My first exposure to Minecraft was while sitting on the floor in an apartment upstate next to my friend who had created a server specifically for the video game with six other roommates. Liam, a gamer par excellence, showed me his little block world, replete with a huge network of connecting railways, skyscrapers, and a fantastic island villa, which sprawled into the water and was lit up at night by beautiful glass lanterns. All of this was constructed in the game’s Lego-like building blocks. This elaborate world, created from the ground up, was instantly compelling. I wanted to create a similar world. I loved Legos when I was a kid and knew I would be hooked. Liam had been great at Legos too. I wasn’t surprised that his creations were ornate and beautiful, a kind of virtual Legoland that I hoped to enter.
A month later, I opened the game. Finding myself on a desert island, I looked around the the green landscape from the first person of my avatar. I couldn’t do much initially. Click one button; my right hand flailed in front of me. With a shake of a hand, I carved up a portion of the ground or a tree, producing cubes of various substances that could be combined in little boxes to make planks of wood for future constructions. Instinctively, knowing that as the sun set that some sort of monsters would reveal themselves, I burrowed into a hole, setting the foundation of my first house. In the dark, I waited for the dawn, for which I would periodically check by climbing out of my den, and then retreating back into the ground.
In the dark, I attempted to organize the various components I had collected, namely some wood, gravel, sand, and dirt. I tried to combine these in the four compartment “craft” box connected to my avatar, using if/then equations, imagining mixing this and that substance or two of the same substances together in order to make some new substance. Although certain substances, like wood, could automatically convert into wooden planks and be stacked to make sticks, bringing a quick sense of pleasure, I started to get frustrated, tensing, as other amalgamations did not offer logical conclusions. Stacked wood might make wooden planks, but dirt didn’t pile up to make anything and sand didn’t turn into glass. By the end of the first night of play, I was growing frustrated, furiously clicking random combinations in an attempt to make something, and worried how I might survive the evil creatures lurking outside my little hole. I decided to give up and go to bed. I had committed myself to discover everything in this virtual world, but was already feeling defeated.
The next day, as I headed to work, I realized that I could combine a few blocks as a barrier for protection at night. I broke out in a cold sweat. The process of making decisions, combining elements and creating things evinced a visceral reaction. I was physically reacting to these seemingly banal events and turning them into something of agency, of nervousness and, as I felt sweat form, of anticipation.
Part 2: Actions
Much of my process in playing Minecraft, over the first few days of this study, derived from this balance of decision-making and action. Many of these actions, I will say, came from instantaneous decision-making. I would decide I needed a particular supply of an ingredient in order to complete a construction. Most often it was iron ore, which is a precious metal and, therefore, rare in the world of the game and used for any number of things, most notably building rail, which became my preoccupation over the first few hours of the game. Once I had decided what I needed, I often just ventured out and got it, particularly after I had equipped myself with armor and weapons. While, at first, I was worried about driving myself through the night, I eventually and courageously labored in the evenings and advanced into caves where the ore was located at all hours in the game, even (once again quickly determined) going so far as to make a tunnel from my house to the caves.
The process of collecting materials, therefore, came to preoccupy my time more than most other things I did, namely construction. I endlessly mined the caves with my pick, lighting an area, searching for ore. Occasionally, my entire body was invested in exploring for metals, particularly after I had been mustering supplies for over half an hour. I leaned forward in my chair, scanning the darkness for veins of ore. On one occasion, I surveyed the area I had dug in the dark, squinting and focusing, if briefly, before eventually remembering to light and place a torch. I concentrated intently on the process of getting materials, with abandon, hoping to spot the ore or coal I would need, but ultimately forging ahead with my pick, tearing into the landscape and feeling satisfied when I had unearthed something.
I would often return to the same spot, trying to mine a slightly different angle of a mountain face or wandering down a new corridor, slowly removing section after section and exposing larger parts of each cave. Over time, the excavating would proceed in a rhythm, my mouse clicking from one spot to another in an even pace, like a metronome, with the clicking becoming noticeably constant, two to four clicks, followed by moments of silence, as I kept the constant motion of my pick axing going by holding down the mouse button. An area would be depleted. Then a few more clicks and I would return to farming for supplies.
