This post started off as a piece on how Minecraft evokes primal instincts in a person, but the more I wrote, the more it evolved. Have a read. You’ll see.
Survive the night.
Is there a more evocative phrase?
When you start a new Minecraft world in survival mode, that is your mission statement, your purpose.
Survive the night.
Granted, I don’t play as wide a variety of games as I used to, so my knowledge of more modern survival games is limited – but it’s the only game I’ve played where you are dropped into a world and you actively have to try not to die.
You’re getting hungry. You can die of hunger. It’ll be night soon, and monsters come out at night. They’ll kill you too.
Where to start? Find a tree. Punch it. Fashion the wood into something useable. Make a crafting table. Use that to create tools. Use them to build a shelter. You can’t sleep on the floor. Find a sheep and use its wool to a make a bed, otherwise you’ll have to stay up all night.
Next morning – do you dare stray further from your primitive shelter to find things like flint and coal? Do you dare go into that dark cave in search of metal ores?
After the initial few nights it becomes less fraught – once you have fortified a safe place to retreat to and built up some resources the game takes on a more leisurely pace that is more about personal expression than survival. Decisions change from “how can I stop myself from dying” to “what kind of wood would look best as the framework of this house?”.
And it’s at this point that I usually get the itch to create a new world. Drop myself into unknown and dangerous virgin territory, where the call to adventure rings out once more.
Sounds fun right?
Now comes the sting.
As I initially wrote here: https://iaindstewart.net/blog/2020/09/16/taking-another-year-off/, I feel like being obsessed by videogames in any way is not a productive use of energy.
And thus, this post stops being about Minecraft…
I totally get the attraction though. I was addicted for a long, long time. It’s safer to try this in a simulation where your actual life is not in danger. It is a step removed from reality in that respect, as well as in the abstract sense that you can’t punch a tree to bits and then fashion that into wooden planks with your bare hands in real life. There’s no risk to your actual bodily existence, but it does recreate some of the thrills and excitement of that primal experience, of being out in the wilderness with only your wits and practical knowledge to help you survive. But I do find myself asking: Is there any point to it if there’s nothing on the line? Sure, it’s fun, and it’s entertaining. But it is only a simulation. And a pretty abstract one at that.
It’s a sped-up approximation of real-world experience, with its components reduced to the bare essential procedures, barely recognisable.
Children play games in preparation for life as an adult. They play them to learn their own strengths and weaknesses. Should there come a point in a child’s life that they put these things to one side for good? Or are they helpful in small doses? I just can’t get over the fact they are pointless. “But they are fun!” I hear you say. But why is “fun” so important? How much does “fun” fulfil us? How much does it nourish our souls? Should it? This causes a deep incongruence in me. Why is “fun” the most important thing I must experience in my life? Why, after playing a videogame for three hours do I not feel a completeness thanks to the “fun” I’ve just had, but instead a deep unsettling feeling of wasting my time? Maybe I’ve just grown up, and it’s an ingrained habit now.
Maybe it’s an echo of the past, that is not yet ready to dissolve.
Why do we play anyway? Should you play simulations to keep yourself sharp? What real world skills could you have learned in the time you spent in that simulation? I know I always used to say that it helped with my hand-eye-coordination and my puzzle solving skills, but did it really? Would I have developed more hand-eye-coordination if I had whittled things out of wood for twenty years instead of moving some lights around on a screen by pushing some buttons? Would the physical interactions with the materials transferred over to other real world situations more readily? I guess with more of the world becoming digital, being able to manipulate lights on a screen by pushing buttons is an important transferable skill.
But if I had spent twenty years making and repairing pinball machines, for example, wouldn’t that have improved my hand-eye coordination a hell of a lot more? There are things in the physical world that you just can’t simulate in the digital world, such as judging how much pressure to put on a material before it breaks, how the material feels between your fingers, or how cold it is to the touch. These values could be represented by numbers, gauges, meters, bars or charts, but that’s not the same as getting your hands on the goods.
It’s intuitive, haptic feedback versus a numerical representation of properties. A world of difference.
I’m not sure how exactly to end this essay, because to be honest I feel like I could expand greatly on everything I have written. I’ve just turned 42, that magical number, and I feel like I am a stone’s throw from uncovering something mystical. I may well expand on these thoughts at some point. Seeing as these were expansions of other thoughts in the first place, I think that’s a given.