If you were to visit my house and look on my bookshelves, what might strike you most is the scatteredness of my reading. My interests tend to meander through a gamut of topics and genres weaving through a spectrum of science fiction and fantasy, dancing across the hipster-like polish of gen-x fiction novels, dipping into complex world histories, toeing the waters of dystopian narratives, and briskly strolling through the gardens of modern political ramblings… with but one particular and consistent exception: those books shedding a philosophical interpretation of modern popular culture always have a prominent place on my shelves. I own and have read a substantial fraction of the commercially available books on this topic, from less obvious tomes, to some of my favorites, the essay collections in the “pop culture and philosophy” series. Admittedly, I am little more than an armchair philosopher — a philosophy fan, as it were — but there you have it. I have conceded to my quiet obsession.
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Minecraft is –and this is important — a game without an obvious story.
One of the sadly overlooked bits of knowledge, I think, in our modern society is that so many — too many — people (mis)understand the study of thought itself, the study of philosophy, and presume it to be merely a dusty old collection of essays confined to moral quandries from past centuries. Many, I presume from the less-than-popularity of the subject, would consider the idea of philosophy and (I might suppose that by chance) if any great names are to come to mind they are often and only the names of the foundational thinkers of centuries or millenia past. And this is unfortunate. This is unfortunate because philosophy is, I think, right now in a vibrant, glowing and growing era. Seven billion people swarm this world, each with an independent mind with clever thoughts and nuggets of rational questions. And while there is a long way to go before all seven billion of those people are truly free to think and discuss ideas in total security, never before have we had the tools to share thoughts, discuss ideas, and nurture philosophical ponderings as we do right now. The internet, books, literacy, and the clarity of thought underlying thousands of years of modern cultural inquiry drive us to not only create clever and thoughtful additions to our popular cultural landscape, but allow us to discuss, dissect and understand them, too.
So many of us have the resources and education to think about ideas, our worlds, in the context of philsophy. So many do not. But then — I must admit — if you were to visit my house and look for me, there is a good chance that would not find me studying philosophy and that instead you might find me in front of my computer playing Minecraft.
Building Blocks & Exploding Creepers
I have written previously on this game. And I have shared the caveat before that I have no association with the game whatsoever, save for my simple user account and countless hours spent in its sandbox-like worlds. But for those unfamiliar, a description:
Minecraft is –and this is important — a game without an obvious story. The new player appears in a crisp, clean landscape, the sun high in the sky. His new world is a randomly, algorithmically generated country-side composed of thousands, maybe millions, of blocks, each block a perfect squared-off equivalent to a cubic meter of mass, a block of dirt here, stone there, and great, rectangular trees protruding from the ground everywhere. Immediately, the new player looking at the world from a first-person perspective, begins the never-ending task of shaping the world to suit his needs. He bashes at a nearby tree with his fists, after a half-minute of pounding releasing a cube of wood into his possession. And another. And another. He does this until he discovers that he can craft the wood blocks into crude tools: a pickaxe, first, then more complex tools later. If he has never before played, he might make the mistake of squandering his precious first bits of daylight, not realizing that in a short, few moments the ten-minutes of available sunlight will shift into an equally long night, a night from which single-minded creatures will spawn, each intent on destroying him. If instead he does not waste these few minutes, he quickly builds his tools, hacks into the stone of the countryside, and constructs for himself a lighted shelter to protect him from the creepers, zombies, spiders and other mobs soon to appear.
Each game-day the player will emerge from his ever-growing, ever-more complex shelters. Each game-day he will dig deeper into the randomly generated landscape, discovering deposits of precious raw materials to craft ever-more complex constructions. He might tunnel into the bowels of the earth and spend his time spelunking dark caverns, or he might strip-mine vast tracts of cobblestone and sand in an effort to find the resources neccessary to construct towering castles, lighted highways, or pyramids of glass reaching high into the sky.
If he is unlucky or just less-than-careful, it is likely that at some point he will stray too far from his shelter or crack open a wall to reveal a vast underground dungeon, and a skeleton’s arrow will ping at him from the darkness, or the tell-tale hiss of a soon-to-be-detonated creeper will rattle his nerves in the seconds before the screen turns dark and he dies, respawing, inventory empty, in the wide world somewhere perhaps far from safety.
