essay, play, video games

Minecraft: How death makes it a game

[This is part of a series of posts on examining the “play” that arises out of sessions in Minecraft. For this post, I examine why having a death mechanic pushes it from the category of simulation to that of being a game.]

I am going to start with an assumption here. I am going to assume that when you view Minecraft, you do not think it is a game. This might not be how you feel. Maybe you don’t even care. But I want to start with this assumption because, for a very long time, I was not convinced that Minecraft, despite spending hours within its world(s), was a game at all. Sure, it is marked and labelled as one. I talked about it as if it was. But I was undecided. For most of its mechanics and the discussion that revolves around it, it could easily be a simulation.

In my discussion on this matter, I want to go back to Unit Operations and explore a useful interpretation of a simulation. That is, according to Ian Bogost,  “A simulation is the gap between rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity.” A simulation is a subset of reality created for a purpose. It is the reconstruction of some aspects of the world in order to demonstrate, study or observe the interactions of processes and events. It is fundamentally a pedagogical device, a teaching tool. You observe or interact with a simulation in order to see an outcome. The inputs are generated in some manner, the process looked over and the ending is the means of the experiment. Thus, the gap that is spoken of in the quote comes from the distance between the mechanics of the world-state and that of bias that brought to the observance, the subjectivity of the user. The simulation exists between these two extremes, the user and the world. The two defining features of a simulation then are the rules and the user with the simulation existing, as Ian Bogost says, in “that gap” between them.

The rules are what define the world. In a game sense, there are the foundation of the “magic circle”, the cornerstones. It is according to some series of statements, clauses and instructions that this simulation, this subset of reality, is maintained. Mincecraft is such an experience. The world(s) of Minecraft are always within the domain of their ruling paradigms. Some things grow over time, others do not. Some items are finite, other are not. The rules that define how each blocks interact with each other, how monsters work and how tools work within the world are all based on the code that govern the world(s). All possibilities, if programmed correctly, are accounted for and planned out. Interactions can be broken down into blocks of code that define relationships that branch out into tree structures. It is, despite the look to the contrary, a static and enclosed system. It is the user that changes everything.

The existence of the user on a system is one of entropy and chaos. The user creates things. The user destroyed things. It is the presence of the user that moves the system from one of predictability to that of increased dynamic interact. But the user her is not the solely herself. That is, the user is the avatar of a player who descends into the world with her own set of bias or subjective opinions that manifest itself within the world. The intelligence and sentience of the player become evident the longer the play-character, the user, is in the world. The subjectivity of the user, her opinions on how the world should be organized, become more and more expressed as the user continues to interact with, change, the world. The user may decide to break certain blocks, to create others in its place. The sensibilities of the user show up more and more over time. The longer time is spent in the expression of the player-character’s will, the more the world is changed, usually through force, to match what they want and how they want it to look. The rules, for their part in the interaction with the player-character, serve to limit the total number of possibilities within the space and help limit the will and subjective impulses of the character.

So, given the balance of the destructive forces of the user and the maintaining counters of the rules, is Minecraft a simulation? Yes, it is. The user is allowed to change aspects of the world according to the rules of each items set of possible set of relationships. As the player destroys or creates, the world is maintained. All actions are possible but limited in scope and by appropriateness the rules and content available to the player in each context. There is a constant level of dynamism between the player-character and the world, the rules and the user. From these descriptions, then Minecraft is, of course, a simulation. It is a subset of reality, albeit with a few additions, in which process can be watched and outcomes can be determined. A user can interact with said processes and either help them or stop them. A user can change the world through interaction. However, and here is where it jumps categories, the player-character can die.

I would like to know why this is possible, the reasoning for the ability of a player to die. From a simulation perspective, it does not make sense. Why have the player-character end their experience with that session in that way? If the goal of the game — something to which I am interested and will have to write about later — is to interact with the world, literally either mine or craft, then putting a limit to those actions outside of the realm of that relationship (losing life as opposed to wearing out a tool) is antithetical to that experience. The presence of a death mechanic in any form reinforces the need for a narrative and moves Minecraft from a simulation (where things happen) to that of a game (invoking the ego for explanation). If the player is forced, through the process of their character dying to develop a narrative reason for the experience, then it is no longer a simulation, it is a game.

A death is a pause in the process, a moment of reflection. Next time, I am going to avoid that area. I need to make sure I do not go there. I need more torches. An reflective analysis of the reasoning that lead to the death moment, the pause and resetting of the entrance to the world, leads to the development of a narrative, as was stated. Any time the ego is invoked, “I”, then a narrative is developed. It is no longer a simulation. If the process can end through the means of a player-character choice that leads to a moment that changes the experience, then is a game. In other words, if the player can die suddenly and through no real reaction on their end, then the simulation has exceeded its own category.

Simulations have purposes. Games have narratives.