This experience of “farming” is not new to me. I had been a farmer in a number of games, most notably, role playing games, where such foraging is necessary. I did this for a sense of security, elevating my character to an appropriately high level of power before proceeding in the story, knowing then that the game would be easier. However, without a story or apparent next step, I spent over an hour wandering through the caves, with few goals, letting whim move me through corridors, conjecturing about games and superstitions. There is bound to be iron behind this gravel, convincing myself that I had seen plenty of iron always behind coal veins. I removed organized swaths of land, carving out evenly spaced rooms and corridors, until my supplies were overflowing and then journey home by cleaving the mountain, striving upward until I found my way out. I did not linger to figure my way back through the corridors and holes I had made, but rather “farmed” my way out, until I saw light. Here again, I found a rhythm, one block broken in front of me then two above, then one in front and two above, until I escaped, that same rhythm pervading my mouse and buttons.
At these times, my body seemed very relaxed. Hardly on edge, during the hours of farming, I would sit, bow-backed in my chair, breathing evenly, pursuing my rout with few strong emotions, occasionally complaining about materials, or happy about a good find of ore.
Deep into the quarry and physically deep into a cavern replete with lava and enemy ghouls, the rhythm of gouging became pronounced. Believing myself to be alone in the game, I was disrupted by the sound of an arrow being shot and the flash of a red screen that indicated my character had been hit by an enemy object. This had happened to me previously and usually would cause consternation. Usually, I would swear and say, “I just can’t seem to kill those baddies.” However, the rhythm of farming having been interrupted, I rotated the mouse, tipping my avatar, with a bodily shake and swoon. Pitching my mouse and therefore the viewpoint of my character upward and jamming my hands on the keyboard, I, inadvertently, switched to the wrong weapon. In my chest, I felt a searing tension, a feeling I often felt when I dreamt of falling and would wake up with a start, and it took me only a few seconds, though it felt longer, to recover and dispense with the enemy. It took longer for my heart to stop racing, slowed over time by the routine of my farming rituals. This searing tension happened only once in my 48 hours or so of play.
As I farmed, I was subsumed by a sense of pleasure and felt gratified when some desired substance would reveal itself and a goal was achieved. A similar rhythm was established during creative activity. Particularly as I built my second home, this rhythm came into prominence. My first home had been built from experimentation and with mistakes, reconstructed with new substances as I found them, repaired after each explosion that ghouls had levied against it.
This second building, built on the far side of a long bridge across a sea I had formed, would be more organized. I created a large rectangle and then began construction. Quickly I realized I did not have enough cobblestone or brick to make a complete brick house, which I wanted, so I decided to spend time in the area, mining for stone. This was not necessary, but I wanted my home to be symmetrical and organized.
I came up with a plan for making my new home. I would fabricate a large brick box, simple and even. I placed adjoining furnaces outside the new structure, so I could convert cobblestone into stone while working. It made construction smooth and efficient. I first built my walls, with some falls along the way, then my roof. I positioned myself at an appropriate angle and efficiently placed block after block along the roof, backing up as I progressed. With a plethora of blocks, I soon fell into the rhythm of placing the lines. It felt good. I knew I was assembling my house as I anticipated.
When I play a prescribed line on the bass, I have a similar feeling. Being in a pop music band, I have never favored jamming over constructing a bass line or a song. I don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing what chord or note to play next and the sense of invention I get is from plotting out a bass line in advance. When I achieve a bass line that I follow, I am usually fairly happy with the result. For me, the best moments in playing bass lines is when I have everything working in sync. I can hear the band around me and I am confident enough to just play. I felt a similar sense of contentment as my house came together. I knew exactly what I was building and what to expect. Small additions like windows and bars on the building were little flourishes that I added to the end of phrases. I didn’t want to explore different options, but desired to continue the rhythmic labor based upon my blueprint.
This pleasure flitted in and out as the game “allowed” me to devise something I had plotted in advance. In constructing my bridge over the water, I concocted a technique of jumping out of the water and quickly hitting a button to place a brick in mid-air. This was not fail safe and I felt a sense of sinking and frustration when my rhythm was broken. Eventually, as I relied more and more heavily on online tutelage, it was this pleasure of building something that I predominantly craved and enjoyed throughout my hours of play. While the amount of satisfaction I received from reflection and decision-making, of which I will refer in more depth, receded and occurred less during the game, this pleasurable cadence from creating never subsided. The sense of control, seeing my object come to life, motivated me to complete task upon task.
