Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) is an interdisciplinary centre for research/ creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art


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Down in the mines no one can hear you scream

Posted by Bart

300px-StaircaseMineIt was on my list of GTP (games to play) and it took a yucky rainy weekend for me to finally cave and start playing minecraft.  Of course I included my prime research subjects (my kids) in on the exercise and of course we are sharing the one account (for now). This is the story of a week in minecraft with placeholders for future things to think about… (I like to use yellow wool blocks now to indicate places I want to mine later…).

My daughter opted for creative mode and as a devotee of My Sims she was quickly at work building and outfitting a golden house on a beach in a jungle biome. Its pretty interesting how quickly she adapted without any obvious instructions for what to do (its not like I knew) and she figured out how to lay colored wool as carpeting, create a small garden and animal pen and so on.  My son opted for survival mode I think in part because Minecraft is big in the school and he had heard enough stories of zombie killing to be inspired. I sat with him as he died within the first 2 minutes at the spawn point and we were freaked as hell at the scary sounds.  The sound, I will add, has this element of realism that jars with the low-res aesthetic of the game… you would think it shouldn’t be that scary but it is. After that I spent about an hour taking the survival in survival mode seriously — set up in cave, place torches, make bed etc… and then once we were safe (or so we thought) we could go out and explore and begin mining operations.  As it turned out all my son wants is to make dynamite because his friend at school told him about it — it took me forever and the minecraft wiki to realize that we needed gunpowder that came from killing creepers just so…  i thought this was supposed to be a vanilla sandbox game.

Never mind those kids — I was in the mood for epicness. I logged on to the multiplayer server world ( that Stuart has kindly set up for TAG research…. I guess I came too late because it was ghost town-ish.  Someone (Ian apparently) had built up the area around the spawn point — it looked vaguely club med-ish with tiki torches (well blocks of flaming netherack from hell) and beach and water and wide stone plazas and a tourist office (nice touch). I’ll admit that my first impulse was to break stuff since I was survival mode and was thinking I needed stuff fast.

It was then that I ran into my first genuine moral dilemma (well post-hoc dilemma). I thought fire was supposed to keep the mobs away and I thought if someone else had built up the space then probably they had made it secure (I was thinking old MMO safe zone concept) but how wrong I was as hordes (well three) of mobs started after me (remember no sword, no armour, no nothing… Ian or someone had cut down all the trees on the plaza!) — so I run and find a house — its an empty wooden affair with a single box in it (I later learn that house is Dave’s). The zombies are at the door and the noise is scary and my son is standing behind me shouting things (like use dynamite and blow them up) — so I open the box and see a bunch of stuff including 3 diamonds.  Interestingly I knew nothing about minecraft except that diamonds are important and my assumption was that a diamond sword would be stronger and deadlier and not just last longer so while I’d like to blame it on my son I can’t — I took the diamonds.  It seemed like a minor thing at the time… if the stuff was sitting there I thought maybe it was extra for us newbs (like the junk we used to leave in the WOW guild vaults) but I also kind of knew this wasn’t true and that property and privacy in this game are intriguing things to think about,

Well of course I would replace the diamonds (though i haven’t yet but I will — I have a stockpile of 12 at the moment) but the lesson hits home when I am talking to my son about how we have to work hard and have some luck to find and make the cool stuff (diamonds for a pick to mine obsidian so he can have a portal to hell and blow up zombies there with the dynamite we still haven’t made) and he turns to me and tells me that we could just take it from someone else.  Lovely.

Enough of that — minecraft is an utterly lonely game.  Its about time spent in deep dark recesses of the earth looking for goodies so you can build beautiful things to show your friends who aren’t there.  Its sandboxey enough that there is no end to the things to make once you start piling on the texture packs (I was reading about making a robot miner this morning) but its perversely solipsistic. For that reason its a cool mediation game I think (once you have solve the problem of zombie and creeper infiltration — they are like rats) — you go down deep near the bottom of the world and dig a line until you hit something…  is it brilliant design that the ratio of useless cobblestone to coal, iron, redstone and diamonds is just enough to keep me digging without giving up from boredom?.. that’s game balance for you… the little smile you get when the diamond flecks peep up from the rock floor. I have lost hours.. or gained them… I am not sure which.

Of course I am old MMO player so I want to /shout “I hit diamonds” and then see the gleeful rejoinders in the chat channel — the reminder that I am alone but part of a something everyone is sharing. This is the old “alone together” concept that messes with the simplistic idea that we are living in an alienated society.  Social network games like Farmville promised a bit of this but never came close for me… I felt nothing and no sense of togetherness from my facebook friends – just embarrassment that I was using them to get the goodies according to the instructions.

Minecraft feels like it should be a togetherness thing… at least once I’ve finished building a monument to myself there must be something more right?  For the kids it is obvious — my daughter wants to show me every little detail of what she has built and my son tells me every detail of the story of each zombie he manages to kill, the dynamite he will one day have, and something about a dragon we have to kill.  Our walks to school in the past week have been nothing but minecraft talk so that we’ve had to stop occasionally and say “lets talk about the real world now” — this is social stuff that jives with all the metagame stuff around minecraft (it is indeed a great game to talk about) and that is totally at odds with my lonely bleary eyed mining for diamonds.

Well its my prerogative to do something about it — i am the director dagnabbit – so first thing I do is destroy the portal to hell that someone built at the spawn point because I built a portal and it was too close so my portal wasn’t working.  The idea being though that anyone wanting to go to hell has to go through my house first — um — this would be a Latourian obligatory passage point to hell.  Well you could say this was just lazy selfishness on my part but the idea is if you are going to have a social hub then there better be people there and things to do….   you can’t ask them to come you have to make them come…  to my mind the tourist plaza concept offers nothing to do but leave the tourist plaza (so it is just like club-med).

So now what — you should come to my house and help me build it of course. Its a mountain fortress in the ice plains… lots of potential, great views, plenty of resources around.  And of course we wanted to build a road from the spawn point to my house — Stuart did that overnight while  I have started on the light rail line.  MMOs taught us this — if there are things you want to do but you can not do them alone you are likely then to do them with other people… the wise sociologists say that’s how societies happen. And speaking of roads and railroads… aren’t those how nations get built?

oh okay… so you want to build your own fortress on a hill?  Well then we need a community of fortresses (total contradiction in terms and yet this is the key to understanding the urban experience if you want to follow Simmel) linked by a public commons (who will repair the roads when the creepers blow them up?)… then things would take off — next time I hit diamonds I want to hear the chat channel ring with cries of “woot.”

Its pipe dreams… the solipsism of a sociologist in minecraft