Minecraft: 10 Years of Existentialism

Minecraft is a creative, open world, survival crafting game originally developed and published by Mojang for the PC. It was released in beta form in May 2009 and was fully released in November 2011. In 2014 Microsoft bought Mojang, who now handles all publishing rights. Minecraft is available for PC, Android, iOS, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Amazon Fire, and Oculus. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Part 1: Spawn

I spawned into a biome filled with hills, rivers, and pine trees, not unlike the Seattle suburbs outside my apartment. I was even close to the ocean. Rain pelted the ground in comically blocky splashes. It was the perfect match. I had no other choice but to name my little pocket of randomly-generated world Seattle.

Following the advice of the kids I was acquainted with, I started to punch the pine trees. Whole sections of tree trunk broke into blocks of craftable wood. Unfortunately, I couldn’t jump high enough to destroy the entire tree, leaving an awkward treetop floating in the air. I left several trees in this depressing limbo with gravity before I turned my attention to making a crafting table and a set of wooden tools. I built 4 primitive walls and a roof just as the sun was setting. Before boarding up for the night, I noticed a set of torches glowing on the other side of the river. I locked myself in my doorless, windowless house and planned my next day while the zombies growled outside. What was making that light?

When the sun rose, I dispatched the burning zombies outside of my house and gazed at the horizon. I set my controller down and held the Nintendo Switch Minecraft case in my hands. I stared at the boxart and I asked the game one question:

“How in the world am I going to review you?”

Part 2: The Zeitgeist of the 2010s

A new child enters the waiting room of the clinic where I conduct speech therapy. They cast nervous glances up at their parent when I call their name. I greet them and tell them we’re going to go back to my office. We will look through a few books and maybe play with some toys. They silently follow their parent to my office and cautiously sit at my table. As I take out my evaluation papers, I casually ask them what they like to do for fun.

“Uh… play video games.” They say.

“Oh, what kind?” I reply, sitting down, “Do you like Minecraft, Pokemon, something else?”

Minecraft.” They respond, looking at their parent, as if confirming that they do, in fact, play it.

“Awesome!” I say, pausing my setup so that I can pay attention to them better. “Do you play in Survival or Creative?”

They give me a puzzled look, as if they’re thinking, ‘Wait… this adult actually knows about Minecraft?’ They respond, “Creative, though I play Survival with my little brother.” 

I answer back, “Have you ever been to the Nether? That place is hard.” 

Their face lights up, “Yeah! Once we invaded a Nether Fortress and got attacked by Blazes.”

I nod, “Once I fell into the lava and lost all of my stuff, including my diamond armor.”

The tension on their face has eased, and after a few more minutes of talking about Minecraft, I can get started with evaluating the child’s speech and language skills. 

I have some version of this conversation at least once every few months, sometimes weekly, and even sometimes daily, working as a pediatric SLP. Having a common interest really helps ease the tension of coming into a therapy clinic — both for them and for myself. In fact, if you want to relate to kids at all, then you’ll need at least a cursory knowledge about the game. Minecraft has permeated into the very fabric of kid culture. Walk through an elementary school and I’m positive you will see at least one, if not dozens, of Minecraft-related clothing articles, backpacks, or lunchboxes. For some kids, Minecraft is synonymous with video games and general nerdiness. Even the popular kids have some basic knowledge or experience with the game, and I know at least twenty kids on my caseload who could give me an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about it. 

Of course, this kind of prevalence is to be expected for the best-selling video game of all time. The only other phenomena that I can even compare this to is the Pokemon craze of the late 1990s.

I first encountered Minecraft in 2013 when perusing my town’s library shelves near my college. I noticed a whole throng of children filling up the computer lab of the library with an adult near the front supervising them. They were chatting and looking over at each others’ screens. I saw a poster over the door with a strange green creature that I would later identify as a Creeper. It was advertising the library’s Minecraft club, available to anyone ages 8 through 12. I thought it would be some silly fad like Angry Birds or Heelys. 

Guess I was wrong on that one!

