The Minecraft core activity is the creation of new materials and objects through the arrangement of more basic substances.
In Minecraft, the player is dropped into a freshly-generated world composed of coarse blocks that represent dirt, trees, rock, water, and more:
There are dangerous creatures lurking in this world, including but not limited to giant spiders and skeleton archers. But they only venture out at night, and they can be deterred by walls. The sun (a bright cube) sets fast, so your first task is always the same: Build a shelter.
The game’s core activity is the creation of new materials and objects through the arrangement of more basic substances in specific patterns on a “crafting table,” represented in the game as a matrix of cells.
To play the game, you need to know the runes, the recipes. Where do you learn them? Not in Minecraft. There is no senior alchemist to consult.
No help menu.
People often compare Minecraft to LEGO; both support open-ended creation (once you’ve mastered the crafting table, you can build nearly anything) and, of course, they share an essential blockiness. But I think this comparison is misleading, because a LEGO set always includes instructions, and Minecraft comes with none.
Minecraft is a game about creation, yes. But it is just as much a game about secret knowledge.
It’s not that secret, of course. From that first buggy release onward, all the ins and outs of surviving and building in Minecraft have been documented by players, on wikis and YouTube, in ever-increasing and now mind-boggling detail. Honestly, I have no idea how you would play the game without first browsing one of those wikis or watching one of those videos. Trial and error? There would be a lot of errors.
To play, you must seek information elsewhere.
Was it a conscious decision? A strategic bit of design? I don’t know. Maybe Markus Persson always intended to create an in-game tutorial but never got around to it. If so: lucky him, and lucky us, because by requiring the secret knowledge to be stored, and sought, elsewhere, he laid the foundation for Minecraft’s true form.
Minecraft-the-game, maintained in Sweden by Persson’s small studio, is just the seed, or maybe the soil. The true Minecraft (no italics, for we are speaking of something larger now) is the game plus the sprawling network of tutorials, wikis, galleries, videos—seriously, search for “minecraft” on YouTube and be amazed—mods, forum threads, and more. The true Minecraft is the oral tradition: secrets and rumors shared in chat rooms, across cafeteria tables, between block-faced players inside the game itself.
Imagine yourself acquiring the keys to a mutable world in which you can explore caves, fight spiders, build castles, ride pigs, blow up mountains, construct aqueducts to carry water to your summer palace… anything.
Imagine yourself a child, in possession of the secret knowledge.
This wouldn’t be enough on its own. Obscure techniques have been a part of video games from the beginning; Nintendo Power surely had a dusting of secret knowledge. What’s different here is that Minecraft connects this lure to the objective not of beating the game, but making more of the game.
“Game” doesn’t even do it justice. What we’re really talking about here is a generative, networked system laced throughout with secrets.
Five years in, Minecraft (the system) has bloomed into something bigger and more beautiful than any game studio — whether a tiny one like Markus Persson’s or a huge one like EA — could ever produce on its own. The scale of it is staggering; overwhelming. As you explore the extended Minecraft-verse online, you start to get the same oceanic feeling that huge internet systems like YouTube and Twitter often inspire: the mingling of despair (“I’ll never see it all”) with delight (“People made this”) with dizzying anthropic awe (“So… many… people.”)
Turns out you can do a lot with those blocks.