Anatomy of a Game: Minecraft

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Welcome to what will be a semi-regular series of game analyses, in which I’ll pick apart popular games and assess what they teach, how they teach, and how some of the techniques of the games can be applied to Learning with a Capital L.
For our first discussion, I wanted to look at a game that is an incredibly unlikely hit: Minecraft. For those of you who may not be familiar with the game, it is an open, 3D world and shares a player perspective akin to what you would find in a first-person shooter (FPS) like Call of Duty or Halo. That is to say, the game camera is set where your character’s head would be. You can see your character’s arms and move through the world as if looking through your character’s eyes. The art style of the game has a distinctive 8-bit look despite being 3D – textures are pixelated and models are deliberately boxy and simple.

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The game itself was unlike anything players had ever seen when it was first released a couple of years ago. The game essentially has no goals (it has added some formal goals recently, but those are largely secondary to the experience of playing the game, and it literally had none when it was first released), other than maybe to try to survive. At the start of the game, the player’s avatar appears in the wilderness with nothing. The player can explore the environment, punch things and…that’s about it. There are no instructions. Nothing overtly tells the player what to do. Not even what controls to use (the player has to pause the game and look at the in-game options menu to discover this if he or she doesn’t already know).

As I mentioned previously, the game uses a fairly standard FPS interface, and players who come to the game understanding how those games are played will be up and running fairly quickly, but even players without an FPS background have time to experiment – there are no immediate dangers when the game starts – just a patch of wilderness, trees, hills, and a handful of non-aggressive animals (pigs, chickens, and sheep). Players coming to the game without having heard of it will be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to the game – until night falls. The game uses an accelerated 24-hour day that passes in about 20-30 minutes. So, about 10 minutes into the game, night descends on the almost pastorally peaceful landscape, and horror rears its head. It turns out that monsters spawn in the dark. Without the protective light of the sun, all manner of creatures: zombies, skeletons and an original terror called a Creeper all begin appearing across the world and wandering around, looking for victims. And it’s dark. Did I mention that it’s dark? Suffice it to say that players who have been exploring without much purpose will probably die, repeatedly, over the course of the 10-15 minute night.

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Note that I said “die repeatedly.” The penalty for dying in Minecraft in the standard version of the rules is the loss of everything the player’s avatar was carrying at the time. But, of course, this hypothetical Minecraft novice we’ve been discussing didn’t have anything. So as the awful unfolding night continues and the body count stacks up, the player has actually lost almost nothing, other than any illusions he or she may have been harboring that the world is safe and boring.

With the return of dawn and the retreat of the night’s monsters, players now have an important, but completely self-directed goal: how to survive the nightly onslaught. Play becomes more focused, but also more experimental. The clock is ticking. Oh! Hitting things breaks them. Oh! If I hit a tree I get wood. Oh! If I hit the ground, I get dirt or stone. Oh! I can use the mouse to place blocks of material I’ve collected back into the world. Some more exploration of the controls reveals an inventory screen with a small box labeled “Crafting.” More experimentation. Oh! Dragging a block of wood into the Crafting window turns it into wood planks. Oh! Wood planks can make other things, depending on how they are arranged in the Crafting window.

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Soon, the player discovers that four wood planks makes a workbench. Now things get interesting. Up until now, the player has only been able to arrange materials in a two-by-two matrix. Once a workbench has been crafted and placed in the world, interacting with it reveals a new Crafting window, this one a three-by-three matrix.

This exponential increase in configuration options allows the player to begin to understand how to make tools, combining wood in more complex patterns to make a pickaxe, shovel, even a sword. Tools, in turn, make the process of collecting resources significantly faster than punching.

All of this discovery happens very quickly for most players, and entirely organically, just by process of experimentation (albeit experimentation born of necessity). Light may still be an issue, but if the first night was full of humiliating stumbling in the dark and dying, then night two is typically spent huddled in a shelter waiting for the dawn – possibly still in the dark, but at least not getting munched on repeatedly.

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The game continues to build in this way. With each new resource discovered, the player is encouraged to experiment with it, try adding it to existing recipes and making new recipes unique to the material. Once the player discovers how to make torches and other light sources, cowering in the dark is no longer necessary. The player just uses night to mine materials from inside his shelter and gets materials from outside during the day.

So, now that I’ve spent 900 words explaining what amounts to a tiny fraction of the experience of playing Minecraft, let’s talk about why this is actually relevant. First, it should be said that the experience I describe was a more or less prototypical experience for early players of the game. But, of course, now there are FAQs. There are walkthroughs and recipe books. Doesn’t this diminish the experience? And the answer is: no. Because at its core, surviving in Minecraft – the knowledge of how to do it in that early game experience – is easy. It seems hard at the moment the player is trying to figure it out, but having mastered it, the player could start a new game and be up and running in a couple of minutes. The fun of Minecraft comes from changing the world, building structures, and discovering new and ingenious ways to assemble the basic building pieces available to make new things. People have recreated cities, built basic (working!) computer processors and countless other achievements that were never part of the designed experience. They are completely emergent.

Emergence in games is something game designers often strive for, but which is difficult to achieve (and risky when it does happen). Emergence refers to the interplay between designed systems to create behaviors that are not designed. As a result, it is often unanticipated, and can have a negative effect on the game – a discovery that allows some key challenge to be overcome in a trivial way, for example. But at the same time, emergence leads to a powerful feeling of discovery, and the strange sense that the game is more “real” somehow – that there is a genuine ability on the part of the player to influence the world rather than merely following along according to the designer’s script. Minecraft is one of the most complete expressions of this: a world where every goal is essentially an emergent one rather and designed. The player discovers both his own problems and his own solutions in a largely self-directed way. Players can also team up online and collaborate on projects.

The learning potential for a system like this is pretty amazing. Unlike traditional courses that teach an explicit problem and then roll out a single solution, a game like Minecraft invites exploration of the problem in a nuanced way. Learners could tease out what elements of the problem are lend themselves to different solutions, and possibly even innovate solutions that the instructor didn’t consider or was unaware of. They could collaborate together to find solutions that might be beyond the reach of a single learner, but they achieve through creativity and communication and they learn from each other along the way.

It’s enticing. Obviously, such a solution doesn’t work for everything – you need a problem with a set of systems that can be modeled, and you need the time, budget and technical resources to create those systems in a game. Minecraft has been in constant development for years to reach the state of maturity it has now. Still, it’s worth noting that it began as the world of one person and still is the product of a very small team. It’s also worth looking at how it was released: it was sent out to early players in a rough form and those players were allowed to make their own suggestions regarding how they expected and wanted the game to work, which then was rolled back into the development. When making a complex game, this kind of feedback can be invaluable, and it allows people to begin deriving benefit from the experience even as development continues. And ultimately, collaborating to build a game with your learners might make something that is vastly more effective than anything you can come up with on your own!