Imagine a game developer in Stockholm, Sweden, looking to make something. He searches for inspiration, sees potential in an existing indie game, and builds on it, striving for an experience where every part feels fun. He does the work, then releases it into the world to continue its development. Others build on it too. What will happen with his creation? Will it be just another game with little to no value, a virtual distraction? Will other hands hurt the work, damaging his intent? Would you be surprised to discover it changing cities in real life—places like Nairobi, Kenya, and Les Cayes, Haiti? Is this typical or atypical for created things?
Minecraft. It’s a video game. My kids play lots of video games, and I hear them barking at one another, giving orders to each other. When I hear them playing Minecraft, it sounds different: less yelling, more inviting. They want someone to come and see what they’ve made. They create houses and submarines and creatures like snow golems. They play together, and sometimes, it sounds like they are playing house. Curious, I started asking questions; I read its genesis story; I observed players in my own home and talked with several more, ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.
The players I spoke to embraced different aspects of the game. One liked competing in mini-games and having adventures, but wasn’t much of a builder. He operates in creative mode, where the game’s resources are available to you without effort, like a virtual second-generation man of means. Another celebrated the home he built that juts out from a cliff, completed in survival mode. He declares creative mode “for the weak.” A third player felt his greatest achievement was building a survival mode community with his friends, where all involved had a vocational specialty: farming or smithing or protecting the community from threats. A fourth, a member of that community, said if he had the game now, he’d create a new world and “build some really cool crap,” and then shared with me a seventeen-minute video of players exploring a ship built in the game.
These are disparate, not congruent, responses, abnormally disparate for a video game. Compare responses about the game Call of Duty: Ghosts. Players will have their preferred mode of play, methods, and techniques, but all agree that the player takes on the role of a shooter, a part of an elite military squad. The identity and mission of the character in the game are set.
It is not so in Minecraft. It starts out this simply: a virtual guy, in a virtual world, making his mark. He does not have a set identity or mission; he will make and morph his own. He mines from the world into which he has spawned, and then crafts shelter, tools, food. He could build a house modestly, harvesting only what he needs, defending and never attacking, living a quiet life. He could also run (or fly) off and see the world, or build something spectacular, or join up with some friends and build a community.
How did the purpose of the game diverge? Remember the game’s origin and genesis. When it started, it was incomplete, unfinished. It was so unfinished that it came without instruction. It was so unfinished that people could add to it, and players in the early, PC-only days came up with fun things to do. They built fantastic structures, created mini-games for other people to play, and they shared what they made online via YouTube and social media sites. This is how the game grew in popularity: the players creating the playbook, sharing it, adding to it.
Things progressed. Servers popped up where players could work together in a world. Some players replicated real-world buildings and spaces. Conferences were held. People started to wonder about applications outside of video games: education? design? urban planning?
Mojang, the maker of Minecraft, is now in partnership with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the UN agency promoting sustainable towns and cities. Block by Block brings master Minecraft builders into a city that needs help with a public space, including Les Cayes, Haiti, and Nairobi, Kenya. The master builders replicate the public space in the game and then teach people in the community how to use Minecraft to help make changes to the space. The UN and the real-world community then use the changes to develop an architectural blueprint and build, using funds provided by Mojang and the Minecraft virtual community. This partnership aims to upgrade 300 public spaces by 2016.
An amazing development, but not an outlier. In October 2010, my father and my sister and I spent a few long days in a hospital, sitting beside my mother. Her heart was shorting out at unpredictable moments of increasing duration, shorting out completely and stopping, causing her to disappear from her body, as if someone had flipped her switch to off. She is fine now, leading a normal life, thanks to a surgically implanted device: an artificial cardiac pacemaker.
Who invented the pacemaker? How did this device come into being? The pacemaker story intersects with the story of transistors:
[D]evelopments in technology would make the implantable pacemaker a reality. The critical turning point was the introduction of small silicon transistors to replace vacuum tubes. This technology allowed pacemakers to become small enough to be implanted in the body.
The inventors of the transistor did not have their sights set on medicine, nor did they know my mother, but they changed both.
From gaming to the United Nations, from the transistor to the pacemaker, so it goes. In the days since I began looking into Minecraft, I have read of Disney animated movies becoming a bridge of communication between a child with autism and the world. I have viewed a child’s life saved by the surgical implant of an airway splint created through 3D printing. In all these cases, people created: animators, software developers, and builders of printers mining earlier stories, earlier platforms, earlier technologies. What is made, what we make, what will be made affects the world in ways we cannot predict.