Creation has a powerful draw. From chiseling a statue out of a solid block of marble to rolling a pinecone in peanut butter and dipping it in birdseed, all ages and talents love taking raw materials and building them into something new. For years, Lego served as the perfect answer to this need to create but it has evolved and changed to serve a new market, creating a demand for simple construction that nobody realized was going unfulfilled until Minecraft quietly entered from stage left. It exploded in popularity as thousands of gamers found what they were missing: the excitement of creating and sharing something uniquely their own and a chance for their inner architect to step up and play a lower-case god.
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I heard that my dad was headed to Toys “R” Us to buy my little brother’s birthday gift and I wanted to go along. Mom always listened to us and found great presents, but my brothers and I got excited when Dad was running late on his way home from work because we knew the only reason he wouldn’t be on time for a birthday dinner was because he was going overboard looking for the perfect gift. I wanted to see the man in action.
The car ride was spent discussing our options. Aidan was turning six and had asked for Lego Batman for the Xbox 360 as a gift. Dad was ok with this but wanted to get him a real Lego set, something Aidan could create, break down, and recreate like I did at his age. We reached the Lego aisle and began the hunt. There were elaborate pieces of Star Wars X-Wings, a recreation of the boulder escape scene from Indiana Jones (complete with rolling boulder), and even a humungous recreation of Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts castle. Nothing jumped out at us. Dad summed up the problem: “These are cool, but they aren’t any fun. They all look like they should be on a shelf, not on the floor. No chance for imagination.” Lego no longer provided us with a throwback to the unrestricted creation of my childhood. They joy and ease of building unique creations was nowhere to be found.
Lego continues to grow and to become more impressive, but as it moves forward the simple joy of imaginative creation is left behind. The architect in each person needs the challenges, successes, and frustrations of working outside of any expectations and demands other than their own. Creators need to delve into the bizarre and find sense in the asymmetrical results of following whims and improvising for missing pieces. All crafters owe it to themselves to design and construct their personal dream house complete with swimming pools, arcades, and kung-fu dojos, and to share those creations with others. All of these needs are met or exceeded with the new construction set on the block, Minecraft.
Minecraft draws players into its fertile brick fields and then leaves them alone. Days and nights pass with no expectations or requirements thrust upon you. There are the basic tasks you do as you learn the game. You might gather materials, harass sheep, and wind up drowning by mining into a frozen lake in your first few days. After a few hard-learned lessons and fumbling attempts at building simple structures, the tumblers start falling into place. You gather resources at your own pace and for your own ends. There are no quests to complete, no levels to raise, no princesses to save, and no leader boards to strive for. The only time you have to worry about being judged by your fellow players is if you decide to enter multiplayer or post a video of your creations on YouTube. Through exploration and experimentation, Minecraft stops being an environment and becomes a canvas. The smiles come first and are quickly followed by addiction as generic blocks of wood, stone, and flint become pick-axes, torches, and shovels.
It is at this point, when the player checks their inventory and realizes they have a generous supply of raw materials, that the game shifts from amusing to rewarding and fulfills the creative appetite that Legos used to satiate. The first few shacks I constructed were less than impressive. I was going for the streets from Escape From L.A. and I wound up with a Hooverville. I surveyed my shantytown and hit escape to reset and try again but at that moment I realized that this ramshackle group of hovels lifted from the dustbowl was something I was responsible for. No part of the game made them uneven and ugly. I did. I took responsibility and decided that I was going to keep building. Night fell and at this point I didn’t know how to make torches so I hunkered down in one of the newly-created corners and left the game running as I got lunch. When I came back I looked at my creation with a new set of eyes and starting stacking and hacking blocks all over the little town. What I wound up with was an ugly series of planks running between walls stacked four blocks high.
I schemed and planned, making planks and gathering wood. The design was simple yet ambitious, and I couldn’t help being excited as I experimented. It took several attempts but I eventually had a rough product of what I wanted, a series of four trees with elevated wooden paths leading between them. I proudly patrolled my suspended square and couldn’t stop planning the next steps. Should I continue with the paths or try and make a tree house to build around? Then I realized: I could make them all. There was nothing stopping me from making what I wanted. I embraced the project along with all the mistakes and frustrations that go with installing a rolling mine cart to take me from tree house to tree house. The best part of my first creation was knowing every other player had a different version of the same story and that the process made them just as giddy as I was with the rediscovered joy of building something wonderful and unexpected.
It has been just shy of a year since my dad and I went looking for the perfect gift for Aidan. We wanted something that he would not grow out of, that he would make his own, and that he would come back to over and over again. This time around I know exactly what to get him. I can’t wait to see what he does with it and how he grows into a Minecraft Maniac.
Brendan Sears still gets giddy when he goes to his parents’ house and sifts through the old tub of Legos.