We’ll start with a confession: I don’t have much of an imagination. When it comes to spontaneous story-telling, thinking up party costumes, or having fun in a sandbox game (one in which the player can freely explore and interact with the world ), I draw blanks. I love Minecraft because it takes me by the hand and teaches me how to play. Let’s see how it does it.
Minecraft is a sandbox game with multiple stimuli driving the player’s progression. In other words, it constantly supplies you with ideas for what to do next. In the single-player survival mode, your first priority is to make a base of operations, safe from monsters. So your start by gathering the resources to make a pickaxe, and then choose where to make your sanctuary. Once you’ve decided, you hollow out a little room in the rock, seal up the doorway, and begin mining downwards. This will allow you to excavate minerals and ores that can craft better weapons, armour and building materials.
But something unexpected happens – you might uncover a sprawling cavern system to explore, or get attacked by a zombie. ‘Interrupted sandboxing’, ‘mutli-linear sandboxing’ – whatever label I try to give it, this is an experience in which the player is never left entirely to their own devices. The game throws a creative spanner into any long-term plans, enticing the player out of their course of action. Last week I was undertaking a grand wiring project on my minecart railway, only to run into a massive system of caverns that took days to explore. When I eventually returned to my wiring, I did so all the more excited to finish it.
This is the secret of the game’s success. Minecraft has a range of different potential focuses at any one time – survival, combat, exploration, creating, improving – and they all combine wonderfully. Too much chaos or too much order and this game wouldn’t work, but Minecraft allows me to strike the balance by encouraging me to switch between these different play experiences. I’ve returned from unexpected cavern explorations and monster battles with a backpack full of minerals and a head full of memories of harrowing darkness. These experiences leave me craving the orderly pleasure of gently laying wiring and creating my railway system – a process I can fully control. I know that something unpredictable is just around the corner when I want it. And if my inspiration does slow down, I can spend some time gaining ideas from the community, learning about how the game works and finding new ideas about what I can create. These learning interludes are a delight – so far I’ve learnt about logic gates, redstone wiring and boosters to construct my minecart system.
I recently came across a fantastic trio of minecart tutorials. The first video left me itching to improve my own cart system, and inspired a few days of activity, and the second video gives a good idea of the possibilities of redstone and minecarts:
Minecraft’s range of focuses allows me to avoid the existential terror I tend to feel when playing sandbox games. I usually think: “I can do whatever I want; but what do I want to do?”, and the game doesn’t help me out. But Minecraft does, and by progressing through each of these focuses you slowly become more in control of your environment. This creative frontier spirit is fantastic.
The fact that all the resources at your disposal were mined out of the earth by your own hand makes using them immensely satisfying. When you scrape together enough iron to make your first set of track, your pride is tangible; when you craft a diamond pickaxe, you know the investment that it represents. The joyous tactility of your engagement with the world makes your interactions all the more satisfying – every block is mined or placed down with a hearty ‘thump’, and every item picked up with a happy ‘plop’.
I haven’t yet discussed the ‘improving’ element of gameplay. This focus entails the game quietly prompting you to enhance the efficiency of your operations. Very soon after you begin mining you start to wonder how you can improve your resource gathering. Or you start to wonder how your base could be improved – perhaps an electric door system would be a useful security measure? I’m hooked on efficiency and procedural improvement, and this drive gets converted into creative endeavours.
So Minecraft propels someone like myself to have more creative vision and confidence. I’ve had ideas of grand lava- and water-falls to surround my base; a rollercoaster; monster traps; a canal system with working locks; a sky-fortress; a memorial to mark my tragic death at the hands of a group of marauding creepers; an armed netherwold expedition, and more. I have Minecraft and its community to thank for helping me have these ideas.
People have made some pretty amazing things in Minecraft, like 16-bit processors, or models of the Star Trek Enterprise. Such grand creative projects don’t come easily to my mind, but the game helps me to dream. Minecraft’s great if you’ve got an imagination, but it’s even better if you don’t.