If you want it to, then Minecraft can certainly be a traditional “video game.” But for many others, it has become a toolset for people to express a near-limitless set of projects. From pixel art, to replicas of famous buildings, to fully playable games, Minecraft blurs the line between a video game and a developer tool like Unity or Unreal Engine. Children can actually learn how to program and how to engineer functional machines inside the game. Setting aside all of the cognitive and emotional learning that a person can have playing a video game, Minecraft teaches kids specific skills that will help them earn real money from today’s employers. And of course, the game has a strong culture of creating YouTube video content, which teaches kids about how to craft and edit videos, yet another employable skill. More than Dark Souls, more than Skyrim, Minecraft is the #1 most critical foundational piece of work for the 2010s. And unlike those other two previously-mentioned games, we have only scratched the surface of what Minecraft’s potential will be in the 2020s and beyond. These kids will grow up, and some of them will become game designers. The rest will grow up and remember Minecraft. Both artist and consumer will share a familiar heritage.

If only its original creator wasn’t such a piece of work.

Markus “Notch” Presson launching Minecraft at Minecon 2011, video uploaded by IGN.

Look, on a fundamental game design level, I respect what Markus “Notch” Presson has done. He got Minecraft from an idea in his head into a planet-sized monolith of a game. He deserves his awards. He created a community that has fostered the development of millions of children and adults. However, in the late 2010s he more or less devolved into a Twitter troll. Once he started spewing intolerance from his mansion in Beverly Hills, I became immensely disappointed in him. For those who want to explore more about the details of how Minecraft was developed, there’s an amazing documentary called Minecraft: The Story of Mojang. There’s also dozens of other videos that have chronicled the story of the game and its original creator. Obviously I can’t talk about Minecraft without crediting him, and since 2019 Notch has thankfully cooled off from his Twitter rants, but I’m just… I’m not in the mood to dive in deep about his history.

What’s much more interesting to me is how Minecraft has become a prototype for what a Modern video game is — or, to be more precise, what a Modern video game never is: Finished.

Screenshot from the official Minecraft channel’s Update Aquatic Trailer released in 2018.

Modern video games are continuous works in progress. In a way, Minecraft never actually left its beta in 2011. It’s always receiving updates, and it’s always adding new mobs, new mechanics, new biomes, and new features. Minecraft has made mainstream industry staples such as Early Access games, betas, and likely even possibly allowed video game audiences to one day accept Day One patches, Update Schedules, and Season Passes. Not to mention how every AAA game now has a crafting mechanic of some sort. I’m 100% convinced that Animal Crossing: New Horizons, No Man’s Sky, and Fortnite would not exist in their current state without Minecraft

Screenshot from the official Minecraft channel’s Minecraft Live 2021 event. Lead programmer Agnes Larsson, left, with designer Henrik Kniberg, right, explain details about the update.

Why update a game like this ad infinitum? Updates keep your game relevant. They keep it in the news. Old players will boot it up, and their friends will once again peek over their shoulders. The hope is that perhaps this time they will finally buy the game. Throw in a 50% off sale and you’ve got yourself a new player. Traditionally video game sales are strongest during their first weeks on the market until they gradually trail off and end. The current market shows a new evolution: video game sales are growing tails. With the ease of digital distribution, video games can supply a continuous trickle of sales that will bump with the release of a new update. Keep doing this for over 10 years, and you have the best selling video game of all time.

Part 3: How I Failed to Review Minecraft

Back to the game itself. The more I played Minecraft, the more the game eluded my questions. On my second day I crossed the river and discovered that the glowing torches from the day before were actually the lights of a village. I walked into this village the same way I’d occasionally commute into the real world Seattle (I promise I’m not making this up — it was like the game had scanned my physical surroundings and recreated it within its code — though this village would be the last time the game tried to do this). I eventually found a hole in the ground and mined some stone from it, creating my first set of armor and an improved set of tools. I found a large cave deep beneath the earth. I placed torches so that I could remember this spot and find my way back. I stared at the screen and asked, “What are you? What am I supposed to do with you?”

