One week ago, my 10-year-old niece turned me into a Minecraft addict.
I’ve known about Minecraft for years, of course. Who hasn’t? The creative block-building game, first developed as a side hobby by one Swedish guy and now a massively profitable division of Microsoft, is the world’s biggest videogame. I’ve dabbled with it on occasion, if only because it became something my job as a game critic wouldn’t let me ignore.
Emphasis, though, on dabbled: I’d bring it up on a laptop and poke around its cubist worlds, my little block-arm waggling its endless Arsenio fist-pump, blocks of wood and cobblestone and dirt slowly filling my TARDIS-like pockets. I’d usually run around until I died from starvation. One time, I dug a hole straight down until, poof, magma! And then I’d quit.
I’d quit because I wasn’t sure what to do next, or what the allure of vaguely accurate geological strata was, or why the game was as allergic to explaining itself as David Lynch. I relegated Minecraft to a mental bin labeled “experimental amorphous time suck.”
I followed it half-interestedly, dutifully chronicling its burgeoning celebrity. I curated lists of players’ architectonic feats when editors requested them. I covered the game’s milestones the way armchair astronomers might describe some celestial phenomenon, distantly awestruck by the spectacle.
And then my niece intervened. I’d noticed her playing the game on an iPad a few months ago. She’d built a kind of amusement park slash farm with her cousin in the game’s monsters-free creative mode. It was an a-ha moment, seeing all of her ideas corralled and reified, thinking about all the time and thought that must have gone into assembling them. She’d crawl into a chair or lie on the couch while playing, clutching the screen like a doctor scrutinizing a medical chart, her thumbs skating quietly across the glass, gesturally willing worlds into existence. Mojang/Matt PeckhamI’d just bought Apple’s phablet-sized iPhone, so I was sitting in the living room as she’s playing and thinking, OK, I have a few minutes here, let’s give Minecraft: Pocket Edition a try—partly to see how the game works on a phablet, partly to see if she’ll notice. As it’s downloading, I have my first latecomer’s epiphany: it’s only 24 MB! That’s 1990s-PC-gaming small. Worlds teeming with possibility are spawning from an instruction set you could fit on a pile of floppies.I fire it up. Minecraft makes little thwick sounds as you navigate its menus. My niece’s head pops up. “Is that Minecraft?” she asks. Busted. Apparently there’s no mistaking that thwick.“Yep. I’m just getting a world started,” I reply, nonchalant, like I’m making a martini.This is the part where the critic who’s supposed to think smart things about videogames foolishly pretends to know what he’s doing. My niece is smarter than this, of course, which means she has my number instantly. But she’s also kind. And patient.She watches me fumble around in survival mode after the game’s sun sets. I’m schlepping armfuls of resources but shelterless, like bait on the hook of a fishing rod held by no one. Something behind me sounds angry, then two or three things sound angry, and then, thwack, I’m knocked backward, then backward again.Goodbye, saplings. Goodbye, cordwood. Goodbye, apples, sugar cane, black wool, and piles of raw pork. Hello, groaning, hissing, face-punching darkness.Surviving“You need to build a shelter,” my niece says after I croak. “To hide from the monsters.”So I do, after forging a new world to skip back to precious daylight, strangely compelled as she talks me through excavating the chocolate and tan speckled sides of a hill at the edge of a pond. A duck-billed chicken squawks as it flaps in the water behind me. A pig clambers down the hill’s orthogonal slope and stops to watch. The dirt cubes disappear one by one, making sounds like gravel underfoot. I carve out just enough space to squeeze in a crafting table I made from raw wood, a furnace I made from stone, a torch I made by converting wood to charcoal and sticks, and myself. Another click and I’ve made a crude wood door to seal myself in, and crucially, the scary things out. It’s like a Lego hobbit hole, only in Mirkwood. Mojang/Matt PeckhamThis is where Minecraft‘s hooks begin sliding into my gray matter. I’m in here, the monsters are out there. I have light and fire and all this other stuff I can use to build better stuff, they have an overriding desire to chew my block-face off, but nothing like the trove of resources feeding a boundless catalogue of stone to computer age inventions, all of it lying in the world’s conceptual cracks and literal crevices, iceberg-like, if I’m diligent enough.I know virtually nothing about the latter at this point, of course, but the part of me that shivered visualizing text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure‘s phantasmagoric descriptions of its subterranean rooms over three decades ago is suddenly awake and listening, the game spooling up old neural pathways. It’s atavistic, lighting candles against the dark. This is my jumping off point, my liminal moment.