Over the last decade, Minecraft — a video game — has accumulated a massive following, almost elevating itself to an iconic artefact of pop culture. But it never really appealed to me. The idea of mining a virtual landscape for literal blocks, only to put them in back specific configuration never piqued my interest. While dabbling at it, on and off, I perceived it as mindless and — a bit dumb.
But then I got lucky. I started playing it with my friends. And the whole game changed for me. Playing video games with friends isn’t new to me. It was a — at the risk of sounding cheesy — cornerstone of my teenage and early adulthood. But Minecraft was and still is, different from any other game I have had played before. Some games, like Minecraft, are simply better when played with friends.
In Minecraft, imagination is the secret sauce. A friend of mine likes to painstakingly build virtual machines in the game to do their bidding. Another friend has a penchant for creating beautiful architectures. One of us likes to farm, tame bees and pandas. As for me, I like to create little stone huts on really high mountains and stand there during in-game sunsets with my friends in the virtual world.
In essence, we were creating our own game inside the game. We suspend our disbelief about the blocky universe with shoddy laws of physics; We all play in our little cocoon with imaginary roles, incessantly feeding ourselves with synthetic goals and motivations. I, for example, have developed a habit of constantly building towers in Minecraft — tall towers, short towers, towers made of glass — but I am always the arbiter of what a cool tower looks like.
“I’m giving the player a toy, and the player is turning it into a game” — Will Wright, creator of The Sims
I saw this philosophy of game design in action with Minecraft. It’s a delightful sandbox where people simply create their own game within the bigger game structure. And this subconscious game loop of constantly creating a game within a game is what makes Minecraft so very special.
But what bugged me was that it wasn’t as fun when I played it alone. After looking at the screen grabs that I had taken over months during our play sessions, I think I now know what the second magic ingredient of Minecraft is, at least for me.
At the start of a game in Minecraft, the players start with nothing, and they are encouraged to start creating and building. It’s important to the player’s survival. They have to create virtual ways to sustain their characters in the universe; that’s the general progression of a game. But the beauty of that progression shines when played with multiple people. When I looked at my screengrabs, I saw that our little settlement grew — in fast playback, we look like a bunch of settlers slowly developing and building upon our past. As a group of players we constantly tore down old structures and built bigger bolder newer structures — can’t speak for others, but I even developed nostalgia inside the game itself! In one of our games what started as a hut made of clay eventually became a castle in the mountains, boring deep through the crust of Minecraft’s world. We ended up with farms, railways, bridges, mansions and whatnot. The constant flux in resources meant we could never simply just build whatever with plenty — neither did we got stuck under the exigencies of pure survival. Every day when I logged in the game, I saw something new, something delightful that my friends had created and I can only hope that they felt the same way. It was a beautiful balance of joyful recreation & brute survival.
I am not capable of bringing about grand academics on a video game, but what stuck out to me the most is what I can describe in modern lingo as “teamwork”. Teamwork, not the precisely executed military kind, neither the well-regulated-manufacturing-floor kind but the slightly-chaotic-organically-evolving kind.
I am fortunate enough to be part of an industry that revels in similar teamwork, but I want to refrain from delving into that subject tonight — maybe that’s a topic for another day. But what I wanted to drive home was the fact that struggling and building together is — I believe — objectively better than going solo. I am neither an anthropologist, neither am I an expert in human psychology, but the ability to overlap our little games inside a made-up world in someone-else’s-computer could essentially be a small scale exhibition of this very shared human condition. I think the more we nurture that, the better off we will be. Be it your colleagues, your friends, your parents, your partner — Minecraft is always better together.