The game didn’t respond. My eyes focused on my reflection in the TV.

I climbed out of the mine and re-entered the village. I stared at the animals roaming around. A sheep gazed up at me with its hideous blocky face. A pig did the same. I sighed. I entered a vacated house, cooked my newly-acquired meat, and ate the pork chop. This topped up my hunger meter before nightfall. I slept in a vacated bed.

Eventually I stopped asking questions as my mind became wholly preoccupied with surviving in a world that reminded me of Lego blocks superimposed with Atari 2600 graphics. I entered the feedback loop of gathering more stuff and crafting better materials. I made iron armor and iron tools. I found paper, gold, and redstone, which allowed me to craft a map, a compass, and a clock. I started venturing out at night and defeating enemies on my own. I made a large base south of the village where I had a good view of the mountains, the village, and the ocean. I made bridges to make travel easier. I entered the classic video game progression loop of getting better and more efficient, though I still wasn’t sure why. 

The kids kept talking about getting diamond armor, so I figured that was the next best goal. 

Minecraft is the storytelling follow-up to Pac-Man. By that I mean, Pac-Man gives you memorable characters and a gameplay loop filled with tension, but its setting is so abstract that a true “plot” eludes you. You have to fill in the gaps yourself if you’re going to make any narrative sense playing the game. Using Pac Man‘s basic tools, you create a rudimentary narrative about how you barely escaped Blinky, or how Inky caught you by surprise. Minecraft is the same thing. Minecraft gives you all of these (pardon the on-the-nose metaphor) narrative building blocks — settings, enemies, hazards, and an ever-progressing gameplay loop, and yet it lacks just enough structure that you have to pour a little bit of yourself into it in order to make any storytelling sense at all. 

Now you may be thinking, “But neither Pac-Man nor Minecraft were about story to begin with — they’re just focused on gameplay.” But is there really that much of a difference between gameplay and story? Gameplay is just the part of the story that you have some input in. Most video games structure their stories like an already-written paragraph set before you, and all you do is fill in the blanks, like a game of Mad Libs. Even Skyrim, with its promise of player-oriented story, feels more like a book of Mad Libs sheets that you pick and choose at your leisure. The appeal ended up being about which set of paragraphs you decided to fill in. But Minecraft is an entirely different creature. Minecraft gives you a whole bag of words, and then it’s up to you to create your own fridge magnet poetry.

Therefore, Minecraft’s procedural world generation is the best random element I’ve ever seen in a video game. The setting of your story is never fixed, and your cast randomly assigned to you. No matter how much you play, you can never know what exactly you’ll come across next. After 30 hours of playing, I set out to explore the ocean as a break from looking for diamonds. I found a sunken ship, a coral reef, and a different continent. After 40 hours of playing, I encountered an Abandoned Village. I gripped my controller as I walked past the destroyed buildings littered with cobwebs. Right underneath that village was an Abandoned Mineshaft. I’m not sure what the odds are of having the two of them right next to each other, but I’m sure it’s small. I still haven’t seen a Warped Forest or a Mushroom Island, and I have no clue when (or if) I will see these in my Survival world. 

Minecraft is rather Zen. They say it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey you take to get there. In Minecraft you don’t need a destination, at all. You can just have a journey, forever. You can just… exist. So long as you can think of something to do, you have plenty of reasons for playing the game.

Acquiring diamond armor took a lot more work than I’d anticipated. I explored a lot of the underground caves. The kids at my work wisely told me not to dig straight down, but that still didn’t stop me from accidentally falling into lava and loosing all of my stuff. Eventually I learned how to carefully navigate the underground caves using water buckets to cool off the lava. After several more hours, I found the ores and crafted my covered armor.

Above the surface I found a strange black structure northeast of Minecraft Seattle (as I began to call it). I googled what it was and discovered that it was an incomplete Nether Portal. The Nether is hellish dimension underneath the ground filled with lava and skeletons. I completed the portal and ventured inside. Upon emerging in the Nether, I set up a home base and began exploring. At first I died to a ghast shooting fireballs at me. Then I died to a posse of Wither Skeletons. Then I died by falling into lava and… I lost my hard-earned diamond armor.

