Thursday, October 15, 2015

I Can't Believe I'm Addicted to Minecraft

One week ago, my 10-year-old niece turned me into a Minecraft addict.

I’ve known about Minecraft for years, of course. Who hasn’t? The creative block-building game, first developed as a side hobby by one Swedish guy and now a massively profitable division of Microsoft, is the world’s biggest videogame. I’ve dabbled with it on occasion, if only because it became something my job as a game critic wouldn’t let me ignore.

Emphasis, though, on dabbled: I’d bring it up on a laptop and poke around its cubist worlds, my little block-arm waggling its endless Arsenio fist-pump, blocks of wood and cobblestone and dirt slowly filling my TARDIS-like pockets. I’d usually run around until I died from starvation. One time, I dug a hole straight down until, poof, magma! And then I’d quit.

I’d quit because I wasn’t sure what to do next, or what the allure of vaguely accurate geological strata was, or why the game was as allergic to explaining itself as David Lynch. I relegated Minecraft to a mental bin labeled “experimental amorphous time suck.”

I followed it half-interestedly, dutifully chronicling its burgeoning celebrity. I curated lists of players’ architectonic feats when editors requested them. I covered the game’s milestones the way armchair astronomers might describe some celestial phenomenon, distantly awestruck by the spectacle.

And then my niece intervened. I’d noticed her playing the game on an iPad a few months ago. She’d built a kind of amusement park slash farm with her cousin in the game’s monsters-free creative mode. It was an a-ha moment, seeing all of her ideas corralled and reified, thinking about all the time and thought that must have gone into assembling them. She’d crawl into a chair or lie on the couch while playing, clutching the screen like a doctor scrutinizing a medical chart, her thumbs skating quietly across the glass, gesturally willing worlds into existence.

I’d just bought Apple’s phablet-sized iPhone, so I was sitting in the living room as she’s playing and thinking, OK, I have a few minutes here, let’s give Minecraft: Pocket Edition a try—partly to see how the game works on a phablet, partly to see if she’ll notice. As it’s downloading, I have my first latecomer’s epiphany: it’s only 24 MB! That’s 1990s-PC-gaming small. Worlds teeming with possibility are spawning from an instruction set you could fit on a pile of floppies.

I fire it up. Minecraft makes little thwick sounds as you navigate its menus. My niece’s head pops up. “Is that Minecraft?” she asks. Busted. Apparently there’s no mistaking that thwick.

“Yep. I’m just getting a world started,” I reply, nonchalant, like I’m making a martini.

This is the part where the critic who’s supposed to think smart things about videogames foolishly pretends to know what he’s doing. My niece is smarter than this, of course, which means she has my number instantly. But she’s also kind. And patient.

She watches me fumble around in survival mode after the game’s sun sets. I’m schlepping armfuls of resources but shelterless, like bait on the hook of a fishing rod held by no one. Something behind me sounds angry, then two or three things sound angry, and then, thwack, I’m knocked backward, then backward again.

Goodbye, saplings. Goodbye, cordwood. Goodbye, apples, sugar cane, black wool, and piles of raw pork. Hello, groaning, hissing, face-punching darkness.


“You need to build a shelter,” my niece says after I croak. “To hide from the monsters.”

So I do, after forging a new world to skip back to precious daylight, strangely compelled as she talks me through excavating the chocolate and tan speckled sides of a hill at the edge of a pond. A duck-billed chicken squawks as it flaps in the water behind me. A pig clambers down the hill’s orthogonal slope and stops to watch. The dirt cubes disappear one by one, making sounds like gravel underfoot. I carve out just enough space to squeeze in a crafting table I made from raw wood, a furnace I made from stone, a torch I made by converting wood to charcoal and sticks, and myself. Another click and I’ve made a crude wood door to seal myself in, and crucially, the scary things out. It’s like a Lego hobbit hole, only in Mirkwood.

This is where Minecraft‘s hooks begin sliding into my gray matter. I’m in here, the monsters are out there. I have light and fire and all this other stuff I can use to build better stuff, they have an overriding desire to chew my block-face off, but nothing like the trove of resources feeding a boundless catalogue of stone to computer age inventions, all of it lying in the world’s conceptual cracks and literal crevices, iceberg-like, if I’m diligent enough.

I know virtually nothing about the latter at this point, of course, but the part of me that shivered visualizing text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure‘s phantasmagoric descriptions of its subterranean rooms over three decades ago is suddenly awake and listening, the game spooling up old neural pathways. It’s atavistic, lighting candles against the dark. This is my jumping off point, my liminal moment.

by Matt Peckham, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Mojang/Matt Peckham