I’ve been thinking about Minecraft. A lot of people have been thinking about Minecraft, but in my case it’s not about how to make powered minecarts go where they ought or the best way to funnel lava. I’ve been thinking about why we play it.
Straight away I have to acknowledge Margaret Robertson’s brilliant Minecraft presentation at Playful, where she set the game against the encroaching hordes of gamification. No transcript has yet made it onto the web, but when it does take her manifesto as a jumping-off point. Now imagine you land with a splash in this essay that I posted here a couple of years ago, about comfort zones in games, places in games and virtual worlds where for whatever reason we like hanging about. Rockstar understands comfort zones and so does Blizzard: there are places in their spaces where it’s just nice to spend time. The Sega of the early 90s understood it too—a very different time for the games industry, where games weren’t meant to be about making your own fun, and yet some of them still managed it.
So here’s my question, in the form of the world’s second dullest solo adventure:
1. Do you play Minecraft? If yes, proceed to 2. If no, sit the rest of this one out.
2. Do you find the world a pleasant place to just chill out and enjoy the environment? If yes, goto 3. If not, join the refuseniks from (1).
3. Was the original 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog game an important part of your development as a gamer?
The first two levels of Sonic the Hedgehog are the Green Hill Zone and the Marble Zone. Green Hill Zone is an area of verdant, rolling hills dotted with trees. Everything is in bold colours. Waterfalls are visible, at first in the distance, and later up close. Clouds scroll across the blue sky. Beneath the grass, areas of brown earth are visible, sometimes with strange pits and indents. If you destroy the robots, animals are released—pigs and birds. Towards the end you begin to venture into natural caves.
Marble Zone starts off above-ground, in an area that looks a lot like the Green Hill Zone, but quickly moves into underground tunnels made of large square blocks. Sometimes narrow passages open into much wider caverns. There is lava here, and it will kill you unless you use blocks to protect yourself.
You see where I’m going with this.
I am not saying that Minecraft is either a homage or a ripoff of Sonic the Hedgehog. That would be ridiculous. Likewise I’m not claiming there’s any overlap in gameplay. But you can’t argue that it shares a lot of the same imagery, appearing in the same order, and this is going to create an unconscious resonance in the mind of someone who back in the day played a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog. The net effect is that it feels like a familiar environment. I found the world of Minecraft welcoming, almost as if I’d been there before. There was a sense that this was a space I’d already explored, procedural generation or no procedural generation. That, of course, makes the first time that night falls doubly terrifying.
What Minecraft does, intentionally or not, is to invoke a nostalgia for one of the great touchstones of video-gaming history. Many bad movies and sketch shows get a laugh by overtly referencing other movies and shows—”oh hey, she’s dressed like the sexy chick from that thing but she’s fat! hilarious!” but Minecraft is much more subtle. It’s a comfort space because it’s a space you feel that on some level you’ve explored before. And therefore you have a reason for being here, other than the punch-trees-make-pickaxe-find-coal-make-torch-build-shelter-before-night scramble that everyone becomes accustomed to. It doesn’t work if you never played Sonic back in the day but be honest, are you prepared to admit that you didn’t?
And you thought the big blocks and pixellated items were a design thing, huh?