With 33 million players, Markus Persson’s sandbox game Minecraft is one of the most influential ever sold – and it’s shaping how our children think
The game begins as it normally does. I am in a forest, there is blue sky above me and there are trees – oak, spruce and birch – leading off in every direction. I start to run, weaving between the trunks before scrambling my way up a steep hill. From here, I survey the world. There are lakes, rivers, beaches and grassy plains that are home to grazing animals; deep valleys and high, rocky peaks that rise above the clouds. And everything – literally, everything – is constructed from large blocks of a uniform shape and size. It’s as if somebody gave God an infinite Lego set. I am, not for the first time, playing Minecraft.
Nor am I playing alone. I’m at Herbie’s house. Herbie is 9 years old. His friends Will and Rafe, both 10, are here, too, plugged into their laptops, ready to go. Between us, we account for just 4 of the 33 million copies of Minecraft sold since the game was released in 2009. It is not the product of Sony or Nintendo or Microsoft. Instead, it was invented by a slightly chubby Swedish computer programmer who came up with the idea in his spare time. Even in an age when computer games outsell all other cultural commodities, 33 million sales is phenomenal. While Minecraft is not (yet) the biggest-selling game in history, it is already one of the most influential. It is used as a teaching tool in thousands of schools (more than 100 in Britain) and is praised by psychologists for encouraging creativity and social skills while, at the same time, attracting a kind of devotional loyalty from its core demographic of tweenage boys. Herbie and his friends play Minecraft a lot. Like, loads.
“Sometimes you think, ‘OK, I’ll just play for a few minutes,’ ” says Rafe. “But then a few minutes turn into an hour, and an hour turns into a few hours, and then after five hours you’re like… ‘I’ve been playing for that long?’ Bleurgh!”
One thing it helps to understand when looking at Minecraft is that it is only a game in a very loose sense. There are no stated missions or levels or quests for players to complete. No princess to rescue, no nemesis to vanquish, no relic to retrieve. It’s not something you can really “win”. Instead, you’re dumped in a randomly generated three-dimensional world and you then decide what you would like to do and how you would like to do it. Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox” game: a virtual space to play around in and make your own fun.
So, where to start? I find a tree and start to punch it – thwack thwack thwack – because if I punch it enough, it will eventually crumble and I’ll receive a block of wood. I need the wood to make things such as pickaxes, doors, ladders and torches. I dig into the earth, discovering resources: stone, coal and iron. I spot a passing pig and start to punch that, too – thwack thwack thwack – until it keels over dead. Two pork chops are added to my inventory.
Eventually, I notice the pixelated sun is beginning to set, and I feel a twinge of panic. I need to construct a shelter, because soon it will be night-time. With the night comes monsters, and the monsters – being monsters – want to kill me. I construct a small stone shack with the materials I’ve gathered and slam the door shut. I feel some exhilaration (I avoided the monsters) and a small sense of achievement (I built a stone shack) but, more than anything, I feel immersed. This strange, cubist world is now my home, and I have a powerful urge to impose order upon it. I want to build something bigger and better than my little shack; I want to build something that will really impress people.
It’s easy to understand why Minecraft is so appealing. Its players – 65 per cent of whom are under the age of 21, according to an online survey – display the kind of pervasive, ongoing fandom that one psychologist I speak to compares to the experience of supporting a football team. And it is, predominantly, a boy thing. A poll on a Minecraft forum revealed that 87 per cent of the members who responded were male. Minecraft does for many tweenage boys what One Direction do for many tweenage girls: they wear Minecraft T-shirts, drink from Minecraft mugs, have Minecraft posters on their bedroom walls.
Visit YouTube and you could spend the rest of your life looking at videos posted by players offering guided tours of the intricate castles, cities and civilisations they and their friends have constructed, block by painstaking block. If there is a perception of Minecraft as an impenetrable youth cult, it is not entirely without reason. Minecraft, although popular, can be a complex, often counterintuitive game, hard to comprehend from the outside. This idea was recently satirised in an episode of the American animated comedy South Park. Parents, desperate to understand the game their sons all play, bribe a young boy to give them lessons. “Now you’re free to roam around and start punching trees,” the boy says after installing them all at computers. “Punching trees?” asks one father, nervously. “Why would we start punching trees?”
It’s a good question. How did 33 million people come to spend so much time punching trees? To better understand, we need to go back a few years, to Sweden. In May 2009, a 29-year-old computer programmer called Markus Persson made public a game he had been working on. Persson – a Mensa member and a bearded, bearish figure – had developed a simple 3-D game in which a player could break and arrange blocks to create shapes and structures. He called it Minecraft, and charged people €10 to download it. “The first released version was like a week of work,” he admitted later.
