Lately I’ve been playing Minecraft, the underground video game hit developed by Markus Persson, a bearded Swede who goes by the alias “Notch.” Persson developed the game in about a week before releasing it to the public, and Minecraft is currently in the midst of a popularity explosion unprecedented in the history of independently developed video games. A day in September saw sales of 25,000 within a single 24 hour period, and total sales have exceeded 300,000. I predict mainstream awareness (say, a New York Times feature) within 30 days.
The game is blocky, low-res, and has no plot or explicit goals. Your “man” starts the game in first-person view in a randomly generated block world, with no tools or resources. If you’re playing in “Survival” mode, then night will soon fall, and the “mobs” (zombies, skeletons, giant spiders — all crudely rendered) will get you unless you find shelter. You can also play in “Peaceful” mode, without monsters, and explore and build without worrying about the undead.
What do people “do” in Minecraft? There is no manual or tutorial, so newbies gravitate towards youtube, where Minecraft videos are giving the kittens a run for their money. There you can see the ridiculous and amazing creations of other Minecrafters, including castles, roller-coasters, lighthouses, underground caverns, spas, giant trees, sculptures, and even circuit boards. Using the raw materials you find in your randomly generated world (stone, wood, ore), you can create practically anything in the world of Minecraft.
The game is well-designed on many levels, but the most brilliant feature is “crafting.” From the raw materials you discover, you can create tools (pickaxes, shovels), weapons (swords, bows), and armor. You can also create more sophisticated building materials for your dwelling (bricks from clay, planks from wood), and even paintings to decorate your walls. This creates an enjoyable dynamic between creative building on the one hand, and adventurous exploring (to gather more raw materials) on the other. The game is dangerously addictive. I’ve found it necessary to apply strict time-limits to my own play. So far the game has only eaten up TV and Facebook time, but I could see it intruding on social life, work, and “real” creativity if I let it.
I’ve discussed the motivational psychology of video games before. Minecraft includes the extra-dangerous element of faux-productivity. When I play, I feel like I’m getting something done. In real life I’ve been painting my bathroom for about a year now, but in Minecraft I can put down a beautiful stone patio in about ten minutes. Enormously satisfying! Many players attempt to “convert” their in-game accomplishments to real life by posting youtube videos of their creations. Many of these videos get tens of thousands of hits. Is that a real accomplishment? Is Minecraft creating “real wealth” in any way? If you count entertainment as real wealth, then I’d say yes. I’ve had zero desire to watch TV or see movies lately — I’d rather watch Minecraft videos on youtube (or play it myself).
Why is the game so damn addictive? I think the lack of plot and fancy graphics figures in Minecraft’s favor. I know when I play, I create a vivid story in my own head. What will my man do in his world? What will he build? What area will he explore next, and what will he find?
What reading is for images, Minecraft is for plot. When you read (fiction), your imagination creates faces for the characters. You are constantly visualizing scenes — whatever is happening in the book. In Minecraft, your brain does the same thing, creating narrative that is inspired by the blocky (but beautiful) randomly generated world.
In some ways, Minecraft is the future — not just of gaming, but of reality itself. Each Minecraft world is both rich and vast, approximated at eight times the surface area of Earth. Since the terrain is generated by algorithms (and not “designed” in a classical sense), each world presents near-limitless possibilities for exploration. I suppose the novelty will eventually wear off, but right now I’m getting a real thrill from seeing new terrain, unusual features, natural labyrinths, and all the other geological features of my Minecraft world. While there are still a few places on Earth that have never been seen by human eyes, they’re very hard to get to. In a generated world, where the creation algorithms strike the perfect balance between order and chaos (as they do in Minecraft), it’s all new and interesting. I’m convinced we’re just seeing the beginning of complex generated worlds that we can explore with our avatars. With enough processing power and the right algorithms, there’s no reason these worlds can’t include novel lifeforms, and eventually evolved intelligences. Of course, we’ll have to first solve the great “level-jump” problem — the game-changing algorithm nobody is looking for (except me, and I don’t think I’m smart enough to find it).
If you’re already ready to jump on the bandwagon, you can purchase the game here for 10 euros. I’m not going to recommend that you do — it would be too much like recommending cocaine or heroin. Hey try this, it feels great! I don’t know what the long-term consequences of Minecraft are. My life might be on the way to total ruin. They might find me digging in the park, muttering about a diamond pickaxe.