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.

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Gaming Concluded

And so I return, wiping off my smirk and trying not to laugh at anything that sounds French, back into the foray of my regular blogging experience, in an effort to conclude the topic on gaming. So far I have considered the two main complaints that non-gaming people tend to have with gamers and games themselves- today I want to get more into the guts of exactly why gaming, over so many other things, appears to be a target for particular dislike from large sections of the mainstream.

In case anyone reading is in any doubt that games ARE as much of a target as I am painting them to be, I refer you to a situation a while ago in which the American Supreme Court agreed to hear a proposed Californian state law restricting the sale of games to minors, especially ‘violent content’ Please bear in mind that these laws pop up all over the US from time to time and are always shot down for violating the First Amendment- but in this case the Supreme Court, the ultimate last line of appeal, the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth, was willing to give voice to an argument claiming, based on claims made from rather spurious studies that ‘games harm U18’s’, that games do not offer sufficient value to the world as a whole to warrant First Amendment protection. Anyone could see the law was unconstitutional- but the political voice was loud enough to get the Supreme Court to have a listen. Can anyone imagine them hearing a case proposing the restriction of film content in this way? Or TV? Or music. Of course not- but games? Whole other kettle of fish apparently.

(I could spend all day shooting this law down, but since I only know about this from an Extra Credits episode and they are going to do a far better job of it than me, I suggest you hit PATV and watch their take on it: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/free-speech)

So yeah- people and politicians don’t like games, but why? What is it that what’s basically giving a film a joystick and controls suddenly turns that film into something that everyone thinks just doesn’t matter? The reasons are, as with all such widespread emotions, many and varied, and I have certainly not thought of all of them, but here are just 3 that especially spring to mind:

1) The Social Gap

It’s no secret that gamers are a fairly predictable group of people in terms of who they are- young, often middle-class, men aged between 14 and 28 ish probably comprise at least 70% of the game-playing population (my own guesstimate, so shoot me down if you know any better figures). But, for starters, half the world’s population are female and the majority are outside the ‘game-playing’ age bracket- especially in the western world where advances in living conditions and healthcare have meant that seemingly everyone is middle-aged. Thus, gamers are something of a group unto themselves- in my social circle, for instance, just about everyone will be a gamer to some extent, but in, say, my mum’s, none of them would know the difference between Final Fantasy and Battlefield. So games become less of an all-encompassing medium, and more of a seemingly ‘niche’ product that just doesn’t seem very important to large sects of the population- particularly the small rich, white, middle aged, upper middle-class sect that dominates the western political and (to a large extent) cultural landscape. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike TV or film which have been around for years, gaming in its current, industry level, world-dominating form is really a creation of the last 15-20 years or so, so there has been little generational ‘trickle-down’- ie the more elderly sects of society will NEVER have played a game, much less grown out of them, so are even less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

 

2) Internet Connections

As I’ve just said, modern gaming is really an invention that began gathering speed around the mid-to-late 90’s- almost exactly the same time that the internet was first invented. As such, with gaming and the web growing up to becoming the fully-fledged entities they are now almost in parallel, they have since developed a close bond. For example, a lot of internet memes, such as the whole ‘arrow to the knee’ thing, are gaming-based, and while gaming may only be relegated to a small back page every fortnight in the paper, online it has entire sites and communities dedicated to it in a way even films can’t match on the web. Unfortunately, this internet link, and especially the tie-ins the web also has to the same middle-class young men group who make up the core gaming stereotype means that a lot of the ‘bad boy’ parts of the internet that disgust big corporations and governments seem to have an inherent link to gaming- and thus gaming gets tarred with the same ‘we don’t like you’ brush. Not only that, it also gets landed with all the active dislikes people have of those sectors of the web- its juvenile and rather crude sense of humour, the potential for hacking dangers, and the generalised sexism and borderline-offensive ‘banter’. It is this, in part, which turns mere indifference to the gaming population into genuine dislike and mistrust of the medium.

 

3) Content & Style

The very nature of gaming and gameplay itself demands an action-driven plot & content style- even in the more cinematic or narrative games, what keeps the plot ticking over is you as the player actively doin’ stuff. If we make a quick comparison to films for a minute, this does happen in the film industry- action flicks for example often go for plots almost entirely driven by the protagonist’s actions over the course of the film. However, this is not the only way for a film to go- different genres, be they romances, ‘arthouse’ films, even horror movies, can push the film forward via other means, such as dialogue or even acting expression. This variety is one of the reason films are so accessible- there is something for every taste. However, the action-driven nature of games inherently limits the variety of experience delivery they can offer, which isolates large sects of the non-game playing public from giving them a chance. Basically, to a non-gamer, all games would, if they were films, have Jason Statham in the lead. Now, people not naturally inclined towards that sort of thing don’t find it so much of a problem with films because there is still space for the sort of delivery they prefer- but the image of gaming as ALL being like this makes it all seem a bit juvenile and not worth all the bother. This is a problem unfortunately compounded by the fact that the popularity of games like Call of Duty, where action is so central it seems to hide all else. This makes it seem like all modern games are about KILLING EVERYBODY- not the image that best portrays the emotion and general awesomeness that really good games can inspire. Thus, once again, an image of a medium that’s ‘just not for me’, is turned into one that is juvenile, grotesque, occasionally obscene and thus not worth the same merits as other forms of media.

