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Minecraft as a Modern fantasy - great fun and deeply problematic?

A specter is haunting the internets - the specter of Minecraft. If you have not yet encountered it, chances are it will be near you soon. Minecraft is a so-called indie game that has made it big, with 4 million purchases so far (and counting), even though the game is still in beta. On YouTube, fan-made Minecraft videos such as this one easily attract hundreds of thousands of viewers.

How come this success? Minecraft certainly does not impress with spectacular graphics nor sophisticated narratives. Basically, Minecraft is about mining. After a tiny Java-program is installed on your desktop, it generates a vast 3D world, complete with oceans, continents, weather above and caves below. As a player you are then free to explore and exploit this world after your liking - typically through mining of various ores and crafting of items (hence the name of the game). The only stress factor is that during nighttime, monsters spawn out of dark spots on the map, which in effect is anywhere that you as a player has not yet lit up with torches. Thus, there is a clear incentive to put a cosy little house together rather quickly, or arm yourself for battle until dawn breaks.

The way I'm currently thinking about explaining the succes of Minecraft - which is also a personal issue, since I'm under its spell - is that the game stages a meeting between the dangerous but resourceful Nature and the vulnerable but rational Man that appeals to the Robinson Crusoe that many of us have somewhere inside. In a sense, Minecraft epitomizes the deeply Modern fantasy of the powerfully rational Human Individual, dropped from the sky (literally, in the game) to manipulate Nature by cutting it up into cubes for easy handling (mining), combining them to achieve higher complexity (crafting) and an increase of power (tools) for further manipulation. No wonder Minecraft is intriguing for anyone enrolled in this Modern narrative of the state of things.

However, in this Modern fantasy lie problems that are rapidly becoming more and more obvious. As humans collectively struggle with grasping the consequences of climate change, we try to locate a particular human actor to blame for the misery, but find only historical contingency and delicate ecosystems. Nature is not simply our endless resource, it turns out, and there is serious backlash to our 'rational' exploitation of it. Furthermore, we might have to design a new politics to divide resources between us, since they are finite. These limitations are absent in Minecraft, which is why it comes across as highly Modern, great fun to play (for people like me, who grew up Modern), and potentially deeply problematic if taken in without a dose of reflexivity.

How might Minecraft approach the Nature-Culture divide differently? One place to start might be to generate maps that have finite resources and a fully destructible world. This would add a whole new tension to the game, as players in multiplayer worlds might have to negotiate how to use the sparse land that has been generated for them. As it is now, multiplayer worlds end with a layer of indestructible 'bedrock' - a game feature that might also be seen as a metaphor for the Modern belief in a bedrock of facts that Man can reach if he is rational enough to cut through chaotic Nature.

Another idea could be to make worlds in which players cannot survive when dropped from the sky, but have to grow as part of a larger ecosystem, dependent on other beings. Obviously none of this would overcome the Nature-Culture divide, as should be the ultimate ambition, but then again - that might diminish the fun of the game for Moderns like us.


Comments

  1. I feel like I deserve some credit here:

    "to manipulate Nature by cutting it up into cubes for easy handling (mining), combining them to achieve higher complexity (crafting) and an increase of power (tools) for further manipulation. No wonder Minecraft is intriguing for anyone enrolled in this Modern narrative of the state of things."

    I totally inspired that when saying the game was about creating order from chaos. Right? Right.

    Anyway, I don't think I agree the game is problematic, much less 'deeply' so. Or if it is, there are a whole load of other things that should also be characterized as problematic.

    I don't feel an indie video game should bear the major responsibility for educating people about environmental/political/whatever problems, unless it's a 'serious' game made with that explicit purpose. If you want to do this, I feel like there are other cultural products ahead of Minecraft in the line waiting for value judgements.

    I generally find it a bit weird to use a lot of energy judging fiction/entertainment like games on ethics. Lots of protagonists in movies or novels do some heinous shit without that meaning those are bad novels/movies.

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  2. The short answer is that I only take time to criticize things that I like. That's why Minecraft is first in line. And yes, you are an inspiration for many things that I do :-)

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  3. Do Fate of the World next! A game actually intended to be about the environment, limited resources etc. It just got an update to implement migration in its depressing simulation of just how fucked we are.

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  4. I guess this guy had some of the same thoughts you did: http://boingboing.net/2011/11/29/hacking-carbon-emissions-into.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+boingboing%2FiBag+%28Boing+Boing%29

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