play, video games

Minecraft: Sandbox

[This is the part of a series of posts (One, Two, Three) on examining the “play” that arises out of sessions in Minecraft. For this post, I examine how Minecraft is basically just some software that generates endless sandboxes, places to “play”.]

You are a little kid at the beach. Taking a break from the water, you pick up your bucket and start to fill it with sand. Once filled, you deposit it in a shape and repeat. Soon, there is a series of towering structures, a small castle of glass grains. You mold these structure. Smooth one side. Smooth the other. Soon, you have a creation worthy of your work. You add more and more. You have a small but growing empire. You have created out of the materials in your reach and, from the raw drew forth something great, something new. This is your work, your prize for faithfully working it all out to your inner vision. But the waves are coming…

This, to many people, is what Minecraft is, a beach — seemingly endless supply of materials, sand, for creation. They can jump into the world, grab their tools and make something governed only by their own inner inspiration and will. They can take the world as the software presents it and transform it — terraform it — into what they want, when they want it. The very first action most people take when experiencing Minecraft is to punch something, to destroy some part that they can then use to remake part of the world. They then take this block, whatever it be, and place it somewhere else, change some small aspect of the world. They continue in this manner, destroying someplace to remake another. This need to remake eventually leads them to wanting to remake faster, with less effort; the invention of tools.

The very existence of tools in Minecraft prompt the user to explore the entire world that they are in, to reach to all ends of the space. To that end, they are then allowed to both mine and craft in their march across the world that software birthed. The very “play” experience to many is, to quote someone I read recently, “mine materials, make cool stuff, repeat until mind liquefies.” The combination of being able to change anything coupled with the tools to speed up such endeavours mean that a feedback cycle is introduced to the interaction. Want to look into that cave? You need to build torches. To get torches, you need… Every new tasked item builds a chain of prerequisites that breed terrible recursions. The more the user engages with the tools, the more they need the plurality of both to mine and to craft. Simple exploration of the space, the sandbox, require that more and more advance tools be acquired and used, thus making the user search for more and more raw materials. If there were to be a definitive category for Minecraft, it would be “a space”. However, you are not alone in these procedurally generated worlds, there are monsters.

Just like the waves that terrorize the child at the beach, their are ways of pushing back at the user’s progress in Minecraft. The various monsters (mobiles), both passive and aggressive, can hinder or outright stop the user’s direction. Some, in the case of the creeper, can hurt both the user and the area around the user. This serves as a reminder that the user’s creations are not safe. As long as the software produces entities that can destroy, deform or infest structures, the user must be on the constant lookout for these ‘beach bullies’ that serve to check the user in the world. These are the waves or other people that may breakdown the castles of sand that the child made, that the user constructed. These are the threats that building in a shared space must face. The solution then, if the creation process is to left alone, is to move away from the aggression and switch to “Peaceful Mode”, removing all hostile monsters.

This is the combination of both worlds, the ability to make and the ability to be alone for the making. While it is true that many people like to fight it out with the monsters and strive to have fantasy adventures, the true flair of Minecraft seems to be in the idea of it as a sandbox, a safe area of making, from virtual “sand”, the castles of dreams. By taking the sand from the shared space and limiting it to one area, one box, they can make whatever they want and then share it later by showing it off in video, capturing pictures of the space from how they see it. The most effort put into the worlds of Minecraft comes not from striking out aggression but from removing it completely. They take the tools and materials that the worlds provide them and make things darkly mirrored from reality, reconstructions of fictional and reality’s buildings and beings. The space of Minecraft, the sandbox, is birthed in simulation but remolded as spaces, taking on new forms as the users experience it, destroying and making it anew from session to session.