Owning A Cube of the Pie

It begins as so often those video fantasies do, on a deserted island, nobody around me, nothing but surf and sky and my own two hands, rendered in cubes on the computer screen. I am in the world of Minecraft and I must find shelter. Shifting my mouse around, I survey the landscape. I imagine the horrors that await me during the night. Within hours, about fifteen minutes in the game, this island of blocks on which I am stranded will swarm with demons and ghouls. Holding down the left button on my mouse, my free hand flails wildly carving up whatever it comes into contact with. Tearing at the ground and trees around me, I pull up a few blocks of dirt and wood. I dig deeper into the ground and, with a few clicks of the right mouse button, burrow myself into a hole just before sunset, fumbling in the dark, making planks and sticks out of excess wood. Thus I spend my first night in Minecraft, with the ominous monotonous groans of demons and clicks of spiders echoing around my dirt den. Constrained, I click through combinations of materials in the dark of my lair, unable to move forward or back, toying with what I can do in the game, how and what I can build, leaning forward in my chair, well past midnight on a Thursday night, surrounded by books and unwashed dishes in my one bedroom Brooklyn apartment.

After the first night, with the collection of materials I had acquired, I start to build. I dig farther into the ground with only my hands, later replacing them with a shovel when I learn how to shape it. A set of two sticks placed vertically in the nine grids of the workbench with a stone or block of wood on top makes the tool and with it every score into the ground becomes easier, and speeds up my endeavors to add subterranean floors to my home.  I excavate deep into the pit I had made on my first night. Eventually hitting stone, I tentatively dig around it until I figure out how to fracture it with a newly fashioned pickaxe. The interior of my cavern is disorderly. Stone and dirt extend out like unfinished spokes into strata, forming impromptu floors.

I also start to raise the structure, creating walls around my pit with multiple levels of dirt, unsure if monsters, always only minutes away, will be able to penetrate. After a few nights into the game, grass and vines consume the dirt walls, which I can scrape off, but instead let grow. With more confidence, I begin to explore the island’s terrain and caverns, prospecting for more precious metals and engineering the tools necessary to do so.

During the day, I often get lost in the caverns, finding myself on some unexpected side of the island and unsure how to get back home before sunset. I decide to extend my dirt walls higher into the air, erecting a giant block tower in the sky within ten minutes, placing cube after cube under and around me. I can discern the tower from most points on the horizon. Blocks of various sizes and substances surround it in a rough spiral staircase pattern, acting as scaffolding as I build.

At nights I work on the interior of my house. In the dark, I often get stuck in an unexpected nook, or encounter an errant beam or too steep step. I cleave in all directions and eventually add torches so I no longer have to work in complete darkness. In order to see the sun rise in the morning, I affix a single cube of glass, located near the entrance, but almost impossible to see without traversing the lower levels of the catacomb I am creating.

I begin storing materials in chests deep within. I create a platform to do my forging of new tools, between the entrance and the chests below, and crisscross between these three levels each night. Since I want to be able to negotiate up and down quickly, I expand my environs to allow for head and body room in the middle and storage areas. By the time I am done, the floors and rooms are completely haphazard, with just a narrow passage upon entering and irregular layers and stairs descending to the middle platform, leading to a lower pit where I stow my supplies, which is at the end of a cascade of blocks.

I add things as I learn to build them. Stairs are composed of stone, iron and wood. A door and windows are fashioned into the entrance so I can exit with ease and see each dawn. I even annex a forge and workbench and place them near the window on the topmost ground level. This renders my “downstairs” forges useless, but I keep them, building around them, occasionally returning to them as a secondary source for forging more materials while I work on the level above.

Every few mornings, I venture out slightly too early and a ghoul attacks me, blowing himself up and destroying the front of my shelter, as well as the ground below him. With consternation, I rebuild, often adding layers upon layers, trying to provide some level of reinforcement. I construct stronger versions of what needs to be replaced. As I gather more materials, I restore the door and walls with wood at first, then stone, and, finally, iron. As a consequence, my home becomes a freakish hybrid structure, patched together with the new minerals I discover. It has a strong iron front, moss and vine covered back, an irregular tower projecting into the blue sky, with outcroppings of vines and sand and other substances I unearthed. Beams and blocks protrude in every direction, a testament to my actions in the game. When I step back outside, and evaluate its full scope, I feel a surge of pride. This is not the cookie cutter home found in suburbia, nor the dull uniformity of New York City skyscrapers. It is, if nothing else, a product of my every move, a piece in a homemade puzzle. I indulge myself in thinking that it resembles “Falling Water.” That it mimics some sort of modernist design gives me joy. Having constructed the entirety of it, from the ground up, as well as the ground down, I take pleasure in that I can make such a design from nothing. A feat that would, in real time, take years of training and hundreds of thousands of dollars in materials, I am able to construct within hours out of virtual Legos, irregardless of conformity or convention.