“Did you know you can build golems?” my niece asks as I’m puzzling out how to turn planks of oak into a pickaxe.No, I did not know you could build golems, sentries made from blocks of snow or iron and pumpkins. They protect villagers from monsters. The snow ones even throw snowballs. “And roller coasters,” she adds. Now she’s teasing me, to say nothing of the way the game lets you sculpt tree house hideaways, or underwater sea castles, or floating sky islands, on up to fortresses run by fully functional algorithmic logic units. Yes, players have built working computers inside Minecraft. Cue matryoshka metaphor.“But you have to get a bunch of stuff before you can do that,” she says. She’s talking about iron bars, which you craft from iron ore, which you get from hunting for caves and then going spelunking way down in the deep places of the world.If nighttime’s rough on recalcitrant Minecraft neophytes, heading underground is a nightmare, as claustrophobic and measureless and basically heart-stopping as Neil Marshall’s The Descent. I’ve been spooked more over the past week exploring a mammoth underground network near my spawn point than in any survival horror game I’ve played to date.“Hey, I see your world!” she yells. “I can come find you!”A phone, a tablet, all quietly dialoguing behind the scenes, worlds and characters and imaginations joining hands on millions of portable screens. She’s swiping at her tablet, frantic, thrilled, and though I’ve long understood Minecraft to also sometimes be a multiplayer experience, the ramifications are sinking in.But Minecraft‘s worlds are massive, and in the PC or mobile versions, they’re theoretically infinite. Infinity’s a problem, because there’s no quick, vanilla Minecraft way to find someone else in survival mode. After a few minutes we give up on trying to find each other, and she slides back into her world, telling me more about what you can do, what she’s done, and of course what to avoid. Like spider jockeys, which is developer Mojang’s jokey way of referring to spider-riding skeletons. I’m scared just typing that.Look On My WorksAt some point over the course of this one evening, my brain’s telling me this is going to be A Thing now, however late I am to the party. The time suck cometh. I am going to keep playing Minecraft until I’ve seen it all. Which may be never, given Mojang’s penchant for periodically upending the game’s inner logic: Minecraft is less a sandbox than the idea of a sandbox, a proto-retro creation tool that’s still being dreamt into existence.After midnight, instead of crawling into bed with my wife, I slip into an unoccupied bedroom nearby, just so I can keep playing until my eyes won’t let me—adding rooms to my hobbit hole, then beds and pictures to the rooms, thinking about gardening and animal husbandry, thinking about visiting the tree-sized mushrooms over yonder or delving into the eerily lit cavern I noticed a few hills over.I don’t want to stop playing, and so I’m up most of the night. As I’ll be the next night. And the one after that. I haven’t felt this way about a game in I can’t remember how long.When the weekend’s over and I’m back home, I download the console version and start again. Starting again is central to understanding the game, like the concept of shoshin, beginner’s mind, in Zen Buddhism. Every structure, every garden, every contraption is like a Platonic shadow of the one you intended. Minecraft is basically an idea chase, each thing you build or refine essentially rehearsal for the next grander or cleverly simpler one.As I’ll come to understand in the days ahead—erecting a cliffside citadel with daylight sensors and automated lighting, staking torches in vertiginous caverns like breadcrumb trails, bootstrapping my bulwark in the hellish Nether dimension, jamming to composer C418’s hypnotic grooves from a moonlit beacon above the clouds—the games I’ve played up to this point feel like training wheels for Minecraft.North of a hundred hours, you can accomplish a lot in Minecraft. The valley I call home, once a barren, craggy tundra-scape, now sports verdant plateaus with hundreds of hand-planted trees and flowers. My citadel sits high above, braced by pylons tall as skyscrapers. In a basement plunged dozens of meters below the surface sits an obsidian portal that makes unsettling sounds (it’s been known to upchuck zombies). Chests full to brimming line the perimeters of multilevel rooms. Rooftop gardens adjoin trees whose trunks erupt in myriad directions, crowding a garden with rows of wheat, melons and pumpkins. There’s even a skeletal roller coaster going up.This weekend my niece is coming to visit. She has no idea what I’ve been up to.Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.