This list is far from exhaustive but to me it covers the main points as I see it that make gaming a seemingly exclusive and disliked medium. What can be done about it? Well, a little just being more grown up about stuff and sharing quality gaming experiences with the rest of the world wouldn’t go amiss, as would not taking the piss constantly out of the Nintendo Wii- while it may not be a serious gaming platform, it has done more for gaming’s image than the PlayStation 50 ever could. As for any less ‘woolly’ ways out… well, do you want me to make this a four parter, cos I don’t?

Gaming continued…

Okay, gaming again (I have got to get a LOT better at writing only one post per topic). Last time I did my own analysis of the ‘games make people violent’ accusation so often levelled at them. My plan was to devote this post to expounding upon a number of other issues that people tend to take with gaming, but part way through writing it I realised that the only ones typically levelled at gaming by non-gamers could all be basically grouped under one heading, so you instead are getting another in-depth analysis of a single complaint about gaming

So, without further ado…

2) ‘Games are a waste of time/are antisocial/make you fat’
The one my parents always used to take serious issue with, and if I’m honest it’s a perfectly valid concern. Games tie you to a computer or TV screen for hours upon end, seemingly endlessly shooting bad guys, running through cities or conquering vast swathes of human civilisation. Not only that, but this time there is PLENTY of evidence showing how this can get out of hand- game addiction can get to be a serious problem for some people, to the extent that it starts to have a seriously debilitating effect on the rest of their life (For a good example, check out this: http://extra-credits.net/episodes/game-addiction-part-1/ and then move onto part two. I would also recommend checking out some more of Extra Credits if you get a chance- they do some really great video lectures on the subject of gaming, which can be kind of nerdy but really good to watch). I’ve never been sufficiently in to games to get properly addicted to them, and even the most game-obsessed of my friends only fit into the ‘hardcore-but-still-casual-gamers’ bracket (for most of them, gaming is just the main thing they do outside of the day-to-day, and as such the hours tend to rack up a bit. This might also explain why so many of them are single). However, everyone knows the stories of the addicts, the people who’ll complete the latest Call of Duty within a few hours of release, the people who spend 10 hours a day on World of Warcraft and refer to everyone as a noob, the people who somehow allow Starcraft II to be the national sport of South Korea and whose actions per minute rate make a concert pianist look lazy and sluggish. Then there is the stereotypical image that gets lambasted and piss-taken by the internet generally, and that has entered web culture as the very picture of the stereotypical hardcore nerd gamer- the obese mid-twenties guy, living in his parents’ basement fuelled by energy drinks and fast food and dedicating his life to Star Wars, being angry on the internet, and gaming. Lots of gaming. This image may be largely fanciful, but its very existence shows that there is a world of game addicts to point and laugh at, and the fact that they are there points to the existence of game addiction as a large-scale problem.

Clearly, addiction to games, just as with nicotine, alcohol or adrenaline, can be a very dangerous thing, and I am not even going to begin to defend the indefensible by denying that fact. But what about the rest of us? What about the casual gamers, the people who like a few hours of Skyrim of a weekend or whatever? What about the few hours we like to kill- does that qualify as ‘wasting time’?

It is quite easy to say yes to that idea- I mean, lets face it, games are not something you do to demonstrate your superlative contribution to the human race. Think of people like Ranulph Fiennes, Ellen MacArthur, Nelson Mandela or any other inspiring figure who springs to mind as an example of the pinnacle of human achievement in their field. Now, ask yourself- can you picture any of them spending 3 hours on a sofa playing Battlefield? Chances are the answer’s no.

However, there is one thing in this argument that I take issue with, and which leads me to reject the whole ‘waste of time’ idea- the very concept of a ‘waste of time’. Yes, whilst gaming you are not in any way being productive- but neither are you doing so if you are watching TV, playing in the garden, going to a film, chatting with friends, reading a book- I could go on. Even the most amazing people on earth need their down time occasionally, when they can stop being special and just be themselves- just be happy in the state of absorbed flow a good film, book or game, both digital and real-life, can inspire. People play games as a release, a way to relax and enjoy themselves. Different emotions may make you want to play different games (you would not, for instance, play a dark survival horror game to chill after a long day), but the point stands- one plays games to take your mind off the day-to-day, to compel oneself, and to enjoy oneself. Your brain needs that down time, that time left to its own devices, where the pressures of work and school aren’t constantly chipping away at it. Productive? Of course not. Waste of time? Not a chance