Part 3: Thoughts
There was a tension between quick decisions and reflection while I played Minecraft. Every decision during the game was made hastily, with little forethought and commitment. In building the bridge that would link my two homes, I started in a completely illogical direction, moving out into the empty ocean before realizing I had gone the wrong way and then having to reroute to head toward the mountain (which had been my original goal). Often I neglected to reflect deeply.
Initially, I experienced much frustration, particularly in my combinations of different items, lack of supplies or the night falling at its prescribed times. At these moments, my tone would change similar to that I have while caught in a traffic jam. I became shrill, whiny and incessantly questioned the logic of not moving. “Why won’t this work?,” I intoned in the same way I might ask “Where is this traffic coming from?,” with the resounding “Come on!” shouted in both instances. Not knowing the combinations to make different objects, nor how to dispense with certain enemies, nor how to find appropriate amounts of ore brought dismay. As with traffic, I sought the root cause. I felt stuck, distressed, unable to fix anything, with the game spinning out of my control.
After a night of playing, I took a shower before going to bed. I had discovered how to make a number of objects based on tutorials. I had fashioned some basic tools and successfully stumbled upon a helmet which in combination I crafted a pair of iron leggings. However, I had been unable to make a corresponding shirt of iron mail using the same logic. I tried a number of combinations without success. As I started my shower, a wonderful think tank, I began conceiving of things I would do next in the game. In the shower, I started reviewing various options and it occurred to me that I could organize materials into a new combination (the proverbial light bulb went on) that had to be correct for the shirt. My combinations prior to the shower were made automatically. I attempted any combination that came to mind, not reflecting, or measuring what might be right or wrong. With rapid fire, I clicked through the options without deciphering why they might be incorrect. On the other hand, outside of the game, I took the time to calculate what would “make sense” and reckoned with logic how to actually create the game’s object. I talked myself step by step through the process, whereas in the game, I was just clicking a button, hoping for the right result.
This propensity to act quickly while in the game and reflecting outside of it, was exacerbated once I began looking up questions online. Previously, I had spent many hours trying to figure out logical combinations for objects and their uses. As I tapped into a number of tutorials about objects, I began to rely more heavily on them, not worrying about reflection at all and merely looking up answers to the next quandary I had. The wealth of online material about the game made it seductive to do research, with websites and “wikis” dedicated to each combination of an object. Noteworthy was when I finally relented and looked up the use of flint of which I had vast amounts and had never figured out a combination for its use. I felt, at that particular moment, that this would become normal behavior for me in the game and, with a wave of guilt, that I had not lived up to the standards that I had established for myself. I justified my actions with the support of Liam and his girlfriend, both players, who wrote me a reassuring note saying that it was a natural course to take in the game. However, that guilt never really receded. I had to search for new tasks and quandaries that I could fulfill beyond combing objects. I tasked myself, for instance, with laying track to connect various areas of different climates, so I could easily travel from desert areas, to grassy knolls and mountains.
Logical reflection actually extended outside of the game. At the end of one night of play, I left for a friend’s going away party in the city. Meeting at a bar downtown, I found myself surprisingly reticent. Normally one who automatically engages in conversation, I found myself reflecting on the room of people, on the particular drink I was ordering and, of course, on my actions in the game throughout the day. I was preoccupied with the various components of the room and felt a sense of objectivity and distance, enjoying my observations rather than interacting with others, planning my subsequent moves with a significant amount of deliberation. What would I look at? Where would I sit? Who would I talk to? What would be the most convenient option so that my girlfriend could talk to her sister? I remarked to my girlfriend about my distance, attributing it to the game, and digressed into discussing some of the game’s minutiae, dissecting its functions and analyzing my next moves. I finished my remarks by relating the feeling of the game to that of Yoga. After having invested so much bodily action into complex, yoga exercises one after another for a long a period of time, often you reference nothing else. Your mind becomes so trained on those motions that it becomes difficult to think beyond them. Often, after yoga, I would focus primarily on what I had just done, how my body had felt, or the difficulty of one action after another. I would become invested in each movement and the mental focus that was required. The pleasure and difficulty of accomplishing each task would infiltrate my world for hours until it slowly faded into the back of my memory. The game rendered similar feelings. Having made so many quick decisions, assigning myself tasks that led to greater tasks, I could focus on little else afterwards, and instead reflected on my next “move” and creation.
