The Mining of Life

I totally didn't make thisSo I took the plunge.

I put off Minecraft for so long. With good reason though! Last summer I started Dwarf Fortress and my two entire weeks of my life ruled by those tiny drwaven sprites and their fickle and fey moods. Days turned to nights, which turned to day again, and still I tolled away, mining a little sanctuary of stone and dirt, weeping as my town of familiars were savagely slaughtered by goblin invaders. I witnessed mothers running to battle with newborns in one arm, axe in the other. Miners stumbling into volcanic pits of hell, unleashing the fire monkey demons into the peaceful sleeping quarters. Every fisherman I owned slaughtered by the very fish he sought to catch. No, I had had enough bloodshed, and mining for my time.

A Fey Mood

Yet after stumbling upon the wonderful Yogscast, a youtube show which started off as a Let’s Play Minecraft, yet has since morphed into this odd fictionalised drama, I downloaded that shit straight away and roped a friend into playing, in a block world of our own.

Let me get to the point: Minecraft, I believe, is one of the greatest simulators of life I have ever encountered. Let me explain…

Brave New World

BAM. I started start my journey in Minecraft. I gazed out upon this vast, untouched world and remarked at how innocent and colourful this place was. The child inside of me got excited. I thought “Fuck yeah! I get to make a base and it will be awesome and then I’ll make a tower made of lava and I will rule this forsaken land.” Then it started getting darker. The sun dipped lower in the sky. The moos and oinks of farm animals turn to screeches and hisses. I dug a little hole (3 inches round), sat inside and wept in the corner until morning came. The scrabbling of claws, digging through the dirt, digging for my flesh, made those 10 minutes of nightfall seem like an hour. For all its innocence and charm, Minecraft is honestly a terrifying, terrifying experience at times. In most games, the experience has been crafted for you. Developers want you to feel happy here, sad here, frightened here and infuriated with bad menu design here. Minecraft is entirely procedurally generated, which is a double edged sword of emotions. This world is really yours, nobody else has ever seen this! Yet this also makes it really unnerving when you stumble upon things which seem out of place. Stumbling upon a natural system of caves under your house, for example. What were the chances I would build my house above an ancient Indian burial ground?

*hisssssssssss* Fuck this shit, I'm outta here.

As the name suggest, exploring caves is an integral part of Minecraft. Yet, when alone, the darkness and unknown of these random caves is cripplingly scary. There was no QA team to make sure this one cave isn’t to hard and too expansive. You, as a player, are actually the first one to explore this cave, which subconsciously heightens the experience. This procedural gameplay even generates reasons for exporing places like this. There might be treasure, or a monster spawner that will keep sending minions of hell into your house.

Also, and this may be really weird, but the way you gather momentum as you fall in minecraft is really powerful. Something about the first person view, the gathering speed, and the eery silence of your avatar all culminate into an evocative “Oh, well fuck” moment of free-fall.

So after my first night, I emerged from my hobbit hole, and began the search for a place to call home in this schizophrenic world. Me and some other random strangers on the server grouped together and made this lovely little house in a mountain, with a waterfall and farm nearby and we were all the best of pals and lived happily ever after.

Awwww

Except we didn’t. After that one night of peaceful building, I woke up the next night to find the place ransacked, the farm flooded and my room on fire. A sign in the middle read “i fucked up your shit faggots – chocolatman120”. My Minecraft childhood had ended after a single day. This was a harsher world than I thought, and I learnt an important lesson that day — “If you love something, you must hide it”.

So me and a friend moved inland, way inland, looking for a place to live in peace in the country, away from the griefers. We found a place that seemed sheltered, and had a natural cave we could expand, and we settled.

The secret entrances to our cave-house #2

By evening we were building again, though not so wholly. I mean, what was the point if it was just going to be destroyed anyway? Was it worth doing anything unless it will last forever? My Minecraft mid-life crisis had begun.

The problem with Minecraft, being such an amazingly non-restrictive sandbox game, is that it is non-restrictive. Without direction, I was struck with problem of deciding what I wanted from this game, and whether I actually wanted to achieve it. Which is scary and weird. As a gamer, I have been trained over the years to do as the developer says whether it be saving some character I don’t care about or feigning interest in a narrative I’m impartial towards. The reward is a pat on the head, a digital trophy and maybe a new outfit for an avatar. By assinging numbers to these things, we’re given a sense that we’re progressing. Those numbers sure are getting bigger, so I should keep going and make them get even bigger. It doesn’t matter if I’m not doing what I actually want to do in the game, as long as I get rewarded.

