“Minecraft” is this generation’s Super Mario. It’s an international phenomenon. Unless you’ve been living on the moon, you probably already know these things.
It’s on computers, phones, tablets, and game consoles. It’s at your local mall, occupying kiosks with plushies and T-shirts. There’s a semiannual convention (“MineCon”) and an education initiative that’s got it in schools (MinecraftEDU).
But why is it so popular? We’re talking about a game that looks like this:
Keep in mind that there are games coming out on modern video game consoles that look like this:
And what do you actually do in “Minecraft?” Build stuff? Perhaps you’ve seen some of the incredible worlds people have created from within “Minecraft,” like this one of King’s Landing from “Game of Thrones”:
Not bad! So how does a world go from a flat, grassy meadow to a pixelated re-creation of Westeros’ capital city? The answer to that question is half of the reason people love “Minecraft”: creation. The castles above were built block-by-block.
Think of “Minecraft” as virtual LEGO. LEGO does.
It’s a system for fitting pieces together to create something — sometimes amazing somethings — from nothing. “Minecraft” provides endless building blocks and a blank canvas. It’s up to you to create something incredible, or silly, or referential, or whatever, using the tools it provides. The tools are blessedly user-friendly, as are the systems for employing those tools.
The most basic unit of measurement is a single block. This is a dirt block:
This is the literal and figurative building block of the game. You start with nothing but fists and a massive, unexplored world, ripe for creation. You walk forward; you punch the ground below you and it begins to crack. Why is it cracking? And suddenly, POP! Where the ground once was is now an empty, square space. It looks like this:
The word “minecraft” is a portmanteau of two verbs: to mine and to craft. Punching a dirt block and retrieving a dirt block to build with is the first verb — the mining. When you start “Minecraft,” it’s the first thing you should do.
Once you’ve retrieved enough blocks, the second thing you’ll need to do is craft: combine the resources you’ve mined to create more complex tools. “Mining” for wood (punching a tree) enables you to create basic tools. Those basic tools enable you to mine more complex resources, which enable you to create more complex items and tools.
It’s this highly satisfying cycle of mining resources and creating from those resources that draws in millions of players around the world. And that’s the most basic level of “Minecraft.”
The other side of “Minecraft,” sadly not encompassed in the game’s title, is exploration. Every time you start a new world in “Minecraft,” it’s unique. That is, levels are randomly generated based on a set of parameters. There are some constants:
- The levels always contain the same materials (dirt, trees, water, etc.)
- There is a day/night cycle
- At night, enemies appear and will attack you
- You can only dig so deep below the world’s surface before hitting bedrock
- The world that spawns always has stuff to discover, whether it’s crazy jungles or mountains or underground caves or whatever
Yes, there are enemies. You’ve almost certainly seen the iconic “Creeper” at your local Hot Topic. This guy (or lady?):
These green, exploding monsters are exclusive to the “Survival” mode of “Minecraft” — if you just want to create ad infinitum, there’s a “Creation” mode that enables exactly that. No day/night cycle. No enemies. No mining if you don’t want to mine. Just endless creation.
But be warned: If you don’t choose “Survival” mode, you’ll never experience the joy of discovering a labyrinthine cave network by accident, full of rare resources (diamonds!) and life-threatening lava. You’ll never know the thrill of narrowly escaping a mob of spiders, zombies, and Creepers into the ramshackle hut you’ve composed just in time to hide for the night. You’ll never know the heartbreak of a Creeper sneaking up and exploding the side of your carefully constructed homage to John Travolta’s face. Up your nose with a rubber hose, Creeper.
So forget all the hype. Forget the billions Microsoft spent buying “Minecraft” from its creator, Markus “Notch” Persson and his team at Mojang.
“Minecraft” is so incredibly successful and popular because it’s delightful. It’s relaxing. It’s joyful. It’s goofy. It’s an amazing interactive canvas to build anything you want.
Yeah, you’re “just punching blocks and placing them in different combinations.” And here’s a re-creation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous “Fallingwater” home:
You can play “Minecraft” online with friends, with strangers, or all by your lonesome. Some of the more complex worlds were created by whole teams of people working for months. Westeros wasn’t built in a day, you know!
Personally, I prefer the relaxing experience of playing it alone while listening to podcasts. The game’s music is a mix of soft, atmospheric melodies that can be easily kept at low volume, leaving me to concentrate on the project at hand.
Unlike so many other games, “Minecraft” enables an outlet for artistic expression — however shallow — that makes time spent in its worlds feel meaningful.