, and it’s at night when the emphasis shifts from “first person” point of view to “shooter.” It’s only then that you need to worry about the cabinet of horrors that opens up in the darkness: zombies, skeletons, creepers, spiders, and worse . . .

The game opens by generating a random world. And you, like Robinson Crusoe, are stranded somewhere in the middle of it with nothing but your bare hands. It’s morning and the sun is rising over what you can assume is the “eastern” horizon, although you’ll eventually learn to plot your position with Cartesian coordinates rather than cardinal directions. If you’ve read anything about the game before playing, you’ll know that you have ten minutes before it gets dark. That means ten minutes to figure out a way to protect yourself against all those things that go bump in the night. That may seem like an eternity in our attention-deficient real world of digital stimulation, but ten minutes in Minecraft disappear in a heartbeat as you succumb to the temptation to explore your new world. Which brings us to Lesson #1: there’s time to play Lewis and Clark tomorrow; your first task is to set up some monster-proof shelter. That can take a variety of forms: perhaps you just enclose yourself in a rudimentary mound of dirt blocks. A better option, though, is to chop some wood with your hands. With that you can make tools like axes, pickaxes, shovels, and swords. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll happen to be in an area that has sheep. Kill a few of them for their wool (see below for the game’s more humane possibilities) and you can craft a bed. Among Minecraft‘s more unexplainable rules is that going to sleep in a bed at dusk allows you to skip the ten minutes of night entirely, monster-free. We speculate that the game’s creators might have been tapping into some childhood hide-under-the-covers logic here, but so far we’re not complaining.

So, you’ve survived your first full day. But you’re not here just to survive; you’re here to build! (And, as this enjoyable movie-like trailer insists, to mine!) Resources abound in Minecraft‘s ten different ecosystems, or “biomes.” By crafting wood planks, acquiring a bit of stone, and smelting sand into glass, you can build a respectable homestead with a workbench, storage chest, and furnace. Some digging usually turns up coal, which allows you to make torches to light your way. Underground you find not only coal but iron, gold, and a host of precious stones, which together allow you to create more powerful, durable, and advanced tools: bookshelves (we were very excited about these), powered railroad tracks, enchanted bows and arrows, jukeboxes, even cake, to name just a few. Walking through plains, deserts, and forests, trudging through jungles or tundra, climbing mountains, sailing the seas, and digging deep into the earth: it is your interaction with an infinite environment — not simply passively inhabiting it, but actively forming it — that makes for the game’s irresistible charm.

Animals are everywhere in Minecraft. Sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and a handful of other more exotic creatures roam its different terrains. These “passive mobs,” as they’re called, drop many essential goods when killed: meat for nourishment, feathers to make arrows, cowhides for crafting books (exciting!) and armor. Of course, it is possible to play Minecraft without killing any animals. For example, once you’ve smelted some iron, you can craft a pair of shears for gathering wool from sheep without slaughtering the poor creatures. Unfortunately, you usually rely on meat for food until you learn to farm, and some useful items like cowhides are only available through slaughter. So it goes. But other creatures in the game aren’t as docile as sheep and cattle. These “hostile mobs” are best avoided, if possible, but at some point or another you’ll have to fight back. Although killing as many monsters as you can might bring you some perverse pleasure (FYI: it also generates “experience points,” which are useful for more advanced gameplay), you might also begin to feel a strange sympathy for these creatures, too (this creeper t-shirt gets at the idea). Other mobs, like wolves, are neutral and won’t attack you unless provoked. Still others are tamable: with the right treat and a bit of soft persuasion, ocelots can be turned into pet cats and wolves into dogs. There are also other humans that inhabit the Minecraft world. You’ll find them living in villages, often with useful items to trade. Since they can’t defend themselves, however, it requires a great deal of self-restraint for you not to turn into Thulsa Doom and pillage the place.