Yet this is a shitty outlook on life, and I don’t see why we as gamers should tolerate it exclusively in games. In out childhood, we’re never told “Just get an office job you hate, because at least you’ll get money for it”. So then why is it that we find this to be acceptable in games, which ultimately, are replications of certain realities. Minecraft, whether

This is your cave whether you explore it or not

deliberately or not, asks us “what do we value in our games?”. Has a sense of personal achievement become obsoleted by achievements points? Do creative pursuits seem silly when there are no tangible reward? Having talked to friends, some of them said yes, one in particular claiming that Minecraft is not even a game because it has no narrative at all. Yet I feel they’re missing the point of emergent gameplay such as this. Games as a medium differ from others by the very fact that you, as a player, can create your own narrative, with much more personal taste and relevance to you than any developer can ever script.

I thought about this for a good while, and determined that Minecraft is not a waste of time, for me anyway. If life itself is as fleeting and goal-less as Minecraft, than I shouldn’t feel guilty for time spent having fun in this game with friends. So I built. I built my little bedroom.

Humble Adobe Flash Player

We had adventure mining and killing zombies, claiming treasures from dungeons and found elusive diamonds and obsidian. We worked on the goal we had set ourselves from the very start — building  a massive tower with lava pouring down it. And by God, did we achieve it after a few days of blocky sweat and blood.

It stands majestic, spilling its load upon the mountaintops.

At night, it comes to life, and thrusts its fluid towards the stars.

The view from the top. You can see my house from here.

Yet while we toiled away at our legacy, dark changes were afoot. The admin of the server and his friends had gotten tired of griefers and decided to add mods to the server. While this protected their buildings, it also gave the select few the powers to spawn whichever blocks they wanted.

Huh

After a few days, I found a massive ball of glass floating out at sea, and it was filled with lava. I thought huh, well that puts our tower to shame, but I guess good job for that guy.

Then, one morning I walked outside my cave and saw this:

What? What IS that?

Oh. Oh yeah. It's a massive fucking Bong outside my house. Great.

What the fuck is THAT?

(The little stone house was a hut I built ages ago while walking back to my house. It got dark and I was still a bit away so I built a little shelter to wait the night out. It was now drawfed by massive wall of Obsidian.  One of the rarest and strongest materials in the game.)

Oh, ok. It's a massive arena. A MASSIVE FUCKING OBSIDIAN ARENA.

It was at this point that I realised I had become the grouchy old man of Minecraft. Back in my day, we built things by hand and farmed materials ourselves. Now, those pothead whippersnappers were ruining society as I knew it, and I was scared. I was now obsolete. Nothing I built could ever rival the splendour and potential of these guys.  My old-timey ways and principals had left me forgotten by time. After all I did! After all the work I put in to this life, and all the buildings I created. Even my masterpiece, the Lava Tower, was antiquated.

Le sigh.

Yet who was I to say they were enjoying the game wrong? They must have been having fun, or else they would never have went to the effort. To me, there was a direct relationship between difficulty to build and gratification. Yet these people had become invulnerable, teleporting Gods, raising and destroying with the snap of fingers. I couldnt expect them to seek out the same trivial pursuits of happiness as a mortal such as myself. Maybe I could join them in their absolute power, and find a different way to play?

But for fuck sake, they removed the ability for Creepers to explode. That was last straw. Creepers are agents of destruction, entropy incarnate. This harsh, yet beautiful and engrossing world, was now literally a sandpit where each grain of sand was invincible obsidian and every castle built was built with the purpose of standing forever. Nobody wants to live forever — not when everyone lives forever. Leaving a legacy means nothing when everyone’s legacy survives. The dualistic nature of Minecraft is one of its strongest points. Night/Day. Farmyard Animals/Monsters. Creation/Destruction. Yet when one of these sides is eradicated, the other is meaningless. And that is just not a system I can find enjoyment in.

So, Gods of the server, enjoy your eternity of nothingness. May you master everything that such men may know, about loving, and then letting go.

(Damn, that sounded really bitter. Sorry, more cheerful update next time!)

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About laxan

Herp video games.
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3 Responses to The Mining of Life

  1. Anonymous says:

    Really good account of the life cycle of an SMP server 🙂 I too have gone the route of freely creating blocks from nothing. It was fun for a while, to see the projects I had envisioned completed, but it did feel more empty. Anyone can plop down blocks to create things when they’re infinite.

    • bwochinski says:

      Above comment is me.
      Somehow I got logged out in the middle of posting it…

      • laxan says:

        Thanks! I think I came across as really harsh on creative server players, and I didn’t mean to. I realise it’s just not what I enjoy, but that many people do and create amazing things. Yet, just like you said, it just felt a bit hollow for me personally, and I felt prouder knowing that it took that bit more effort to do.

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