In the past, I’ve speculated on the long term impact of the Minecraft craze. I suspect that the game’s narrative shift—away from a typical hero storyline, toward an emphasis on creativity and collectivity (when played on servers)—will significantly impact the way Generation Blockhead kids will navigate their adult lives. Look at the ubiquity of the craze. Then consider that, in spawned virtual worlds, young people are constantly empowered to create not only their own structures, but also their own modifications, rules and outcomes. It sounds like the perfect premise for a science fiction novel—like Ready Player One without the mono-mythic plot arc.
Ready Player One, for those unfamiliar, is a futuristic novel by Ernest Cline that’s currently being developed into a Steven Spielberg movie. The book is about a virtual reality adventure full of classic video game references. During an interview with Mother Jones, Cline said, “Steven Spielberg making a Ready Player One movie is going to change the course of human history as pertains to how quickly virtual reality is adopted.” The author was speaking earlier this summer to promote the release of his new novel Armada. He continued, “[Spielberg] is going to show the whole world the potential of VR, which is one of the reasons I think he’s doing it.”
Cline may be right. But before we decide which single moment to memorialize as the tipping point that leads us into the inevitable future era of VR, let’s remember that while Oculus has been iterating hardware and filmmakers have been building fantasies, the kids have already been practicing in a pixelated world full of creepers and obsidian. They took Markus “Notch” Persson’s system and remade it in their own image. Watching Generation Blockhead play Minecraft should, therefore, make you optimistic about the future. That is, until you realize that on a fundamental level, Minecraft’s conception of the life-world is problematic.
You’re probably wondering if I really meant to write “life-world.” What does the game-world have to do with the life-world? Aren’t games just computer-generated and programmer-authored escapes from reality? No. It is time we accept that video games are one of the primary narrative instruments for the 21st Century. Like fairy tales, mythology, and scripture, they are not simply entertainment. They are complex interactive symbol systems that teach young people how to make sense of their lived experience. It is through narrative tools like these that individuals develop a sense of identity, community, and agency. The game-world of today shapes the adult-world of tomorrow. All games teach players an implicit vision of the life-world.
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The issue with Minecraft is that, on the one hand, it offers an impressive virtual maker-space, an exercise in project-based learning that’s only barely limited by the everyday real-world restrictions of time and space. But on the other hand, it approaches its unique virtual landscape through the tired intellectual paradigms of the industrial era: the game-world is to be mined and exploited, each block is only an instrument to accomplish the individual player’s desired outcome.
Minecraft will almost certainly inspire a generation of empowered innovators with key problem solving skills, but its system lacks key components that would demonstrate real material consequences and, therefore, it doesn’t encourage the kind of ethical decision making that will be required of future pioneers.