Friday, December 23, 2011


It's a little thing, really. But I can't stop thinking about it.

Lately my son and I have been totally caught up in a new computer experience called Minecraft. Minecraft is a curious concoction. At its core it is a virtual world where an avatar that represents you walks around in a landscape of voxel blocks: dirt, grass, trees, rivers, caves, blue skies. What happens in that landscape is up to you. Some people use Minecraft to play a game of wits and skill. If you use the game in any of the "difficulty" modes (Easy, Medium, Hard) monsters come out at night and try to kill you as you try to survive and build shelter. But you can also "play the game" in Peaceful or Creative modes, the first in which there are no monsters and the second in which you can't be hurt in any way. In these modes the program is not really a game at all but a huge sculptural canvas.

For the most part we have "played the game" only in Peaceful and Creative modes, because we do not want to fight the monsters. Why? First, anything you practice you get good at, so does it make sense to practice hurting? Second, pretending to fight in a war is disrespectful to the thousands of kids who actually are fighting in wars. (I have in mind a social project that brings some kids who love pretending to fight in wars to spend a few days with kids who are actually fighting in wars. I wonder how much they would like the pretending after that.) Third, are we to take the word of the Minecraft creators that these monsters don't deserve to live? How do we know they aren't defending their homeland from invasion? Just because they look like zombies and skeletons doesn't mean anything. Don't lots of very nice children look like that on certain October nights? Fourth, and lastly, fighting is boring and repetitive. I did have my days playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager, but it didn't take me long to realize that destruction is just mostly tedium. Creation is where the fun is, in the wide open spaces of the imagination, not in the dull thuds of weapon on flesh.

So we have used Minecraft for the most part as a canvas and testing bed for imaginary worlds. For this it is an excellent system, because the program not only comes equipped with various building materials, simple machines and pseudo-electronic circuits you can recombine in endless ways, but is also extendable by writing your own Java modifications ("mods"). We haven't built a mod yet but we plan to. The problem is that you have to turn off all the cool mods you have downloaded while you build your own, and we are having too much fun with them to do that yet.

We have been using Minecraft to explore mathematics, logic, programming, engineering, architecture, art, cartography, history, archaeology, and so on. My son builds mostly elaborate contraptions: combination locks, musical instruments, alarm systems, factories, vehicles, buildings, transportation and distribution systems, mazes, automated farms. Here "he" is in front of one of his automated mining and processing facilities. We also enjoy downloading and exploring some of the many amazing creations other people have shared: castles, factories, puzzles, whole cities collaboratively built.

My explorations have been more whimsical and surreal. I've built a lot of symbolic structures: labyrinths, sculptures, temples, pavilions, meeting spaces. I have also built machines, but my machines all have Sisyphsus-like tasks, like a quarry that mines and fills the mine at once.

One joint project of which I am very fond is the creation of a Minecraft version of Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel," which we have crafted in meticulous detail and on which we are writing out the short story on signs the visitor reads as they travel around the library puzzle (which we will eventually upload for other Minecraft users to enjoy). This is both a tribute to Borges and a creation in the spirit of his "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" which is about a man who writes Don Quixote, word for word the same, centuries later. For this reason our Library must not contain one additional word that is not in the short story. Very cool.

I have been enjoying Minecraft so much that I considered writing a post about it here to recommend it, along the lines of the story games post I wrote last year about games that create useful storytelling and sensemaking materials for parents and kids. But a few days ago I thought of something that gave me another reason to write about Minecraft, as a cautionary tale about the stories sometimes invisibly embedded in the tools we use.

What lies within

Deep within this otherwise excellent learning system and fun game is a frighteningly dangerous story. You probably didn't notice it when I wrote about it above. I'll repeat it: "you can also "play the game" in Peaceful or Creative modes, the first in which there are no monsters and the second in which you can't be hurt in any way."

I'll say it a third time. In peaceful mode there are no monsters. Peace is not coexistence with the monsters: it is eradication of the monsters. It is genocide.

If you are using Minecraft in a mode that allows monsters, and then you switch to Peaceful mode, the monsters disappear. It was when I was watching this happen that I suddenly saw the story hiding inside the game. We had created a "behavioral observation world" with blinds from which we observed and discussed the behavior of the various types of monsters. My son wanted to make a change to the blind, so he pulled up the options screen and changed the game mode from Easy to Peaceful. Poof, the monsters all disappeared. It was so much like the eradication of a population, along with its culture and history, that I suddenly realized this was a perfect analogue for ethnic cleansing.

Even when the peaceful mode is set on, any "spawners" that normally create monsters still create something, as my son pointed out; it's just that the things created immediately poof out of existence again. So not only does peace mean all members of an ethnic class are eradicated, any new ones that manage to be born are essentially killed at birth.