For instance, I decided to build a rail bridge, soon to discover it was unnecessary having stumbled upon how to make a boat, but continued because I had determined to do it. However, to complete it, I would need iron. To get iron, I had to mine. To mine, I needed a tunnel leading from my home into the rocky mountains where ore resided. Each decision produced another. Actions propelled me forward in the world of Minecraft. Instead of exploring to a great degree, or just surviving the best I could (If I died in the game I simply automatically respawned at the place where I first appeared in the game, without the items in my inventory.), I would set specific goals and steps to achieve them. At one moment in the game, I fell through a bit of rock I was mining into a great cavern. This hall of rock was eerily beautiful in the light of lava flow and I felt compelled, having never seen anything like it, to explore the area. However, I resisted. I said out loud that I needed more minerals and should not waste my time with such exploration. I had my rail to complete. I went back to mining, only later returning to the cave with the justification that precious minerals had to be near lava. After all, logically, it was how they were formed.
Still, not all my actions were governed by logic. At one moment, after hours in caves, being lost at night and armed with a full inventory of supplies, I found myself on top of a giant cliff, located next to a river, overlooking my house. I had begun to grow nervous with my full inventory. I hadn’t accomplished much with the supplies I had and had been wandering, seeking my home and a way down to it. I wanted to get back to work! So I came out of the mountainside and below me I could see a pool of water, a tree and my own house. It was a long way down and I called out to my girlfriend, who was not very attentive, whether I should make a leap for it. I had been reading on the Minecraft wiki that players do cliff jumping. I had assumed they would dive into the water. I looked out down this sheer cliff. I remember feeling a quick sense of pleasure over the work I had done below, namely my house and adjoining bridge. I then decided to jump. I didn’t think too much about it. I just flew down and immediately died, never reaching the pool of water below. I had forgotten that I would spawn across the sea on other side of the world and would lose a lot of what I spent hours mining unless I got back quickly. I cursed myself as I scrambled back.
Part 4: Rewards
The surge of pride I felt, as well as calling out to my girlfriend, while looking at my home and bridge was not unusual in the context of Minecraft. On the contrary, it was consistent with a few other moments of pride in the game, when I felt the need to boast about my accomplishments. Often, this feeling came not at the completion of a project, but when the product was recontextualized in the world of the game. I had been in and out of my houses often building objects, weathering nights and the demons that would come out during them, as well as crafting objects throughout my 38 days and nights in the virtual world of the game. However, it was when I would step back, outside of the houses and saw them in their full scope that I felt a surge of pride. As a result, I took my first screen shot in the game and would, on more than one occasion, call my girlfriend into the room to recognize my achievements. I was in awe of my creativity, sprung from within me alone.With my first home, a ramshackle assortment of wood and bricks, protruding in all directions as I learned to use the tools of the game, I indulged myself in thinking momentarily that it resembled “Falling Water.” That it mimicked some sort of modernist design gave me some pleasure.
A sense of reward, however, was derived in completing a task, creating a bridge, a house, or something else. I had given myself a task, a goal, and felt proud at its completion. This lent itself less to bragging, and more to satisfaction. I would complete a long run of mining or construction, with the sense of flow stated above, and would be contented before moving on to my next self-assigned objective. The rhythmic flow of repetitive action was followed by a moment of satisfaction and then quandary as I figured out what I had to do next and what would be required for the project. The feelings were often repeated over the course of my interaction with the game.
There were also small, surprising and rewarding moments that stimulated play. I found pockets of iron ore while tunneling my way out of a mountain. I discovered how to make a boat, while putting together the combination of making a ladder. Look at that. I wonder what that might do. This wasn’t a sense of satisfaction, but rather of happy coincidence.
It is here perhaps where I think the true pleasure, not to mention the addictive quality of Minecraft ultimately, lies. The game presents a world out of your control. The sun and moon rise without your consent every half hour or so. The night is populated with monsters who terrorize you. Ultimately, forlorn, you enter this world with nothing but your hands. You can explore it infinitely. You can dissemble it. You can shape it. You can create, as my friends did, works of beauty and art. You can revel in the disarray, or, if you are someone like me, you can bring order to it. You can survive and function through work. You can devise a task, assemble a to-do list, take satisfaction fabricating something out of the building blocks of the game, accomplishing a goal and gaining the confidence to move on to a more complex task. If anything, the virtual lens of Minecraft magnified how I act in real life and the rewards and frustrations of achieving goals in a chaotic world.