The Omnivore June 2014

The Game That Conquered the World

What is the appeal of Minecraft? It’s the limitless creation of one’s own reality.
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Zohar Lazar

For lack of anything better to do, I tear up a vegetable patch. Thrash, thrash, goes my club of a right arm: green matter flies, satisfyingly. With a pop! a large carrot appears in my hand––so now I’m armed. I mount tiers of grass and stone, and find myself in some kind of settlement, a jigsaw of low wooden buildings. I hear a sound—hawnh! hawnh!—a muttered, skeptical little half honk, and turn to locate its source. A human figure is pottering toward me in apparent curiosity. Hawnh! I hit him with my carrot. He recoils—hawnh!—his entire body flashing red as if at the violation of some exquisite social instinct. Ashamed, I hit him again. Then I move to the left, fall into a small pond, and drown. It’s my first day in Minecraft.

Some context here: I am a 46-year-old man, congenitally resistant to gaming, viral videos, BoingBoing.net, Gawker.com, the future, the present, all of it. I don’t blog. I don’t tweet. I have no Facebook account. The global suck, the virtual slurp—I resist it. When a gentleman buttonholed me in Starbucks last week, speaking of connectivity and community, his desire to mesh networks, swap sources, link with me on LinkedIn, I resisted him. (“Remember this moment,” he said, “when you denied yourself this possibility.”) And I resisted Minecraft, even as my 11-year-old son apprenticed himself to it with a passion that in almost any other context I would have found quite wonderful. “Get off the damn computer!,” I would patiently suggest. “Off! Close it!” Suddenly he was spending chunks of his day inside this game, tippy-tapping, minecrafting, playing it. His friends were all playing it too, and the children of my friends. But was this really play, in the proper, Edwardian sense? It was so absorptive, so immobilizing. In the game itself I took, of course, no interest whatsoever: for the first couple of months I thought it was called Mindcraft. I simply registered it as a threat, another child-stealing innovation secreted into our world by the enormous locusts who dwell behind the dimensional curtain.

Can 100 million users—the number who had signed up to play Minecraft as of February—be wrong? Probably. But there came an hour, a paternal hour, when I had to find out what was going on. To seek the source of the attraction, if it had a source. So I went for it. All thumbs, my skin crawling with tech-repulsion, I entered Minecraft.

The game was created, invented, whapped into being by a Swedish game designer named Markus Persson but known to his fan-horde as Notch. It is a sandbox game, which means that—unlike, say, Pac-Man—the player is not trapped in a deterministic nightmare of pursuit and predation. Rather, he or she roams, a digital flaneur, essentially creating his or her own game. Algorithmic “terrain generation” is the key here. As you plod or swim or fly across one of the Minecraft biomes—desert, snowy mountain, undersea labyrinth, freaky horticultural terrace—it builds itself out before you. Steppes, caves, mesas of recombinant pixels, on and on. Those images that yet / Fresh images beget, as that champion gamer W. B. Yeats once wrote. All quite unbeautiful and blocky, just squares upon squares, but somehow quite winning in their nonrealism, everything corrugated with a benign fictive pressure. I jumped in, moved around, and as the vision rippled into structure and novelty at its edges I got a fleeting whiff of my son’s neuroplastic brainpower, the learning-crackle of the young minecrafter. There is a rim to Minecraft, if you roam far enough—a place in some versions of the game where the internal mathematics get stretched and things start to go buggy. But so few people make the trip that it remains largely theoretical. Doesn’t it sound like our own universe, though? Psychedelic wobbles at the outer edge?

Can 100 million users be wrong? Probably.

As for what you do in Minecraft—well, you mine, and you craft. Which is to say, you obtain and stockpile materials—wood, stone, metal, dirt—and you build stuff from them. You build for fun, and you build (if you’re playing the game in “survival mode”) because of the hostile mobs: the zombies, creepers, skeletons, and other nasties who will take your life in the night if you are not structurally protected. This is the Jungian under-rhythm of Minecraft: after 10 minutes of game-play in daylight, you get twilight, and then seven minutes of game-play at night. Peril and dimness. Exposure. Rain, sometimes, which is very upsetting. So in the failing light you build, build. You get wood by punching or hacking at trees, and dirt by thumping the ground. (But don’t dig down too far, or you’ll be consumed by lava.) One doomy Minecraft dusk, plugged almost fatally by arrows twanged from the bows of skeletons, in haste I lumped together a few dirt walls. Then I waited, full of holes. Would morning never come?

You can build anything you want, to the limit of your building skills, manipulating the simple cubes into endless complication. Building is what it’s all about, if you ask the kids. Building, and now and again destroying. My son and his Minecraft colleagues—you can play in a solo world, or in one teeming with other players—are always gaily torching one another’s houses or blowing them up. Huge crates of TNT can be manufactured, if you have the patience, with biblical impact: you can level a mountain. But always the direction of the game is toward more building, greater complexity, higher levels of personalization.

This is obviously Minecraft’s secret. The construction of private places in the wilderness—whether a blanket over two chairs or a tree house with a boom box and a porn stash—is one of the ruling atavisms of childhood. And in Minecraft we have a virtual mirroring of the “geography of children” posited by the researcher Roger Hart (whose work was cited by Hanna Rosin in her April 2014 cover story, “Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone”). What are the Minecraft millions doing but, in Hart’s terminology, “modifying the landscape”—only now with limitless capability?

Minecrafters love to watch other, more expert minecrafters go deeper, further, weirder. A complete entertainment mini-industry has sprung up around characters like Joseph Garrett, a k a Stampy, whose YouTube channel had 2.3 million subscribers as of mid-April. Inspiring is my son’s word for Stampy, a soft-edged and giggling presence who in short narrated videos takes his young audience with him on wonder-propelled Minecraft adventures. “This is really nice,” he gurgles from the control room of his homemade submarine. “It’s really just nice and peaceful being down here under the water … I spend so long on the surface of my lovely world, building and playing games and stuff, and I’ve never really looked under the water … And what’s that? Can you see something? There’s something glowing over there. Is that fire? Is there fire underwater?”

Minecraft never ends, but in some versions of the game—if you arm yourself adequately, go to a purple abyss called the End, and slay the huge and huffing Ender Dragon—a portal appears. Step into it, and a goofy/beautiful metaphysical text known as the “End Poem” crawls up your screen. The seven billion billion billion atoms of the player’s body were created, long before this game, in the heart of a star. The End Poem is the work of an Irish writer named Julian Gough, who produced it at the request of the great Notch himself. Sometimes the player created a small, private world that was soft and warm and simple. Sometimes hard, and cold, and complicated. Can it be true that in Minecraft, to apply a line of Philip Larkin’s, how we live measures our own nature? An octopus’s garden, a whirling hall of knives … Choose, minecrafter. Build. It’s all you. My son, to my astonishment, is building an international airport. Me, I’ve killed a couple of cows. I made a start on a crafting table, and then gave up. And now I sit in obscurity, in my roofless house of dirt. Outside, the zombies circulate and emit their dusty groans. I hope no stinging spiders come in here. The moon of Minecraft rises above me, a shimmery white square like hallucinated toilet paper. Oh moon, oh moon of Minecraft, help me make it through the night.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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