That's a zombie in our behavioral observation laboratory, with the flame-filled spawner that made him in the background. I tried to get a screenshot of the little infanticide poofs but could not catch them; they are soon forgotten.

The creators of Minecraft could have called this mode "Alone" or simply "No Monsters" mode. Why did they call it peaceful? A truly peaceful existence would not eradicate enemies; it would transform them into friends, or at least neighbors. The more I think about this the more upsetting I find it. Millions of children, mostly in wealthy countries, are learning that peace can only come about when the people who don't look like us no longer exist.

What bothers me more than finding this story underlying an apparently harmless game is how long it took me to realize this. We discovered Minecraft four or five months ago. Why did I never notice that peace meant eradication before? I probably saw those monsters poof away in front of me ten times before I realized the contradiction between peace and removal.

In their defense I'm sure the Minecraft creators didn't realize they had told this story. Maybe it was a story hidden deep inside another story, one they had been told long ago. It's a story we've all heard before. Maybe we are telling it without knowing it.

I have been thinking about creating a "truly peaceful" modification that changes the underlying story presented by the game experience. In this mode the monsters would still exist; they just wouldn't be after you. They would live out their lives next to you in peace, only responding if you attack them. (There do currently exist some "neutral" monsters that do not attack unless provoked; but in "peaceful" mode they face the firing squad along with everyone else.)

Here's an interesting wrinkle I'm thinking about adding: an "inequality" mode. In this mode the monsters exist and don't bother you; but they have nicer stuff than you have. If you can barely put food on the table, they are feasting. If you manage to build a tiny one-room hut out of dirt, they have a castle next door made of gold. The challenge, the game of wits and skill, is to live next to the entitled monsters without letting the injustice and humiliation of the situation get to you to the extent that you lash out and bring their wrath (they would have superior weapons, of course) against your impoverished people. That would be a great learning experience, and of practical use in adult life, for the majority of people on this planet. That would be a different story hidden inside, wouldn't it?

What my son and I have done about this discovery, besides talking about building new mods for Minecraft, is to discuss the implications of such an underlying assumption and how such assumptions can seep into our perceptions and decisions and actions without our knowledge. We have asked what underlying assumptions lie under other favorite stories, like Wall-E (why did the humans feel no compassion for the earth?), Cars (why did the creators of Cars perfect representations of cars as emotion-filled personifications of people, only to claim that torture scenes in Cars 2 were all right for children to watch because "they are just cars"?), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (why didn't Santa Claus protect Rudolph from abuse until after he proved useful?) and many other of the stories we are told today.

Stories will always be as dangerous as they are powerful and empowering. The biggest challenge never lies in the creation of stories, but in the uncritical, ignorant reception of them by audiences trained to suspend disbelief.


Unknown said...

that's me so i'm not a total rando posting here. anyways....

your post is quite good in terms of quality, insight, and reflection. i honestly don't know if i would have come across the same perspectives without reading this first. to think that something as simple as difficulty modes would imply something as serious as genocide. that is kind of mind blowing.

i also like your views on coexisting with monsters. either they just don't aggro you on sight or more interestingly, they have better things than you and it's up to the player to transcend or submit to their baser natures.

however, i have some qualms. if a difficulty mode changes a creature's base behaviour then this essentially makes the creature in question fake. a zombie that wanders around a forest aimlessly ignoring you on easy vs a zombie that pursues you on sight begets the question:

what is the real zombie?

and if both types of zombies exist, then the whole concept of the zombie inauthentic. by employing such a method the world edges closer to the nonsense of what was seen in the 'day of the dead' remake with vegetarian zombies that refuse to hurt people.

all i'm trying to say is that for your ideas to work in an authentic manner, there will always be mobs that attack you, some that never will, and some who have an aggro rate that is raised with the difficulty.

that creates situations like, "i'm playing on easy and there has been a creeper hanging around my house. should i kill him or let him be (since he's not automatically going to attack me on sight)?"

that creates more of a moral choice system than any game in memory has tried to replicate with their ridiculous moral systems.

to make all monsters exhibit a peaceful behavior via difficulty isn't genocide, it's slavery.

and my point of view is that of a soldier deployed in afghanistan. even after the revelations your blog showed me, i do not feel that engaging in virtual combat or violence disrespects me or the children i see out here.

what i do feel disrespects us both are things like 'jersey shore'. but that's a whole other story....

good read. take care.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

lihimsidhe, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I'll see if I can respond to what you said.