All at once it is a game of solitary survival, a non-linear story of loneliness against a limitless world, where understanding grows not from a crafted narrative unfolded along a path of certain conclusion, but through the exploration of self and an unravelling of an unknown metaverse through sheer exploration.
“Some philosophers, such as Sartre, believe in an epistemic loneliness in which loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition because of the paradox between the desire of person’s consciousness to have meaning in life conflicting with the isolation and nothingness of the universe.” [Wikipedia]
But of knowledge and story and plot: what of these things? Where does knowledge come from? What is the source of knowledge in a game like Minecraft, where understanding of the world seems to be nothing more than a mere nuance or side-effect of gameplay.
Minecraft then becomes this quest of epistemic loneliness, a solitary struggle…
In some ways as I write this I am reminded of something I know little about except for what I’ve learned from (that’s right) popular culture. The idea of a “vision quest” or a “walkabout” seems to be a real-world parallel to the philosophical backbone of the Minecraft experience. My simple understanding of these epistemological undertakings of a sort are as little more than transitory and unpredictable adventures of self-knowledge and solitary introspection. In the stereotyped quest, a young man is sent into the wilderness with the minimum of technology and tools required to ensure his survival (if that) and — through trial and terror, facing his own mortality at every turn — emerges from the natural world some span of time later an adult, a man, aware of his limits and rarified in his philosophical understanding of his place in the universe.
Of course, Minecraft is but a video game. But as a parallel of the purest form to such wandering quests of self-discovery it is intellectually interesting. Minecraft then becomes this quest of epistemic loneliness, a solitary struggle to reconstruct a fresh slate of a universe in the face of adversity and certain destruction. Knowledge not only arrives as knowledge of an artificial universe, but as a kind of self-knowledge, emerging from an uncertain exploration in the face of danger. The player, but an artificial avatar wandering a digital landscape, learns to navigate that world with no true drivers from the game’s creators: there can be no story, no plot to drive you forward, no NPC hinting at the next stage of a quest, no strategy guide written by experts, no walkthrough posted on message boards, nor any sort of hint or help from a friend. Simply, there is advice: try this, look for that, dig, build, explore, and learn how to interpret the articial natural world randomly constructed for your solitary enjoyment.
“Existence precedes essence… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” [Jean-Paul Sartre]
Loosely defined as it is, the existentialist philosopher might revel in this kind of adventure-based, walkabout-style knowledge-seeking as crash course in everything he believes. The very story-less nature of Minecraft is a philosophically interesting position: for the most part Minecraft is a game without a plot yet with a kind of hint or glimmer of a higher purpose. For the existentialist, just existing in this world and exploring it with the quest of self-discovery and universal understanding as the primary objectives, makes it a game of existence preceding esssence, of merely being coming before a defined purpose.
There is no walkthrough guide for a truly artificial analog to real existence.
So, back in the real world, existentialism seems to me to be fixed to the idea of a world without supernatural imposition. Take this in whatever form your personal ideologies or iconographies suggest, but a true existentialist could not help but settle into an athiest viewpoint: if existence preceeds purpose, then in its most monochromatic state, existentialism seems bound inexorably to a creator-less universe. After all, one entire thread of the stories of nearly every religion, faith and belief hooks into the notion that there is a higher purpose to be understood, sought, and enveloped. Existentialism, like a game without a plot, or an artificial univese without a story, puts existence as the foundation of purpose and growing from that existence an essence, a meaning, a reason to continue living in that universe.
Minecraft is an existential kind of game, then. The world inhabited by the player is never truly created, per se, as the landscape is unique for each world launched by the software, the result of an algorithm that generates it through mathematical rules and the story is driven by nothing more than the desire for the player to survive against untargetted threats. The plot, whatever that plot becomes, is not created by anything greater than the player reshaping the world out of the pieces he finds within it. Contrast this with nearly any other plot-driven game: take for example another favourite of mine, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In this game, as open and free as the world might seem, there is a static, pre-determined plot. There are quests to complete and those quests have been written, designed and implemented by team of writers, programmers, computer engineers, and play-designers working to construct a world with meaning and purpose for the end-users — the players — enjoyment. They are a kind of creator; A higher power with authority and control of the universe that directs the essense of the game. And much of this direction stems from a very distinct element: the lack of solitude.
