Why Minecraft Succeeds

Source: MIT Technology Review, 2013

Minecraft embodies few of the video-game fashions that were current when it appeared. Coded in Java, a general-­purpose programming language that emphasizes speed and lightness over the grand capabilities of more powerful tools, it features pixelated scenery that has nothing in common with the lifelike, polygon-stuffed characters and objects furnishing the blockbuster video games of the day. There is a certain Lego-like charm and blunt handsomeness to the rectangular clouds that throw shadows on the game’s pea-green hills and the dumpy sheep that roam them. But in an industry traditionally obsessed with chasing realism and authenticity, its kindergarten aesthetic at first appears anachronistic.

what has turned success into sensation is the social aspect of the game. Not only are players encouraged to head out of its confines onto YouTube to share tips or show off their grand designs, but the game also allows for communal construction projects, in which players can visit one another’s worlds and collaborate on virtual pyramids, a scale replica of the Taj Mahal, or a fully mapped Westeros, the fictional land from HBO’s television series Game of Thrones. The inclusion of giant, hand-built logic gates has enabled some smart players to build functioning computers, scrawled boastfully into the landscape, while other players have opted to simply journey to the center of the earth.

While Minecraft’s loose, player-defined goals are its strongest draw, there is an endgame for those who feel the need to beat a video game rather than simply enjoy one. If at this stage a giant dragon is discovered and felled, that will conclude the story line. The reward for defeating the dragon is a poem, written by the Irish novelist Julian Gough, that describes Minecraft as a dream. It reads:

This player dreamed of sunlight and trees. Of fire and water. It dreamed it created. And it dreamed it destroyed. It dreamed it hunted, and was hunted. It dreamed of shelter … And the player started to breathe faster and deeper and realised it was alive, it was alive, those thousand deaths had not been real, the player was alive … And the game was over and the player woke up from the dream. And the player began a new dream. And the player dreamed again, dreamed better.

Minecraft’s mainstream appeal may not lie in the poetry tucked away in an endgame few will see, but it is to be found in this poetry’s sentiment. Here is a game that enables humans to experience an accelerated form of existence—of dominion but also of stewardship.

It makes clear the ancient ties between creativity and survival, and the wonder of collaboration, coöperation, and community, both in its world and in the reality on the other side of the screen. This is a recipe that demonstrates how video-game design, in the right hands, can be elevated to an art form every bit as strange and wonderful as any other, revealing deep truths about the human condition.

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