On Saturday night, I spent three hours harvesting birch planks so my friend could furnish the basement of his house in Minecraft. Then on Monday, Microsoft announced the purchase of Mojang for the otherworldly sum of $2.5 billion.
The two events probably aren’t related. But the combination has had Minecraft weighing on my mind more heavily than usual. The truth – my shocking confession – is that I don’t particularly enjoy playing Minecraft. I just find it kind of dull, especially when playing alone. I never know what I should be doing, and knowing that I could do anything usually results in doing nothing.
That’s what makes the Microsoft deal so strange for me. Minecraft is not a bad game. Far from it. I’ve played enough to know that it’s incredibly well made and I have nothing but respect for Notch and Mojang. As a critic, it’s the one game for which I’m willing to defer to popular opinion. Everyone else is probably right, and I only wish I could take as much pleasure in its mechanics as everyone else.
Since I recognize the game’s appeal, I’ve at least played enough to understand why it’s not for me. Minecraft is like Lego without the instruction manual, with the caveat that you can’t build the Spaceship until you figure out how to synthesize the plastic parts. I’ve never been good at teaching myself those kinds of lessons. I like directed experiences, where the parameters are clear and I can come up with solutions that directly address known obstacles. Too much freedom becomes paralyzing. I’ve become so used to games with regular checkpoints that I struggle to give myself purpose, which could explain the aimlessness I’ve often experienced as an adult.
Until now, the gaming industry has indulged those childlike sensibilities. Most games are some variation of linear, while multiplayer death matches always start with well-defined objectives. Even sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed are not truly open-ended. They nudge the player with suggestions about what kinds of things can be done, and then reinforce those suggestions with statistics that tell you exactly how many murders you’ve committed. When I play video games, I expect to be evaluated.
Minecraft is blissfully free of that kind of judgment. It’s a celebration of independent expression and creativity, a game that is nothing less and nothing more than what you make of it. It’s a stark contrast to the platformers that I was raised with that always told you what to do and often told you how to do it.
The older I get, the less useful that model is in relation to my own life. Minecraft seems like a far more accurate metaphor for freeform adulthood than Mario and Sonic were for me, and it actually makes me optimistic even as it threatens to make me irrelevant.
Over the weekend – when the Microsoft deal was still a rumor – I sat in a coffee shop while a boy of roughly twelve held court for his family, favorably comparing the expected $2 billion valuation to that of the Buffalo Bills, which recently sold for $1.4 billion. The crux of his argument was that the higher Mojang price tag made sense given Minecraft’s traction with his generation. There is apparently one – and only one – kid in the class who is not familiar with Minecraft, and that makes him (and me) a little weird.
I’m paraphrasing, but the kid was pretty sharp. It was also strange to stare at the encroaching shadow of my own obsolescence. The people shaping the trajectory of gaming are no longer speaking to me, which is why Microsoft made a good deal when it spent $2.5 for a pile of multicolored cubes.
Perhaps I should find that frightening, but I honestly think it’s more heartwarming than anything. I love seeing kids so enthusiastic about gaming, especially when their game of choice seems like such a boon to society. Minecraft’s potential as an educational tool is one of the best things to happen to gaming in the past decade. If that’s our chosen ambassador, then it bodes well for the future of the medium.
Meanwhile, my own generation has spent the past two months pouring bile into a sea of toxicity, reaping the poisoned fruit that grew during two decades spent on increasingly expensive power fantasies. I don’t know if the newer trend is good for gaming, but I can’t imagine that it could make things any worse. The industry will move on whether the current gatekeepers want it to or not. Minecraft offers a more productive vision of healthy self-expression, and I’m more than happy to step aside to make way for something better.