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Towards Craftsmanship as a way of being.

We read these tips and tricks. These how to videos. We gossip with friends and glean what we can from wherever we can get it. All in an effort to do..what? We have in our heads the image of the ideal craftsman. He of solid build, piercing eyes, not less then a couple grey hairs of wisdom, and one who is smiling serenely. We imagine ourselves in his place. We see the path forward to this goal involves the proper balance between working hard, having the right tools, and studying others techniques.

But I wonder what we really get from all that? As I’ve been building and installing cabinets these past 7 months, I find myself aware of my work, as I work. It seems to me that it is only in this mindset that the very best work can be done. The right tools being close at hand is wonderful, and being able to remember that the best way of wiping excess paint from a paint brush when using a household paint can is to tie a rubber band around the paint can vertically in relation to the can and use the rubber band as a sort of squeegee is a valuable skill. We imagine that holding such precious insight might one day have a sort of currency, as if we might one day be like that cool guy who thought to use address labels on the end of black walnut stock in order to more accurately mark out tenons. These are the building blocks of the master craftsmen facade we work studiously to build around ourselves. What a way to live!

Look for yourself in your work instead. I suggest that it suits a human well. What a lucky person I am. To still be really making things in this plastic age. (seriously, we’re living in the plastic age.) To really interact with the environment around you in a way that is tangible and real feels like such a privilege to me. This is what we used to do, all the time. And now here we are living half our lives digitally. What a bizarre outcome. Just think of how spectacularly unlikely this all is. In this modern what age we’re going going going for is really quite spectacular sometimes.

But I wonder if we know what it is we left back on earth? We have engineered this vast and behemoth system which spits out cars and airplanes and sizzling transmission lines. In near space orbit these days, there are growing debris fields consisting of used launcher devices and dead satellites. We have specialized and educated ourselves to such a degree that we do not really know how to be human beings anymore. We fulfill rolls, and contribute to the civilization yes. But what we (statistically speaking) really want to do for real is watch reality television while munching on some cheetos and an orange fanta. I wonder what it felt like  to be a blacksmith in a medieval village , to know that your father was a blacksmith, and his father was a blacksmith. To know that you will one day pass on your trade to your son. What a hard and difficult life. But what a challenge!

In my school days I had typing classes. We sat at computers and typed out printed material with errors in the grammar. Our task was to correct grammar mistakes and practice typing at the same time as quickly as we could. There was a race to among the students to see who could get the highest typing score. Groups of students could sometimes be seen huddling next to another on the verge of breaking a record WPM. (words per minute) But for some reason I preferred simply to slowly and steadily work my way through the material. A steady WPM of 35 was just fine fore me. I needed no 70’s. Perhaps this is explains why I’ve found such solace in woodworking. Above a certain skill level, the work is rarely challenging, it is simply a series of exacting and precise movements to be preformed in the right order with the right materials. But it is the state of mind one is in while carrying all this out that makes all the difference.

Because the point for me is not to reach that fantastical end. Not to finally cross the finish line and become that grand old master, but to grow into the world as the tree approaches the sun seems to me a much more preferable way of looking at things. But these abstract notions hold little water. What I am after these days is craftsmanship in all things. In my day to day goals the object is not to get the boring “work” out of the way so that I can do what I really want to be doing. The object is to always be doing what you want to be doing.

To that end the cultivation of a peculiar outlook becomes necessary. Beyond having knowledge of proper techniques and tools and materials, there is the spirit of the craftsman. A craftsman does not get upset when a joint fails to properly align, because he knows that it is simply because he used the improper registration mark. A quick trim, a clamp and a mallet will bring the piece into its fulfillment. The craftsman at work exists in a special state of flow that is like a dance, or a fire. Things are gradually falling into place in their own manner, at their own pace.

Image: MissCapricho http://www.misscapricho.com/index.php?/illustration/animals/

How to enjoy a nice cup of tea

We in America are the guardians of a peculiar tradition. Ours is the mercantile tradition of the Europeans, except stripped of any vestige of concern for the commons. Forests are potential houses; rivers potential dams. Our roads always lead somewhere important, and our cars have important places to be. We define ourselves according to what we do for a living and what we own.  To waste an Americans time is the one surest way of getting on his bad side. Our first settlements were founded as business enterprises first and foremost, and we’ve carried their banner all the way around the world. In a country whose founding principle is: “How much can I get for it?”, we have little use for the useless.

This is all hyperbole of course. Americanism distilled into a cutting acid. Some of it is nowhere to be seen, but some of it is hard to ignore. It is particularly hard to ignore when standing at the intersection of a typical suburban roadway. We are a nation that, after taking a look all this space, went on to have major psychotic episode. What started out as an enterprise of land cultivation and resource extraction has led to an explosion of shopping centers, housing subdivisions, parking lots, highways, and more parking lots; you can say what you will about the merits of all these structures, but you can’t say these are the works of a culture that is comfortable with a blank piece of paper.

