Minecraft for President

Chuck and I started playing Minecraft in March 2014–not exactly early adopters. I had previously tried a demo of the game on Xbox: I chopped down a tree; the demo ended.

We stick to our PS3 most of the time; that’s the console we’re familiar with and the controller that feels most comfortable. Chuck purchased a version of Minecraft for PS3 when it became available and we played it steadily for days afterward. It took root in our brains the way the best games do.

Like many computer and video games, Minecraft satisfies the simple but powerful need to make progress. Want to build up your house? Chop down a tree. Need more wood? Plant a sapling. You grind away at simple tasks and you move forward. It’s bliss. I think it speaks to the OCD in all of us, but it also resonates on a deeper, more philosophical level: it’s an idealistic world in which you do the work and you get the reward. So very much not like life. To paraphrase Codex (The Guild), everything would be so much better if we could level up in real life.

Minecraft has setbacks and monsters, and the depredations of the bad guys can be unpredictable and frustrating. The first time I got killed (creeper, of course), I lost my entire inventory.

Chuck will want me to point out that I was able to recover my stuff; when I went back to the scene of the crime, it was there and I just picked it up. He was not so lucky and wasn’t able to recover his things after his first demise, for some reason. Though I’d like to point out that he’s the one who magically got 70 extra Badass points in Borderlands 2 from some weird glitch—what was THAT about, I’d like to know, my Mechromancer was never able to catch up, not that I’m bitter or anything. Release it with love, in the words of Leo Buscaglia.

What I’m trying to say is although it’s not all cheerful happy times, the setbacks don’t detract from the satisfaction.

One time at a Pragmatic Bookshelf editorial meeting in Las Vegas (working for the Prags is pretty great), I tried clumsily to explain the addictive nature of the heinous Zynga Mafia Wars game on Facebook. Now, that was a boring game, with threadbare story outlines and zillions of microtransactions (ugh, Zynga! I do not miss you), but it was cumulative. If you clicked and waited and clicked again, you gained… ephemeral, trivial crap. But we could not stop playing it—Chuck, my brother Dan, and me. If you take away the drama of the interactions with other players (my least favorite part of the game), there was literally nothing going on in the game. But we “played” it relentlessly for weeks, until we all managed to quit cold turkey, which is the only way to do it.

We were talking about websites at this meeting in Vegas and I tried to put my finger on why Mafia Wars was so seductive. Everyone was very kind about the whole thing—Andy Hunt in particular listened to me flail for much longer than he had to—but that was because they are polite people; the Prags aren’t going to subject their readers to a Geek Wars game anytime soon. (Unless someone’s reconsidered; you guys know where I am!)

And in an awesome kind of only-in-my-own-head synergy, Andy Hunt recently came out with a very cool book, Learn to Program with Minecraft Plugins: Create Flying Creepers and Flaming Cows in Java that I can’t help mentioning.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is most of us are starving for even the appearance of forward motion. A system that allows you to definitively gain or earn something, no matter how imaginary, is intoxicating. The tracking has to be permanent, and it has to be measured against something: maybe simply against your own progress, but preferably in the context of other people.

Now I’m not a game designer and I speak from a vast gulf of ignorance about games. (Have you ever talked to a game designer who’s studied “fun”? It is the strangest conversation you’ll ever have.)

In an existence where it’s the rule rather than the exception to have the rug yanked out from under you for no discernible reason, it is manna–nay, a veritable balm to our souls to be told: you did that; check it off your list; here’s your reward. A true meritocracy. Thank you, Minecraft.