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What Purpose, Minecraft Zombies?

Russ Pitts | 14 Jun 2011 12:45
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By day, the world of Minecraft is cheerful and bright, populated with hopping cows, snorting piglets and clucking chickens. Tall, leafy trees await your axe for chopping and mountain upon mountain of stone and mineral ore await your mining pleasure. It is as a world created as if from the notebook of a child, and similar to that world, you can shape it however you wish. The world belongs to you. By day at least. The zombies own the night. The zombies and the creepers and the skeletons and the spiders. Unlike other games, you cannot win in a fight with many of these monsters. A few swipes from a zombie and you're dead. Get too close to a creeper and he'll explode, blowing you to bits. Spiders climb your walls, dropping down on you from above. Skeletons shoot arrows over your fences. And the zombies ... they just keep coming. Over rock, through the trees, across the water. To the tops of mountains, above the clouds. At night you're not safe anywhere unless it has four walls and a roof made of something strong, and the sooner you learn that the longer you'll survive. Only then will you ensure that each morning, as the rosy fingers of dawn reach above the hills of candy-color green, you will be there to greet it - and resume your toil.

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Surviving Minecraft's night is much more than a part of the game, it is the game. You can fashion a sword from wood, or armor from the hide of cow, but even then you are not invincible. Even then, you may not survive even one encounter with a monster. Even then, your best course of action, your most survivable strategy, is to hide.

As I play Minecraft, a game ostensibly and rabidly about nothing whatsoever, I find that I'm rediscovering truths humanity may have lost on its journey to mechanized, electronicized, harmonious cohabitation with our wants. A world in which we are able to enjoy entertaining pursuits (like, for example, playing Minecraft) without concern that come the fall of darkness we may be eaten. Are we so far removed from such a world? Have we, as humans, so irrevocably lost ourselves to the care and feeding of our always-on, just-in-time, wash-and-wear civilization that the pure, primal terror of the night no longer holds sway?

I know I haven't. Aside from playing videogames, one of my favorite pastimes is walking into the deep woods where I'll camp beside a rushing stream, make a fire, perhaps, and settle in for an evening in the wilderness. I'll prop a tent into a nook made by two trees and zip myself into a succession of nylon barricades, then settle in and attempt to sleep, willing my mind to forget that there are other things than me in the woods. The sun will rise as surely as it set and when then light comes, I will once again have the woods for my own use, but until then, just as in Minecraft, the land belongs to the creatures who call it home.

Through playing Minecraft, I remember what I have learned from spending time in the wilderness. I recall that roads are more than smoother places upon which to drive our cars. I remember that lighthouses, streetlights, sign posts, and other signs of civilization are more than merely fortuitously-placed objects d'art. These things exist because without them we'd be lost. And I know from having done it that getting lost in the dark is as lost as you can be.

Once upon a time we locked our doors, not out of habit or to protect our big-screen TVs, but to keep away the monsters. In this day and age of domesticated everything, such fears seem bygone and strange. Yet still we hear of hikers going missing in the wild spaces. Of young families taking a detour down an un-used mountain road and simply vanishing. Of sharks and bears and sometimes even the land itself eating men whole, or robbing them of more than a comfortable night's sleep. And even more rarely still, we hear tales of hikers being killed by bears. It happens every year. It almost happened to me.

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