You say "if a difficulty mode changes a creature's base behaviour then this essentially makes the creature in question fake" - but the creature was fake to begin with, so a fake of a fake is .... a more complex fake, like a story within a story. That's good but ...

What is real about monsters? Most of the "undead" fantasy creatures we play with today have their origins in historical misunderstandings of real medical conditions, so the reality behind all of these fantasies is usually nothing more surreal than illness and death. (Though in fact illness and death are plenty surreal enough if you think about it.)

I am a monster myself. Some theorize that the story of vampires comes from the behavior of migraineurs like myself. Garlic gives me horrible headaches, so I avoid even the smell of it. So yes, holding up a pungent string of garlic WILL send me scurrying away. When I have a migraine I am extremely photosensitive, and bright sunlight can even trigger migraines, which explains the propensity of both vampires and migraineurs to prefer the dark. Because many migraines are caused by food allergies, migraineurs usually eat a reduced variety of foods, which might have led people to think they didn't eat "normal" foods. Also, anyone who spends a lot of time lying in pain in a darkened room (that's migraineurs before effective migraine medicines) will end up with pale skin.

There are similar explanatory theories related to zombies, werewolves, and every other form of "undead" monsterhood. Catatonic epilepsy and autism account for a lot of the explanations: people apparently became "possessed" with seizures and automaton-like behaviors and even sometimes seemed dead, for what we know today to be quite "normal" and explicable medical reasons. Most of us know monsters. A friend in college had epilepsy, and believe me it was never funny or fun to help her get through a seizure. A cousin's child has severe autism, and she definitely acts strangely sometimes, even monster-like if you want to be cruel about it. So I guess being a monster myself as well as a friend and relative of monsters, this gives me a different perspective on monsterhood games like Minecraft. I tend to think about what the monsters want and how they feel rather than how best to kill them. And the idea of killing the monsters BECAUSE they are monsters ... scares the hell out of me.

But what disappoints me most in games like this is the poverty of imagination. Surely we can do better than trot out the usual "us" and "them" monsters. Surely we have more to us than that.


Cynthia Kurtz said...


I can see that my point about disrespect could have been put more clearly. What I mean is that pretending to be living in fear and poverty when you are not reminds me of "poverty tourism" and "war tourism" and "playing peasant". Most of the people playing these games and pretending to be weak with hunger have never actually been so, and if they had been maybe it wouldn't be so much fun to play at it. The reality of pain and fear is not funny or fun. I have never been in a war, but I have relatives who have been, and they definitely would not find it fun or funny to pretend to relive the horrors they went through. It would be an insult to even suggest such a thing. I used to think zombie humor was funny until I had given a few of my loved ones that final hug after they were gone. After you have been through that experience, the idea of dead bodies getting up and walking around stops being funny and just becomes unbearably sad. Nobody who has ACTUALLY experienced what these games pretend can see these things as fun.

So what? Well, if we care about other people ... how can it be fun or funny to pretend to starve or live in fear while knowing full well that while we are doing this, somewhere in the world some human being JUST LIKE US actually IS weak with hunger or crouching in fear of attack right now? How can that be fun? How can it be funny? How can we ignore, or even laugh at, their very real pain and fear? Does practicing such willful ignorance - practicing pretending it's all made up - make us more callous to real suffering?

I remember reading a story once about a woman whose children were starving. This was a real woman in a real place, as real as me or you. She said she would lull her children to sleep by boiling water for hours, telling them over and over as they cried that the soup would be ready soon, knowing they would fall asleep before they realized there was no soup. I cannot imagine being in such a situation, but it is all I can think of when I see the "hunger bar" going down in Minecraft. I don't want to pretend to be that woman. I want to help her. Because she is not a pretend person, she is real.

Let's turn things around. What hurts YOU most? What makes YOU cry at night? Shall we play at it? Shall we have fun with it? Why not play a game where your beloved parent or grandparent gradually loses their sanity and has to be watched and cared for constantly? Not fun? How about a game where you lose your job and search for months to get half the pay? Not fun? How about a game where you are so desperate for human contact that you get addicted to playing games with strangers on the internet? Not fun? How about a game where you have surgery at 16 because you are morbidly obese and your heart is dying? Not fun? How about a game where you struggle through being a single parent with a dead-end job at 19? Not fun? If somebody played at the things that hurt YOU, would YOU think that was funny? If not, why is it funny to play someone else's pain?

No thanks, I'll pretend something else, and when I can I'll try to help the REAL people living that REAL life instead. If we ever reached a point where NO human being ever had to go through those things, THEN it might be fun to pretend to be hungry and scared. Until then I'll use Minecraft as a place to build. Not a game. Not on those terms.

Thanks again for taking the time to convey your insightful thoughts!