Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.

Advertisements

Kony 2012 in hindsight

Yesterday, April 20th, marked two at least reasonably significant events. The first of these was it being 4/20, which is to cannabis smokers what Easter is to Christians- the major festival of the year, where everyone gathers together to smoke, relax and make their collective will felt (this is, I feel I should point out, speaking only from what I can pick up online- I don’t actually smoke pot). This is an annual tradition, and has grown into something of a political event for pro-legalisation groups.

The other event is specific to this year (probably, anyway), and just about marks the conclusion of one of the 21st century’s most startling (and tumultuous) events- the Kony 2012 campaign’s ‘cover the night’ event.

Since going from an almost unknown organisation to the creators of the fastest-spreading viral video of all time, Kony 2012’s founders Invisible Children have found their organisation changed forever. For most of the last decade the charity has existed, but only now has it gone from being a medium-sized organisation relying on brute zealotry for support to a internationally known about group. Similarly, the target of their campaign, warlord and wanted human rights criminal Joseph Kony, has gone from a man known only in the local area and by politicians nobody’s ever heard of, to a worldwide hate figure inspiring discussion in the world’s governments (albeit one with more than his fair share of lighthearted memes- in fact he is increasingly reminding me of Osama Bin Laden in terms of status).

Invisible Children’s meteoric rise has not been without backlash- they have come under intense scrutiny for both their less-than-transparent finances, and the fact that only around a third of their turnover goes to supporting their African projects. Then there was the now-infamous ‘Bony 2012’ incident, where co-founder Jason Russell was found making a public nuisance of himself, and masturbating in public, after a week of constant stress and exhaustion, and rather too much to drink.

Not only that, but the campaign’s supporters have come under attack. This is partly because the internet always loves to have a go at committed Christians, as Russell and many of his followers are, but there are several recurring issues people appear to have with the campaign in general. One of the most common is the idea that ‘rich white kids’ sticking up posters and watching a video, and then claiming that they’ve helped change something is both ridiculous and wrong. Another concerns the current situation in the Uganda/CAR/South Sudan/Congo area- this is one of hideously bloody political strife, and Joseph Kony is not the only one with a poor human rights record. Eastern Congo is still recovering from a major civil war that officially ended in 2003 but still exists in some local, and extremely bloody, conflicts, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world with a history of political strife, South Sudan has only just emerged as independent from a constant civil war and the bloody, oppressive dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, and Uganda has an incredibly poor record for war and corruption, and has even been accused of using child soldiers in much the same way as Kony’s organisation, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Then there have been the accusations that Invisible Children have overexaggerated and oversimplified the issue, misleading the general public, and the argument that, with the LRA numbering less than a thousand, Kony isn’t too much of an issue anyway- certainly not when compared to the thousands of children who die every day from malnourishment and disease in the area.  Finally, some take issue with the aim of the Kony 2012 campaign- to get governments to listen and to step up the level of involvement in their attempts to capture Kony, which is an aim disliked by those who feel that the USA doesn’t need any more encouragement to invade somewhere, and disliked even more by those who claim Kony died 5 years ago.

All of these are completely valid, true and important arguments to consider (well, apart from the one about him being dead, which is probably not true). And I have one answer to every single one of them:

IT. DOESN’T. MATTER.

Put it this way- what slogan does the Kony 2012 video say is it’s aim? Answer- to make Kony famous, and in that regard Invisible Children have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Most  of the world (well, most of it with an internet connection at least), now knows about one of the worst perpetrators of human rights violators in the world, and a major humanitarian issue is now being forced upon governments worldwide.  It doesn’t matter that Invisible Children has some dodgy finances, it doesn’t matter that Kony is by no means the biggest problem in the area, and it certainly doesn’t matter that Jason Russell managed to give the world’s media a field day. All that matters is that people know about a serious issue, because if nobody knows about it nobody cares, and if nobody cares then nothing can be done about it.

There is, in fact, one criticism levelled at Invisible Children supporters that I take major issue with, and that is the idea that its efforts at spreading awareness do not matter. This could not be more untrue. There is only one force on this earth that will ever have the power to potentially find and bring to justice Joseph Kony, and that is the effort of the world’s governments- armies, advisors, police, whatever. But governments simply do not get involved in stuff if it doesn’t matter to them, and the only way to get something (that doesn’t concern oil, power or money) to matter to a government is to make sure people know and care about it. In modern politics, awareness is absolutely everything- without that, nothing matters.

Anyone can stand and level criticisms at the Kony campaign all day if they wanted to. I myself have not given Invisible Children any money, and don’t agree with a lot of the charity’s activities. But I am still able to admire what they have done, and realise what a great service they have done to the world at large. In the grand scheme of things, their flaws don’t really matter one jot. Because everyone will agree that Kony is most definitely a bad guy, and most definitely needs to be brought to justice- until now, the chances of that happening were minimal. Until Kony 2012.

 

 

 

Also… WOO 50 POSTS!!!!!