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?

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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