How do you build a world?
It's a question that human beings of all kinds have struggled with for centuries. Theology and religion study the gods for answers. Mathematicians and physicists consult formulas or the cosmos. Artists and writers have offered examples via literature and various forms of fine art. And in the last few decades, video game designers have followed in the footsteps of their creative predecessors by bringing their examples to life, allowing gamers to engage with and inhabit these worlds on television screens, computers, and mobile devices.
And as the years have gone by and technology has advanced, the possibilities of these ambitions have only expanded, allowing for greater depth, realism, and connection with the user.
Every RPG you play—whether it's the Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy—serves to illustrate this point. Game development and design typically stem from some sort of fiction or fantasy that blows up into a moving, interactive universe. And as the years have gone by and technology has advanced, the possibilities of these ambitions have only expanded, allowing for greater depth, realism, and connection with the user.
However, this idea of world-building came to a head a couple years ago when Minecraft—the wildly popular sandbox title developed by Markus "Notch" Persson—started to take off for wider audiences. It was a boom moment in DIY and indie gaming, spawning countless fan-made videos, birthing more than a few imitators, and earning Persson a nod as the second-most influential individual in the 2013 Time 100 Poll. By grabbing hold of a mainstream fan base, Minecraft succeeded where similar games like Dwarf Fortress had failed (ignoring the fact that Dwarf Fortress is now displayed in the MoMA), and set the template for future building games like Terraria. However, as we come upon Minecraft's five-year anniversary, we have to ask why it was hailed and praised and emulated in the feverish manner that accompanied its blow-up over the past few years.
The answer is found in a variety of reasons, depending on who you ask. But popular opinions tend to highlight a few areas in particular: Minecraft emphasizes self-taught gaming, the chance to create instead of consume, and it offers the same type of constructive possibilities that we all loved when we played with LEGOs as children. Essentially, it's the next step in helping kids do what kids do best: use their imagination.
But the ubiquitous nature of the game has perhaps also caused an unrealistic or unwarranted stir surrounding the game's impact on the video game landscape. Because of Minecraft's building block style and its unfathomable scope, it becomes an easy launch pad when discussing the massive, overwhelming world maps we've seen in recent games like Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim. It was Minecraft that created an appetite within gamers for looser boundaries and more creative control, right? Minecraft made us want to explore more, right?
These notions are "eh," at best. Catching a wave and starting one are two completely different actions, and Minecraft was by no means the originator or necessarily the central instigator of wilder, more unrestrained gaming formats. The push to create bigger, more intricate universes in gaming can nearly be viewed as an inherent part of the medium. After all, why wouldn't a game designer want to test the limits on how vast and magnificent they could make their unique, individual world? Who isn't tempted to play God in the act of creating? Just because a game like Skyrim came along after Minecraft (and also happens to give a nod to Minecraft) doesn't mean a cause-and-effect relationship exists between the two.
However, there are compelling narratives to suggest that Minecraft will play a considerable role in how the next generation thinks about gaming and its applications beyond mere recreation. MinecraftEdu—a team of collaborators from both the United States and Finland—has been working with Mojang AB to bring the sandbox experience into the classroom. For instance, as the Chicago Tribune reports, middle school students have used Minecraft to build replicas of Germany when it was divided into two sides during the Cold War. By doing so, it provides teachers and students a rare opportunity to visualize the history or concept they're discussing in a way that doesn't feel dry or outdated. Better yet, it forces the student to engage with the subject matter, and to either provide their own interpretation of the event they're materializing, or to give it the most accurate depiction possible.
So, when we're trying to determine how Minecraft changed the world or gaming or some other variable, we're likely better off thinking about how the game exists outside of the video game sphere. And that's a noteworthy feat. While other games are more focused about having you look inside of them, and to inhabit their world, Minecraft instead wants to show us how the outside world can influence gaming and vice-versa. Even better, this notion isn't presented in a high-minded or postmodern fashion like something you'd see from Johnathan Blow.
Instead, Minecraft puts the tools in our hands to ask questions, while never offering any declarations or answers. Even if your modus operandi starts and ends with making glorified pixel art of your favorite anime, just knowing that you have the capability to create within a game is almost as important as actually doing it. Five years later for Minecraft, we know this much to be true. However, if we're looking for distinct impacts or paradigm shifts in video games, we may have to wait until those middle schoolers using Minecraft in the classroom grow up and make their own titles. And those are rewards that won't be revealed until later, rather than sooner.