essay, play, video games

Minecraft: A Doll’s Life

[This is the start of a series of posts on examining the “play” that arises out of sessions in Minecraft. For this post, I examine how playing Minecraft is similar to playing with dolls and what that can teach us about interaction with other worlds.]

I’ve been reading Critical Play by Mary Flanagan for the last day or so.  Having stopped towards the end of Chapter 2, I knew I had to write out some ideas that I feel translate from what she is talking about to what I have been doing. The first of these is that playing with dolls, especially how Victorians saw the experience, is remarkably like my own time in Minecraft. The second is that, while I don’t agree with all of her thoughts about how to define games, I really love reading about how she approaches talking about the act of critical play, the use of the medium to express ideas, concepts and attitudes that are based in artistic vision and serve to highlight social issues.

Chapter 2 is based wholly on the concept of playing with dolls. I can say I honestly did not consider that action of much importance, other than its tradition, until I read about how it allows self expression, exploration of gender spaces and the re-interpretation of social roles. I knew that dolls, abstraction representations of humanity, were important in some ways. Young children played with them, for example, but had not taken the time to ponder the importance of them in different time periods. They were, if I am allowed to put words in Mary Flanagan’s mouth, the very first avatars that humanity interacted with, played with, that are still around in the present age.

We use dolls today. Less in a physical sense but a more digital one. For Victorians though, dolls were what video games are to many people today, an outlet for emotional exploration. I was captivated to read about how, what we would call “fan fiction” today, was written about dolls. The narrative experiences that children invented during the sessions of interaction could be written out and even changed. There was a culture that surrounded dolls where even mock funerals and memorial services were held for dolls that had been used too much. How can you read about such things and not think about the fans of game series and characters who seek to hold vigils for deaths they morn? How similar too is the thought of video game fans writing additional fiction where situations happen that are not canon, where characters continue to live who might have died? I can think of several examples without even turning to a search engine for the details.

This is the connection that Mary makes as well. The very attitudes that Victorian-era children held toward dolls are echoed again in many current video games. She takes time to address how the doll paradigm translate easy to many games. Those that serve up as much verisimilitude as possible, SimCity and The Sims in particular, allow for the examination of how players interact with “dolls”, virtual people. While I enjoy reading about how the same framework she uses to describe the doll paradigm works well in detailing the interactions that players have with The Sims, I thought I would carry it a little bit into the wilderness and examine what it might say about another game that has complex rules, a detailed world and a high degree of verisimilitude: Minecraft.

I can honestly say that I doubt Minecraft would cross anyone else’s mind in trying to examine the three themes that Mary uses to define critical play. When looking at the interactions with dolls and The Sims, she explains that critical play in any space can be marked by the exhibition of three aspects: unplaying, reskinning and rewriting. Through each of these,  the space that surrounds the objects in play can be explored, will be explored, and how each allow for a different path for the expression of self and reflection of social norms within the space itself. In other words, each are greater avenues in which streets of thought can wonder off, join other roads and create new paths for expression within the rule set of a system.

Unplaying

Mary Flanagan explains that this aspect “reverse[s] traditional expectations”. In her first example using Victorian-era doll culture, she lists the examples of children “abusing dolls, ‘killing them’, or some other revision of the ‘care giving’ framework of expected play.” This aspect is all about the act of a subversive nature. [I’m going to save talking about “subversion”, at least how Mary Flanagan sees it, for another post. Suffice it to say for now that she has good ideas and that the word is used in an important and positive connotation.] For The Sims, this is killing off the Sims in often bizarre and morbid ways. Removing ladders from pools, bricking them up in walls and other abusive acts classify under this.

Minecraft only has the one avatar, Steve, whom the player inhabits. He has no inherent will and will take no actions unless the player acts through him. How can you “reverse traditional expectations” with only one person, the player-character? You hurt him. While playing in a session, I tried various methods of suicide. I explored the various methods of falling to my death. I was killed off by enemies. I drown myself. If the goal of the “game” — it’s a simulation and not a “true game” but that’s another post — is to stay alive as long as possible, to prolong and increase the number and complexity of interactions, then what is suicide? It is a perversion, a subversion, of that goal. It is the unplaying of the experience. The results of the session, which were far from morbid exploration of the death mechanics, provided me with details on the extremes that the character can face and still survive, important information in a “game” with very little in the way of instructions.

Reskinning

This is “alternating the appearance or presentation of dolls in a way that allows dolls to enter the forbidden scene” for the doll paradigm.  Since exploration of death was taboo in Victorian-era thought, it was necessary to prepare the dolls for the experience that the child wished to explore. This might be, as evidence of its ordering change in later sections of Critical Play suggest, the first step towards the unplaying. It is the dressing up, the costume change that pre-dates the experience. In my mind, it is the donning of the mask for the superhero. It is the necessary step in creating an additional self for the journey of exploration, the use of an alter-ego.

The most literal connection this has to Minecraft is the use of an additional skin, an additional covering for Steve. Through the use of mods and other additions to the core of the experience, the character can be re-skinned into a different outfit. The body plan of Steve is never changed and so a transformation does not happen, but the coloring is changed in places. This is paramount to a change in clothing and allows the player to adopt an additional persona, an optional perspective, for the same world.

Rewriting

As was mentioned earlier, Victorian-era doll culture had written accounts, basically “fan fiction”, for children to read and interpret with their own dolls. Children, girls especially, could write to the publications that had the stories which “reinforced and validated the existence of the dolls and the importance of imaginative playtime” according to Mary. If I was again to place works into the author’s mouth, I would classify this as the output of the unplaying session as started via the reskinning. With the perception changed and the rules mutated, the narrative experience of the session can be re-written.

This aspect, I admit, was the first comparison I thought of between Minecraft and these symptoms of critical play. Every session of Minecraft is different for me. While I might have been in pursuit of some iron in one session, in a different session I might wonder off to explore the local area. With no “true goal”, there are no limits, via narrative, to the discovery and exploration that any player can have within the space. The player must bring their own narrative reasoning for any actions taken. Therefore, anything experienced can be re-written with the adoption of an additional persona for the player-character. Change the logic for the action and the reasoning changes too.

Exploring the this aspects of critical play lead me to a place of wanting more. While I agree that these are manifest in the doll culture and do translate to other medium like video games in the case of The Sims, and possible Minecraft, I also wish for more detail about how these three are used in the classification of critical play. Luckily, I have more of the book to read. I guess I’ll wait for more details to come.