This mania extends not only across the physical realm; it exists in our collective psyche as well. Our popular culture is full people doing important things and solving big problems. The most popular movies consist of men and women saving the world via guns and superpowers. We follow popular diets and read up on all the latest health foods. Helpful “lifehacking” guides are full of useful tips on how to most efficiently live your life. There are gyms full of people making themselves better. Infomercials tout the latest time-saving 10-in-1 gizmo. Car commercials promise to make you feel important and give you the illusion that driving up the side of a rocky mountain is a good idea as long as you’re getting somewhere. Alexis de Tocqueville might just as well have been describing modern America when he said in 1831:

“Born under another sky, placed in the middle of an always-moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which sweeps along everything that surrounds him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything; he grows accustomed to naught but change, and concludes by viewing it as the natural state of man; he feels a need for it; even more, he loves it: for instability, instead of occurring to him in the form of disasters, seems to give birth to nothing around him but wonders..”

In the year 2014 it would seem we are as enamored with the idea of forward momentum and the novelty of technology as we were in 1831.

All of this isn’t to say that we would be better off lounging by the pool and stuffing our faces with cream poofs as the buildings around us disintegrate and the fields go unplowed. It is all well and good that we are interested in self-improvement and desire the best in life. Even if it is killing our planet. Such is the way of our particular civilization; it has taken us to the moon and back. But there comes a time when even a good American busybody like myself feels a need to take a step back, sit down, and say: “phew”. Preferably with a nice cup of tea.

First of all I must draw a line of distinction between tea and coffee. The two seem to be used interchangeably, but I have some differing opinions. Whereas tea represents the “phew” of life, coffee represents the “hmm” of life. Whereas coffee is a thoughtful reflection and consideration before the swift sprint into action, tea is a considered repose of one who has no illusions as to the eventual outcome. If coffee can be said to be a drink of action and doing, tea is the drink for those who are happy to simply watch things unfold. In this respect coffee is an American drink. And as such an American tea drinker tends to have swirling around him a certain air of smug, individualistic above-it-allness that they mistake for sophistication.

Yet I find that, in our culture of zooping cars and endless self-aggrandizement, having a veneer of aloofness is essential to surviving. Of course, there is a certain quality of futility in the effort. All this pursuit of a more peaceful state of mind and above-it-allness is liable to be mistaken for more of the same old American self-improvement trap.  But even if there isn’t a difference in kind, there does seem to be a difference in degree between the experience of quietly sipping on a hot cup of tea, and reading a best-selling self-help book. The difference seems to be that while one is reading with the idea of reaching a goal, the other is sipping just to sip. While one hopes to reach the end of the book and implement a plan of action, the other simply reaches the bottom of the cup.

The fatal error of many tea drinkers, myself included, is of course to attempt some combination of the two. The idea is to gain some degree of self-reflection while at the same time coming away with a twelve step plan. The effect though is to negate the experience of both; you end up coming away with an empty cup and a forgotten chapter. So I hold that while you may drink tea while reading or doing chores, the experience of sipping quietly, free from other considerations, is the preferred method. Partly because if you’re going to be doing something then you probably ought to be drinking coffee. And partly because as I see it, the act of drinking tea isn’t a means to an end, like so many American things are, it is an end.

Of course the immediate thought, and the reason so much of this activity almost has a subversive nature to it, is that we westerners, especially Americans, cannot stand the thought of just sitting around doing nothing. Even when we’re drinking beer or soda, so-called leisure drinks, we are used to doing something else. For those of us with things to do and places to be, the thought of just being inactive for about 15 minutes is positively unpalatable. But this is precisely why I find tea drinking to be so essential as a harried westerner. It is a time set aside where the things we’re doing, what we own, what we want, who we are, the environment we inhabit, can be let loose. And what remains is the feeling of a hot mug on soft fingers. Of bitter, complicated patterns colliding kaleidoscopically around your tongue. The feel of a soft chair. Of wind in the trees. It can help immensely to have a cat laying on your armchair and pretending to ignore you.

So grab a chair. Boil some water; make sure its hot. Pick out some tea, get your favorite mug. Find a place to be for a while.  In such a state we are free to think about everything and nothing. About the way the clouds looked like a thousand witches fingernails yesterday. About what people did while walking down the sidewalk before cell phones. The way the cat watches the birds through the window. Or nothing. Just nothing. Because it’s often only during moments of such solitude that we can remember what it means to be a human being.

Forest

It’s full of blocks: The allure of the sandbox

Let us suppose you were given unlimited power. The world around you expands out over the horizon, and you hold all the cards. There are no laws to hold you back. No authority figure is going to tell you what to do. Death has become at worst temporarily annoying. You could carve out that mountain over there. Chop down those trees over here. Heck, set them on fire. Set everything on fire and watch the world burn. Or blow it to smithereens and create a new one. Or you could design a pretty waterfall tumbling over a cliff and ride a boat over it. Given free reign over a world with infinite possibilities and no consequences, what would you do?