He showed it to a colleague, Carl Manneh, who was initially nonplussed. “It looked like a game you might have played 10 or 15 years ago,” Manneh recalls. “The graphics were very rudimentary. In the beginning, placing blocks was all there was. I didn’t see the mass appeal that would come,” he says, chuckling. “I would be lying if I said I could have predicted that.”
Today, Manneh is CEO of Mojang, the company he co-founded with Persson and their colleague Jakob Porsér when it became clear that gamers were responding to Minecraft. Word spread online. Persson was updating and refining it, adding things such as monsters, better graphics and, vitally, the ability to play online with your friends. It was starting to make real money. So they moved into offices in Stockholm and took on staff. “The vision statement that we all agreed on from the beginning was that Mojang should be the most influential independent games studio on Earth,” says Manneh. “It was a modest vision.”
It didn’t take long for investment offers to roll in. “Every venture capitalist in the world contacted me, basically.” At one point, Sean Parker – the entrepreneur behind music site Napster and an early Facebook investor – flew the Swedes to a party in London on a private jet in an attempt to court them. They all got drunk, but no deal was struck. Manneh says he spent a lot of time politely explaining to people that they didn’t want any investment.
“We’re actually making tons of cash,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “We don’t need the money, because the money is already there.” He’s not bluffing. Mojang’s revenues for 2012 came in at around £150 million. Today, you can download Minecraft to your Mac or PC for €19.95. Versions for iPhones, iPads, Xboxes and PlayStations have recently been launched, and deals done with Lego for merchandise.
With no ties to a major corporation, Mojang’s founders are free to remain what they are – which, for the most part, is endearingly odd. Perhaps their boldest decision has been to make public the code they used to create the graphics – intellectual property potentially worth millions – so players can create their own modified versions of the game. There are thousands of these “mods”. One makes it seem as if you are in The Lord of the Rings; another has used Ordnance Survey data to create a scale replica of the United Kingdom using 22 billion blocks. This is not the kind of thing you can do in Grand Theft Auto.
And unlike the light, airy offices of Silicon Valley tech companies, Mojang’s Stockholm HQ is decked out like an English gentlemen’s club: Chesterfield couches, mahogany tables, deep carpets. “The past three years have been surreal,” Manneh admits. “A rollercoaster.” Persson, who rarely gives interviews, has avoided presenting himself as some kind of tech guru or visionary. “I got stinking rich and started to get to meet famous people, and every now and then I get recognised in public, which is freaking awesome,” he said last year during an e-mail Q&A with the news website Reddit. Minecraft, he insisted, was a “fluke”.
Actually, I don’t think this is entirely true. It’s not dumb luck that has resulted in Minecraft becoming an obsession for so many. The people at Mojang, for all their indie sensibilities, know what they are doing. Dr Andrew Przybylski is based at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, and much of his work is based on understanding what it is that draws us into computer games. He has spent a lot of time observing how children play Minecraft, and believes that one of the reasons it has proved so popular is that the very nature of the game itself demands social interactions. When you buy Minecraft, there are no instructions. There is no “help” section or tutorial. You start in a vast wilderness and have to figure out how to do everything, from planting seeds for food and shearing sheep for wool, to constructing a kiln for smelting the iron you need to make an axe, so that you don’t have to waste time punching trees. It’s complex.
“It’s not a game that holds your hand,” says Przybylski. “But the fact that it is complicated means that you want to find out how you do things. You have to have a certain amount of interaction with other players, both within the game and outside.” How do I make a bucket? Where can I find coal? Przybylski believes these conversations make the game more compelling. He also thinks they can serve a useful function, especially with boys.
“From a psychological perspective, it’s important that the player asks how to make, say, a kiln. Not because that has anything to do with making a kiln in real life, but because it teaches you how to start conversations with your peers. And if you don’t know how to do something, it can teach you how to admit that you don’t know it,” he says. “In a way, it’s real soft-skill development.” This social aspect to Minecraft is boosted hugely by the fact that the game allows you to create your own worlds and invite your friends to play in them via the internet. Przybylski smiles. “It’s almost like when adults host dinner parties.”
Which is exactly what’s happening at Herbie’s house. Until now, I’ve only played the game in “survival” mode, with things such as roaming monsters and starvation to contend with. After a while, the boys switch to “creative” mode. This means there are no monsters and that we have access to a limitless supply of building materials. It also means we can fly. To them, I am a “noob” (a contraction of “newbie”) – generic gamer talk for someone who has only just started playing the game and doesn’t really know what he’s doing. “I hate noobs,” one of them mutters. I now find myself suspended above an endless ocean as the boys construct a wooden galleon they’re calling HMS Pig.
Rafe explains that every randomly generated Minecraft world is about six times the size of Earth. None of them seems to find this as mind-bending as I do. They are more bothered about the look of HMS Pig. There are some initial tussles about the placement of portholes and whether a crow’s nest has windows or not, but they reach a consensus and beaver away.