“Loneliness is therefore a subjective experience; if a person thinks they are lonely, then they are lonely. People can be lonely while in solitude, or in the middle of a crowd. What makes a person lonely is the fact that they want more social interaction than what is currently available.” [Wikipedia]
Many people think of solitary gaming as lonely. I will caveat here that in recent move of the gaming industry towards massively multiplayer games and network cooperative games there is another factor to consider, a factor which I am not incorporating here. Also, I am definitely aware that Minecraft itself is (now particularly, with recent changes to the core of its technology backbone) a potentially multiplayer game. But playing alone — playing any game alone — is not neccessarily lonely.
Loneliness is not only distinctly possible … but the very driver of the gameplay and the attraction of the universe therein.
Let’s consider again Skyrim as above. As a designed universe, the player is not at all alone. He enters a world populated with characters, each differently complex and each a crucial element to the essence of the game. The player may be alone in his gameplay, sitting in a swivel chair in front of a screen, away from natural human contact, but he is not in solitude. The NPCs — non-player-characters — of the game are imbued with dialog and actions that guide, nudge, and otherwise shape a story. The player is plunged into a narrative plot where one action affects another action, one conversation leads to another conversation, and the limits to the complexity of his involvement in this world seem more confined by the patience of the player than by the detail of the construction of the universe. The player may be a lonely person, but inside the world of a game they are usually immersed in a kind of culture and story that leave them anything but alone.
This is where Minecraft differs. Like that notion of a wandering quest in the wilderness, a walkabout of exploration and self-discovery wrapped in an existentialist worldview, the universe of Minecraft is one of alone-ness. The game world, as I have written already, has not so much been constructed as it has been grown through algorithms and formulae. The game is seemingly devoid of a grander purpose — a plot — and save for some very simple-minded creatures bent on the player’s destruction, there is little to be found in that regard. (Note: in recent updates to the game, NPC players — monks — have been added to the world-generating algorithms that facilitate trading and the like, but they are also simply randomly generated and of limited interaction with the overall “purpose” of the game.) In many ways, this is — arguably, definitively — solitary play. Loneliness is not only distinctly possible, and a sense of purpose for those unwilling or unable to create there own an inevitably a failed proposition, but the very driver of the gameplay and — I would posit — the attraction of the universe therein.
Unlike a plot-drive game, Minecraft has created a world where we are trapped by our own freedom of choice, left to devices and rules and a limited structure that is at once frustrating, yet enticing. It is the digital equivalent of the vision quest: that stereotyped adventure of survival and yearning that transports players into adulthood, real or maybe just virtual.
Condemned to be Free
In my research I’ve came across a philosophical ideology from Jean-Paul Sartre who claimed the notion of “condemned to be free” and “that morality is derived from our ability to choose in reality; the ability to choose being derived from human freedom.” In our popular culture — through our modern toys, playing games like Minecraft — we often explore this notion. There is the idea that meaning, morality, and the practical identity of our society will ultimately be defined not from any higher, external guide, but through the idea of simply existing in this world, living here, and interacting — alone or together — to an end with higher meaning and greater essence.
Whether you believe — or even want to believe — this notion or not, is your own business. But ultimately it is an interesting thing to ponder: what can a very popular game like Minecraft do to reflect this philosophy back towards us? If we take the notion of an artificial world with abstract rules and no higher purpose then existence, what do players find there that is so appealing? I’ve found something of interest: and to me, maybe that is nothing more than the toils of freedom in a world of my own construction. Maybe it is the solitude of imaginary worlds. Or maybe it is the absense of a grander narrative outside the scope of a wider (ir)rational consideration of the universe that sometimes seems so appealing.
Though whatever it is, however the cause of me continuing to reload that particular game and dive in for another session of exploration and construction, my philosophy books just keep getting dustier while my tunnels just keep getting deeper.