However, my second home doesn’t adhere to this aesthetic at all. The impetus for its creation came after being lost for hours and desperate to return home from an adjacent island. Realizing that more supplies and riches are available in the caverns on that isle, I spend hours constructing a long bridge connecting my home to the island via rail, a common mode of transportation in the game. Thousands of blocks of dirt and stone are aligned for the construction of the bridge. At nights, I sit on it listening to the sounds of creatures in the waters beneath me. Realizing that the return ride home would take too long, I set myself the goal of building a very utilitarian dwelling, a way station and fort between my first home and the rich mountain mines.

This second residence, an incredulous thought in my real life where even my rent is paid by student loans, is built on the far side of a long bridge across a sea I had formed. Having played the game for hours now, I learn from my previous construction mistakes. This fort would be more organized. On a small peninsula of open grass and sand near the cliff face where so many precious minerals are located, I lay a large rectangular foundation and then commence construction. Quickly, I realize that I do not have enough cobblestone blocks to make a complete stone house, which I now prefer over the hodgepodge of materials in my first, so I decide to spend time in the area, mining for stone. This becomes my job for the next few days. I mine cobblestone during daylight and plow into the cliff face, excavating block after block to create exactly what I want. This was unnecessary, but I wanted my home to be symmetrical and uniform.

I place adjoining furnaces outside the new structure, so I can convert cobblestone into stone while working. It makes construction smooth and efficient. I first build my walls, then my roof. I position myself at an appropriate angle and place block after block along the roof, backing up as I progress. With abundant stacks of blocks, I soon fall into the rhythm of placing the lines. I feel contented. I am assembling my house as anticipated.

When I play a prescribed line on the bass, I have similar feelings. 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 happy with the result. For me, the best moments in playing bass lines are when I have everything working in sync. I feel a similar sense of contentment as my house comes together. Flourishes like windows and bars on the building I tack on to the end of phrases. I don’t want to explore different options, but desire to continue the rhythmic labor based upon my blueprint[1].

The result is a large cube, mostly empty, except for a few torches illuminating it, a workbench in one corner and a forge in another. Too large for its current furnishings, I keep the space open, with the hope that I will supplement its contents with new implements I discover mining the rich nearby caves. The large loft space, devoid of inner walls and doors, would be the envy of any Williamsburg denizen, a space begging to be filled, and with its flat cobblestone roof, leaving the possibility of infinite expansion.

Inspired by my first house, I fashion another stairway descending underground, patch up tidal water that comes in from the sea and form another hold for my equipment, more organized and sturdy than my previous effort, built away from the doorway safe from marauding ghouls. The design is purposely basic, with two windows and a door. I am eager to finish and move on to mining new supplies, so I minimize idiosyncrasies and flourishes, opting for simplicity. My final touch is a long underground passageway that leads directly into the caverns a fair distance away. Now, even at night, I can explore them without having to worry about the monsters that had so plagued me at the beginning of the game. I can now quarry and fabricate things regardless of the time, without having to be concerned about how or when I need to get safely home. Soon after this my days in the game start to really blend together, becoming a monotonous farming of supplies inside the caves, saving them in chests in my new fort, building up reserves for later use in an unknown purpose.

A few days later, I emerge from the other side of a cavern far from my new home. The sun was setting. I experience an immediate sense of pleasure over what I accomplished. A sense of pride overwhelms me as I scan all that I have built in this vast world encompassing me. I am acutely aware that I have left some mark on this world, as if the game wasn’t designed to do this, but despite that, I had fulfilled some sort of manifest destiny.

Minecraft’s magic and attraction lies in that it provides so much activity with so few goals. A sense of reward derives from the same primordial urges that drive me to make my first shelter: survival, experimentation, success. There are few elements in the game that don’t serve these purposes. Any new tool increases the speed and quality of farmed materials; any food keeps me from starvation; every weapon helps defeat a ghoul. The game bestows little beyond these basics and presents a world in which I persevere for 30 minute long days.

However, in this endless world, much of the reward is exacted from the satisfaction of conquering and ordering a wild landscape, to reshape and recombine it in our mind’s image and in doing so, to discover the secrets within it and within us. No better example of this is a person’s relationship with and concept of the home. It is ours. It becomes an extension of our creativity, our utility, while providing a basic means of survival against adverse and unpredictable elements. In its decoration, we display who we are. In its design and construction, we imbue our thoughts and feelings, based upon our means. Minecraft simulates the rewards of home ownership, particularly in a time when that is becoming increasingly difficult, and presents a canvas and supplies that test our own sense of survival and innovation, one block at a time.

[1]           The previous three paragraphs are based on  my original phenomenological notes about the game, which can be found at http://maxwellfoxman.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/48-hoursand-38-daysofminecraft/

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