They often play online like this, with just each other, on private servers, sometimes using Skype to chat if they can’t meet up. They make videos of their projects, and plan to post some on YouTube. Rafe admits he particularly enjoys building airports. “It’s actually quite fun to do all the little details on the airplanes. You look at it all when you’re done and just think, ‘Yeah,’ ” he says gently, frowning with satisfaction.
Sometimes the boys log on to public worlds where hundreds of people play simultaneously, and communicate via typed messages. “Most of the other people who play online are from America,” says Rafe. “Or Norway. Or Tokyo,” adds Herbie. “Sometimes Russian people, too.”
Some of the Minecraft worlds you can choose to visit online advertise themselves as places to collaborate on vast construction jobs. Will says he’s worked on building projects with upwards of 500 players; other boys I’ve spoken to have done likewise. Some worlds offer an arena for the game’s clunky, cartoony combat mechanism – there is, for example, a popular server based on The Hunger Games. Herbie explains how once, on a fighting world, another player swore at him. “But we just don’t listen to them,” he says. “We report them to an administrator and they get banned.”
A parent may not particularly like the idea of a stranger on the internet using swearwords while interacting with their ten-year-old. But then, a parent might also feel heartened that their child knows how to respond correctly. Knowing how to make contact with server administrators is not something I would have backed myself to do at that age. I’m not sure I’d know how to do it now. I ask what they think their mums and dads make of the game.
“They think it’s a waste of time,” says Rafe.
“They would rather we were doing homework and stuff outside,” says Herbie.
Do any of the boys think they sometimes spend too much time playing Minecraft?
“We don’t play it ten hours a day,” says Will, before adding, with just a hint of resentment, “at least not any more.” They all snigger.
Andrew Przybylski has done a lot of research into what parents think about their children playing games such as Minecraft. He concedes that, from the outside, it can be “scary” for a parent to see their child play such an immersive game, especially if, at the same time, they are speaking with friends in jargon-heavy gamer shorthand. “But if you have the patience to try playing the game with your child, then you will gain a massive insight into their social world. It’s almost analogous to having a telepathic link with your kids.”
I ask him about the risks of kids developing a gaming obsession. He makes the point that a child wanting to play a game all day because it’s enjoyable isn’t the same thing as a child wanting to play a game all day because they are addicted to it. “When someone is obsessed with a game, they tend to feel tense. Emotionally drained. And they tend, believe it or not, not to have a very fun time playing. But compared with some other games, I really haven’t seen a massive spike in Minecraft players for obsession.” I say a lot of slightly anxious parents would consider that to be pretty big news. He shrugs. “Psychology has a bias against publishing a study that says, ‘Hey, look! Minecraft players aren’t obsessed!’ There is no journal for, ‘We couldn’t find anything.’ ”
In the end, this might not matter. What could ultimately allow Minecraft to be more fully accepted by parents is its use in the classroom. Santeri Koivisto is a former English teacher who now runs a Finnish business – MinecraftEdu.com – that supplies schools with specially modified versions of Minecraft. He estimates that 600,000 students worldwide use it in the classroom, and says he has supplied around 150 educational establishments in the UK with software. “We make it so that teachers can disable elements of the game that might distract students. Because if there are cows and chickens running around, they might start hitting them,” he says. “You don’t want that.”
He explains how teachers have got children to measure the classroom they are sitting in, and then work together to recreate it to exact scale in Minecraft. Students may be allowedto work on collaborative building projects, but only if they communicate with one another in a foreign language. Some teachers encourage children to write diaries and descriptive essays about their Minecraft experiences. As an experiment, Koivisto stripped away every “fun” aspect from the game until all that was left was a flat green field and simple white blocks. But he found that, when asked to solve some geometry puzzles using this painfully basic version, students still responded with enthusiasm. “There is something in the Minecraft environment that makes learning fun. I’ve been struggling to understand exactly why this is. But it happens every time.”
The more I play, and the more time I spend looking at what players have created – recently, a group constructed a huge working computer within the game itself – the more I believe that in years to come there will be an identifiable “Generation Minecraft”. There are already millions of children who, because of this game, have grown up knowing how to modify computer code, knowing how to do things such as set up their own online servers, how to collaborate crisply and effectively in a digital environment without really thinking about it. Some other game may sell more copies – although not many will – but I don’t think any game will ever run as deep within the people who play it, or be as formative. It might sound dramatic to say it has changed the way a lot of children see the world but, on some level, I think this is true.
After I finish playing with Will, Herbie and Rafe, we pack up our computers. The three boys get their foam replicas of Minecraft swords and start chasing each other around the house, shrieking and laughing in pretty much the same way they did when they were plugged into their laptops. “Look, we’re playing Minecraft,” one of them pants as I leave the house. “We’re playing Minecraft in real life!”