If you only try single-player mode, your interaction with other conscious entities in the Minecraft universe is almost nonexistent. But as with other cult favorites like World of Warcraft, this game has developed a wide network of supporters outside of the actual game platform. The Minecraft Wiki is an indispensable source for basic survival tips as well as taxonomies of every object, mob, or creation that you ever could encounter in the game. The term “cult” sounds pejorative, but it does capture the sense of community, passion, meaning, and of course merchandise that surrounds Minecraft.

Along with the cult comes a bit of the occult. One of the game’s most baffling aspects is its cosmology. We’ve mentioned that villages exist in the game. As you dig into the earth, you’ll discover that dilapidated mines — with incomplete rail systems, ladders, walls, etc. — also exist. Although this world that you inhabit was “generated” randomly right before you dropped in, it seems to bear traces of a prior civilization. After a while, you’ll start experimenting with enchantments, which involve spells inscribed in an apparently dead language — the “Standard Galactic Alphabet.” Contemplating these phenomena gives rise to deeper questions about the game: Why, exactly, do hostile mobs continue to spawn? Why do I resurrect when I die? What curse afflicts this world? Even if your initial reaction is to dismiss such questions as metaphysical twaddle, you might find that your opinion changes once you build a Nether Portal. All the game’s mystique, magic, history, and unspoken legend converge in the hellish realm that exists below the deepest of your mines. The Nether, an alternate dimension, contains horrors that will scare your socks off, making the darkest cave in the Overworld seem like a cozy retreat.

If we believe the game’s developers, then Minecraft has no point, no end. Well, that’s not exactly true if you happen to visit yet another alternate dimension, ironically dubbed “The End.” Evidence of this dimension’s existence is the appearance in the normal Overworld of the most abnormal of neutral mobs, the Endermen. And rumors are floating around the Minecraft Wiki about the so-called “Ender Dragon.” Certainly the developers were inspired, even unconsciously, by a thick accretion of fantasy and sci-fi precedents, from The Hobbit to Commander Keen. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the game is the degree to which its meaning, its “legend,” is codetermined by each player who enters its world. You can choose to be Thulsa Doom or you can choose to be an ecologically responsible caretaker. You can explore as much or as little as you want, build as high or mine as low (with some limits) as you want. The player brings his or her own proclivities into the game’s environment and thus defines, in part, the character of play. Is Minecraft about the ravenous accumulation of natural resources, the conquest of “nature” to serve avatar-ends, the taming of the wild, the manipulation of mobs, and so forth? Or is it about striking a balance between selfish needs and the beauty of the “generated” world, between doing whatever’s necessary for survival and respecting a certain code of conduct? We’ve found that the sandbox quality of the game lies less in the wide possibilities of doing things than in the more intimate freedom to choose how one behaves.

There is a reason why the UN has been using Minecraft as a tool for reconstruction projects in developing countries. The game fosters creativity, practical problem-solving skills, resource management and a whole host of other faculties that reflect the challenges of life in the twenty-first century. That the game comes to us from small-scale independent developers is also significant, indicating a potential modification of the gaming industry’s predominantly monopolist-capitalist mode of production. The real world is not a game, but Minecraft proves that it sometimes takes a game to imagine something really different. If our best and worst qualities are borne out by our behavior in the Overworld, the Nether, and the End, then perhaps they are more recognizable there in pixelated form than in the real world of distraction, false consciousness, and misplaced priorities.

In our own world, outside the game, freedom of choice rarely exists in its pure form. Not everyone can build an enduring castle here, because unlike in the world of Minecraft, castles made of real sand will wash away. Nor can we all afford to craft diamond suits of armor to protect us from whatever goes bump in the night. We’re a great deal more vulnerable than even that naked avatar during the eternity of its first ten-minute night. But there is one tool in Minecraft that we can and should export to the real world: the tool of self-critique. What makes the game so fun and also so useful is that it reminds us of who we are, who we should be, and what the world can be if we decide to change it.

Just watch out for creepers.