I discovered online that I could enable cheats and program the game into giving me some extra diamonds. It had taken me hours to find enough diamonds, and I wasn’t in the mood to look for more. In a moment of weakness, I plugged in the code and got my diamonds. I crafted my armor and went on my merry way.

By this point I had begun watching several Minecraft YouTubers with their endless lists of tips and tricks. Like The Legend of Zelda (1986) and Dark Souls, talking about Minecraft and sharing information is an integral part of the experience. There are so many secrets and so many mechanics that you can’t possibly discover them all by yourself. Minecraft was made with a guide in mind, whether that’s other players or print-and-paper guides. I know kids that, despite their already large knowledge of the game, buy these materials just so that they can understand every little piece of it. I can’t blame them — I did the same with Pokemon Red and Blue back in the late ‘90s. I still use my knowledge when helping my partner pick what Pokemon to use against Team Rocket in Pokemon Go. Who knows what their supposed “useless” Minecraft knowledge will be useful for in the future?

Regardless of any future use, Minecraft is a fantastic canvas for me to superimpose language therapy onto. We can use it for teaching how to sequence a story, how to combine words with proper syntax, and how to use the right form of past tense. Simply talking about Minecraft is fun for them, and consequently it makes speech therapy fun, too.

Screenshot from a Minecraft 1.17 update explanation video, uploaded by YouTuber Wattles.

During my YouTube-watching phase of Minecraft, I noticed that many YouTubers began talking about an upcoming Caves & Cliffs update. One of the YouTubers actually lined up every new block in the game and every new mob just to cover every little detail. The next time I logged in, the game updated and I saw these new blocks, just like the YouTuber said. We now had copper in the game, and that copper could oxidize over time. Adorable axolotls were now roaming around in underground caves. Once the update went live, almost every kid started talking about axolotls at my work.

After returning home from work that night I pulled up another “Minecraft 1.17 explained” video. I paused it, grabbed the sides of my laptop, and stared at the YouTuber’s footage of an axolotl’s face. I mumbled, “How in the world am I going to review you, Minecraft?”

Just when I thought that I had a grip on what Minecraft was about and how I could convey that to others, I realized that in just a few months, a good portion of my review was going to become obsolete. I watched other YouTube reviews of Minecraft — and sure enough, what they said wasn’t 100% relevant anymore, either. Well, the basic mechanics were still intact at least, but many of these reviews came out before coral reefs were part of the game. I can’t imagine Minecraft without them — the oceans would feel so bland otherwise.

If I was going to be thorough, I would have to review every Minecraft update that releases after this post. I don’t have time for that. I can’t make Minecraft my full-time job.

Even after reaching The End, defeating the Ender Dragon, and exploring a few more chunks around Minecraft Seattle, I have to raise my white flag. I can’t review Minecraft. Not even dabbling with some pixel art in creative mode can provide a complete picture of this game, because the game is still incomplete. 

Minecraft provides a perfect encapsulation of the human psyche. We were built for survival, and yet, when our survival is ensured, what do we do? We make things, and we look at the things that other people made. It’s right there, the two main modes: Survival and Creative. Are we ever done surviving? No. Are we ever done creating? No. And because we are never done, Minecraft is never done. As with life, we decide what meaning we get out of the game. Some people need structure and rely on what others tell them to do. Others crave freedom and forge their own path. Some play with a balance between the two. 

I can’t review Minecraft any more than I can review “drinking water” or “walking.” It’s existentialism recreated in a building block world with some compelling game design elements to get you started. It’s a bag of toys, and you decide what stories will be told with them. The best I can do is write what stories I made, and how I tried to make sense of them, and I hope you learned something along the way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish building a giant Pikachu statue overlooking Minecraft Seattle, similar to Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor monument. It’s waiting for me.

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