Minecraft: How It Became Cool to Create
November is the month of the sequel. It’s the month of the mega-money uber-release. Christina Aguilera, Jonah Hill, and the rapper Example were a few of the celebrities who made appearances at the launches of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and the mammoth Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. Games are big business, and the more they become lucrative and commercial, the greater the desire titanic publishers such as EA and Activision have to increase their take of the money spent on games every year.
It is extremely encouraging -- while many will be playing games that have been plugged and replugged with enormous amounts of cash -- that 4 million people are happily enjoying an indie game that is a labor brimming with love. Although still in its two-year Beta, Minecraft has exploded into the limelight with legions of fans captured by its deceptive simplicity. The growth, in true Minecraft fashion, has been organic. With not a celebrity in sight, or even a TV ad campaign, it has been up to fans, via online forums, word of mouth, and YouTube to preach the blocky gospel. In September 2010 there were roughly 14,000 Minecraft videos on YouTube, and within three months, there were 400,000.
Minecraft is a gaming phenomenon. It's a sandbox game in which the player manipulates a randomly generated landscape filled with cuboid blocks of dirt, sand, stone, and rare ores. They're all crafted together to make useful objects -- for example, creating glass from sand, torches from coal and wood, or mini-circuits from Redstone blocks. There is no story, nor any attempt at photorealism. When you first encounter Minecraft -- although immediately struck by its rapturously modest graphics, smooth feel, and endearingly cute farm animals -- you will undoubtedly ask yourself, "What am I supposed to do?" There’s no instructions, no guides, no handy voice actor, no cutscenes, and no character creation. Eventually you learn (by trial and error) that you can break the blocks and arrange them again on top of one another. "What am I supposed to do?" still reverberates in my gaming consciousness, too used to being streamlined into a story, to having objectives and goals neatly laid out and constantly referred to if I stray too far from the path.
Minecraft doesn't suggest you do anything, but the possibilities are endless. That epiphany is a gradual one; most players start by building a rustic dirt shelter, more out of necessity (monsters and zombies attack you at night) than creative spark, but you soon discover you can add stone, ladders, torches, railway tracks, glass, pictures ... until the enormity of the structures and the inexhaustible ambitiousness of potential projects becomes increasingly clear. I myself was astounded at my own ingenuity and problem-solving guile when I managed to build an underwater house for myself and some sheep. I was impressed and a bit proud -- until I found out what some people had been making with this 21st century Lego block game.
To understand the diversity of what can be created, I had the chance to talk to Ian Stapleton, better known as YouTuber SSundee, (http://www.youtube.com/SSundee), whose popular YouTube channel, "Minecraft Top 5 creations of the week," features some of the best monuments, contraptions, and machines made by the Minecraft community.
"Every week I go through about 150-200 emails of people who have made these insane creations," said Stapleton, whose respondents include those who have created items such as a working calculator (pictured) and the Notre Dame Cathedral. But is it just a waste of time, as some people could justifiably assume? "You could say it’s a waste of time to sit on the computer and make something on Minecraft," Stapleton said, "or you could tell an artist or a sculptor it's a waste of time to create a masterpiece. The things you can create in Minecraft are just mind-blowing; I have never seen anything like this in a game before. It inspires creativity; it inspires your imagination to go beyond a video game.” Stapleton also feels that it changes people’s attitudes toward gaming and what they want to experience when they go online. "It’s not like Call of Duty where you want this guy to do badly so that my stats will look better. You want everyone to do well so they can help. It's far, far more communal; it's refreshing. We're going to see a lot more creation-based games from this. I think Minecraft shows that gamers have always had the talent to make cool things. This game gives them a platform to show that.”
Minecraft's online community is vibrant and flourishing. The player-made mods keep the game feeling fresh and new. For example, the recent Poke Mobs mod brought the original 150 Pokémon in as animals you could discover, capture, name, etc. Another player took this idea and created a map for Kanto, one of the islands on which Pokémon is set. And then a third player brought the two together. It is these innovative variations that keep people playing. Even when we return to the subject of building, the game is only as big as people's ideas. After building the standard castle and railway, I was all done, but thankfully, there are brighter and more innovative people than I who can conceptualize other projects.
As Stapleton alludes, there is far more camaraderie on your average Minecraft server than other online games because success is possible without the constraints of levels and gear which plague collaboration in dungeons in some MMOs. This may be one of the contributing factors as to why so many teachers are looking to utilize Minecraft in the classroom. Those at http://minecraftedu.com/ are among pioneers using games technology in education. Mojang offer special copies of Minecraft tailored to engage and educate in different curriculum types, especially those with special social needs such as autism. What better way to enable children to learn how to work as part of a team and make something cool with their friends? And what better vehicle for games in education than Minecraft?
Why does it matter that people are creating things? It’s different. That’s important. Much of the reason we love gaming -- our entertainment medium of choice -- is because of the variety of roles it allows us to fulfill -- as soldiers, gangsters, cops, zombie killers, foot players, and knights, to name a few. Therefore, when a new genre appears (which is what I feel Minecraft constitutes), we should attempt to embrace it. In particular, the unstructured nature of Minecraft and its limitless possibilities is a concept that should be applauded. Perhaps not everyone will like the game or its intentions. For example, it’s far less stunning or vast than the monumental Skyrim, but it is an innovation all the same. And evolving and improving concepts and ideas -- not just graphics and engines -- is what will bring gaming forward.
To be "good" at Minecraft, one needs an engineering prowess or an artistic zeal, an inquiring mind or persistent nature. Minecraft players illicit these skills in abundance, the same skill sets that, if seen on a resume, would be sought after dearly. So, in the month when uber-releases will mean that gamers -- more so than usual -- will be criticized for being dull, insensitive to death, perverse, and stupid -- to name a few -- I hope that the incredible success of Minecraft can be celebrated, and all its positive aspects -- of which there are more than enough -- thoroughly exploited.