Author: Edward Haynes (@teddyhaynes)
Edward Haynes is a writer, critic, and editor living in Liverpool. As well as editing this site, they write about comics, local culture, and art. Their twitter is @teddyhaynes
In the popular video game Minecraft, there are ghosts, and zombies, and living skeletons. You can step in and out of hell through a purple portal. It’s a procedurally generated haunted world, unique for each player’s world. There are a lot of ways to play Minecraft, but the monsters are rarely the point. They exist as background detail, you can farm them for resources, you can fight them in survival. But the monsters stand out in a game which is mostly calm and benign, nonviolent and constructive.
I have played a lot of Minecraft in my life, a server my friends and I made dominated a lot of my teens. Called Ville, it was a creative world where we made a whole society, multiple cities and villages, road and rail networks, housing and businesses. It was a fairly ordinary feeling place, mimicking reality, growing gradually and organically over years. This map, last updated almost three years ago, gives a sense of how it ended up. My laptop fan broke, we were increasingly distant as friends after finishing high school. I stopped thinking about Minecraft.
Last week, two of the friends I used to play with set the server back up. My laptop’s fan is still broken, I can’t play. But it did send me down a spiral of nostalgia. Making that world on Minecraft between the ages of 14 and 20 (I’m guessing, I’m very unsure of when it started), was an important act of love and creativity. Ville was a key outlet for a young me who was often a little scared to express themself, here I could make anything, and I would fit into it all.
Making a Minecraft world collaboratively is a particular kind of making. A kind of infinite collaboration but also isolation, as we sat in our separate houses alone. Sometimes there wouldn’t be anyone else online and the world was a ghost town, new things built by friends would appear in places that were empty last time you logged on. I quite liked this sensation, that time didn’t stop when I was away from keyboard, our world was a living thing, it would shift and grow and shrink with or without my influence.
The basis of Minecraft building has the sense of something physical.. It wants to feel limitless but it’s limited to the blocks programmed into it -- to mostly 1x1 blocks. It’s a game that feels more than the sum of its parts, because its parts appear so basic, it gets to be whatever you want. But those limits still matter, they force you to be creative in making it into the thing you want.
I started playing Minecraft again last week, on the Switch, with my partner. They haven’t played Minecraft before, and it’s really interesting to see somebody figuring out how it works. How different blocks interact, aesthetically and practically, learning how to tame animals, and plant flowers. We made a nice cottage with a farm and a mine on a survival world. They got very excited to show me the house they’d built by a lake in the jungle while I was not there, and asked me to build a bridge across said lake.
Like in my teens, returning to Minecraft feels like being on the precipice of something infinite. Now I’m a guide, having a near-instinctual knowledge of the game, but Minecraft isn’t a prescriptive game, guidance has a limit. Playing Minecraft with people is a kind of communal mythmaking, you take what you’re given by the world generated in front of you and manipulate it into something understandable. Building is storytelling -- putting your first house in the wilderness of the biome says that people live here, that people do things here. We build our virtual homes up, directed by resourcefulness and expressive impulses, in order to gain control of our surroundings, to justify them in human terms.
You figure out your own unique space together, the isolated community that you play with (i.e. my school friends, my partner) tells stories through what you make. Particularly in survival, you don’t know what’s over the next hill, the things we create together keep us safe at night from the monsters. It’s an exercise of solidarity and learning as we make a space for ourselves in a world that we can’t see all of.
And right now, where I’m in tier 3 lockdown, and it’s not a good idea to go out, Minecraft offers a whole world. You can climb over the hill, and there might be risks, but they are surmountable, controllable. It’s a comforting game, sending me back to a childhood where this was my biggest worry, letting me escape the monotony of the two streets between my locked-down house and the shop. It’s not just escapism though, it’s freedom. It's home.
In this, the monsters make sense. The unexplored world is full of zombies and creepers and death. It isn’t safe for everyone, but we can build something beautiful in it, tell each other stories to make the wild space make sense. The aim of Minecraft is to make a scary world livable, to survive the threats and build something beautiful. And doing that together forges a community, helping each other, collaborating to the only end of understanding what is around you and making something out of it. It doesn’t stop the monsters coming but it does give some protection.