Minecraft is one of the most popular games to date. 70 million copies have been sold, untallied hacked and free downloads. But I believe Minecraft’s popularity is more than Numbers. Minecraft has had an amazing critical reception and inspired a unique response by the player community. The number of players and numerous mods that have been created is respectable, combined with its ongoing popularity for a game released over 6 years ago is unprecedented. Even more curious t is how institutions have recognized the value of its gameplay. There have been awards and MIT, the UN, a multitude of public educational organizations, the Smithsonian and the British Museum have all recognized Minecraft as a unique change in the idea of video game play. They have seen a benefit to promoting it on some level. What is it about Minecraft that created this popularity? Games are composed of two elements, Narrative and Mechanics. While the mechanics of Minecraft are understood I think the narrative points to the real success of the game.
Now many of the institutions and critics credit Minecrafts's popularity to one or both points of Minecraft being Emergent Gameplay or STEM related . In relation to STEM, the game's dynamics, it's similarity to CAD programs, flexibility in creating and expressing simple physics, and as a simulation for engineering concepts are easily grasped. Minecraft's value as Emergent Gameplay not as much. Minecraft’s mechanics open a wider universe of play, as expressed in the mods, or by allowing the players to control the game objectives. The different ways people choose to play the game, and the fact that by doing so the players create the narrative of the game, is not unique in the world of Video Games, but Minecraft is easily one of the most flexible and explored.
The narrative is not only open to how one "wins" Minecraft, but also to how one defines "winning". There is a unique element to the narrative of Minecraft and while the concept that “users creates a narrative” is the fundamental idea behind Emergent Gameplay, I think Minecraft's success points to a larger issue of the game's meta-narrative. Part of this concept can be understood by looking at how Minecraft gained its popularity. Social media was really its original distribution channel. 1 million people downloaded the free alpha version without it ever being advertised. Non-mass Media, like YouTube, Facebook and Blogs were the only way people could find out about its existence. The fact is important since Minecraft originally shared social media developmental. The content was user driven. Originally Minecraft was not “owned” in the sense that there was “gatekeeper” considering what made good gameplay and what didn’t or how the game would be played.
The creators let the users define the gameplay by reacting to users input to develop the game. In the same way, social media is not owned, it may be branded like YouTube, but YouTube offers content with little editorial control compared to typical mass media. YouTube would be a perfect example of what defines web 2.0. It is user-generated content that drives it, nowadays some of that content is offered by major studios, but largely people's individual blogs and webcasts are what drove its early success. The control of the users to create and control what is considered popular is similar to what lifted Minecraft from a small project to a globally recognized occurrence. Even Minecraft’s ability to teach STEM principles can be tied to larger trends. In specific the MAKER movement. One of the first elements of Minecraft was something called Redstone, it basically was a luminescent conductive element that people used to make circuits with inside the game. The ability to create elaborate simulations free of objective is part of what drove early play. There were elaborate steam engines created and pretty amazing architecture. So yes STEM principles can be explored and created inside Minecraft, but it is more than a science that ties Minecraft and the Maker Movement together. To see this you need to understand the interest in the Maker movement, which also was born online and gained momentum through alternative channels to mass communication.
The Maker movement is considered a STEM movement and an answer to a failing educational system to teach technology to students. The problem is that it is often misrepresented to people as a “techie” movement. While certainly Makers are building robots they also knit sweaters. One of the first projects I saw in Make Magazine was carving a wooden spoon, and it was simply because the maker wanted some control over a small but important implement in their life. In Made by Hand: by Mark Frauenfelder he expresses as the blurb about the book reads “DIY is a direct reflection of our basic human desire to invent and improve, long suppressed by the availability of cheap, mass-produced products that have drowned us in bland convenience and cultivated our most wasteful habits.” Frauenfelder is one of the pioneers of recognizing the maker movement. He also is a well-known blogger and author.I think in many ways Minecraft provides this same outlet for people but in a slightly different way. Not unlike Thoreau’s statement why he went to Walden.” I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." People went to Minecraft to reconnect with what it meant to actually survive and exist.
Now, it may seem at this point I have gone off the rails with this assumption. The idea that playing a game will tell us what is it to live. However, to a community based on communication through digital means, not separated by it, and joined by their ability to speak and interact without limitations posed by distance, Minecraft creates an environment where they can explore these issues. If this idea of exploring life through a mediated technology seems odd to you, remember we live most of our lives through mediated technology. Our struggle for survival daily requires us to make money an analog technology of ink and paper. When you go to work, is it for the pleasure of handling printed green bills, or a larger number on an account, or because you it represents either the ability to not starve or acquire something that one desires. Minecraft allows people to side steps this analog technology, one a smaller and smaller percent of us are able to master. I think people still desire the experience to live purposefully, if not actually, in real life.
As with Makers a connection between producing and purpose can be felt, but in a simulated environment. Perhaps it explains why Minecraft is popular with children. Children do not have the ability to, or are not asked to be, caretakers of their own survival. Minecraft gives them the chance. Look for instance at the Sims, another popular game. In the Sims you create a person and perhaps a family. You can acquire a house and possessions, just like Minecraft. The difference is You never see a Sim working, and the professional progression and earning ability of a SIM is one steady uphill climb. The Sims would be the “American Dream” version of Minecraft. In Minecraft you create your dream artifacts by doing labor. Minecraft does not necessarily define success in these terms, but it still allows one to acquire, but not unlike the maker movement, through a direct relationship to “work”. Minecraft expresses that direct relationship between creating/working and living that most people in our modern age do not experience. This important difference is what ties Minecraft to Thoreau, what defines success and life and how one defines them is open in Minecraft. It also is why the idea of using it a STEM tool may ultimately fail, when you create a narrative for Minecraft, “learn these skills from the game is equal to success” you will be robbing the players of their control over the meaning of gameplay. In a sense Minecraft is Life 2.0, user generated content and meaning to life, which I believe is really behind Minecraft’s popularity