Minecraft, like many great works of art, seems to have gotten really, really lucky. Development was started in 2009 by Markus Persson, a Swedish programmer working for a software company. Persson had been inspired by a game called Infiniminer and wanted to expand on it’s freeform gameplay and blocky aesthetic. An Alpha (unfinished) version of the game was released in the same year and a pre-order system was set up wherein purchase of the Alpha allowed access to the completed game and all updates.  Sales and interest grew steadily but remained low up through 2010. The game seemed destined to maintain its niche appeal among the hardcore audience. In 2011 though, interest in the game began to grow exponentially. Persson quit his job in late 2010 and set up Mojang to continue development of Minecraft. The game broke into the mainstream and has since become a cultural icon of the current gaming era.

It’s tempting to speculate over how much of the games success came down to timing. Consider: It was released during the low-point of a Great Recession in which many peoples lives got a lot crummier and their wallets a lot lighter. It also came out at the end of a decade that had seen an explosion in the gaming scene. From 2000 to 2010 yearly sales revenue for video games roughly doubled. Valve went from being a somewhat popular game developer to being the biggest digital game retailer with 25 million people using its Steam service in 2010; they’re at 75 million now. Games had grown so fast and gotten so big that many people began to feel  nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, simpler time. Many of the gamers who started playing in the ’90s increasingly turned away from a culture that constantly hyped bombastic, over-produced and expensive titles. An independent games development scene that had previously existed on the margins of the industry began to experience a surge of interest coming from gamers looking for cheap, retro, experimental games. This also occurred during a time when development software had never been more affordable. Tools that had previously cost hundreds of thousands of dollars were now being released for one hundred. A new funding model was slowly becoming more popular too. Games were released earlier in the development process and in exchange for a pre-purchase fee gamers got access to the finished product. All of this fueled an “Indie” games development scene which enabled small developers to work on experimental designs that the big companies had previously written off as unprofitable or too risky. The stage seems to have been set for a sandbox game with retro graphics and a self-funding model to become really, really big.

How big? Well, it has gotten to point where things are just surreal. It’s tempting to just list off numbers when trying to quantify a cultural artifact. But with something like Minecraft, the numbers don’t quite tell the story. Sure, the game sold 1,000,000 copies just a month after entering its Beta version. By the time it was “finished” in November 2011 it had sold 4 million copies and had 16 million registered users. At this point has sold around 35 million copies across the PC, Mobile and Xbox releases with something like 100 million registered users, making it the third best-selling game of all time. (number one is Tetris, of course) But even when considering these numbers it’s difficult to appreciate the depth of the community that has sprung up around the game. There are Minecraft music videos set to billboard top 100 songs. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of 3rd party game modifications (mods). These allow you to do virtually anything. From simulating a nuclear reactors to building a working analog computer and even beekeeping. There are hundreds of servers filled with hundreds of people recreating cities and forging their own kingdoms. There are custom-made maps you can download that tell stories ranging from the hilarious to the macabre. There are people who have quit their day jobs and are making a living uploading videos of themselves playing Minecraft. There are tutorials, game shows, building competitions, international conferences, showcases, fan art, fan sites, T-shirts, coffee mugs…a glorious multitude of windows to peak into filled with people building, playing, experimenting and laughing at their own creations. All of this begs the question: What is it that has people so captivated with Minecraft?

For a piece of entertainment that has enthralled so many people, actually playing Minecraft is a surprisingly low-key experience. Whereas so many games today are criticised for their mindless violence and crudeness, Minecraft is characterised by long periods of peace and tranquility punctuated by brief moments of peril. Upon starting the game we are presented with a menu screen in which the camera slowly pans over an untouched, welcoming landscape as we’re softly serenaded with instrumental music. The game title hangs in the air over the big blocky menu buttons. Next to the title is a randomly displayed message that could be anything from a movie reference to a series of 1’s and 0’s. Overall the feeling is reminiscent of the entrance gates to a theme park, inviting you in for a non-threatening adventure. Selecting the single player option leads us to a world selection screen. Here you can choose to generate a world based on a number of options effecting world generation and play style. Survival mode entails collecting resources and food. Creative gives you full access to infinite amounts of every resource. Hardcore is much like survival except the game is set on the hardest difficulty and if you die your world is deleted. You have the option of randomly generating as many unique and separate worlds as you want. Crucially, you can give them any name you desire. Then when you’re ready you select “Create New World”.

And that’s it. Your computer takes some time to do the calculations, and you just appear in the world. Apropos of nothing. There is no back story. No cut scene or introductory text. You are not given an objective or a mission or told where you are or what you’re doing here. You might spawn in a grassy field surrounded by leafy trees. You might spawn on a sandy beach next to a mooing cow. You might spawn underwater, or on top of a tree or one wrong step away from falling into a pool of liquid hot lava. The fact that there is not even the hint of a structure to your initial gameplay experience is quite jarring at first, and is easy to overlook. But compare this to a Nintendo or Square Enix game, where you can generally rely on the first 30 minutes or so of the game being made up primarily of cut scenes, tutorials and long, long, long sequences of expository dialogue. Compare this with many of the games being released by Electronic Arts and Activision, where gameplay is heavily structured and your hand is held very tightly; you can count on always being told where you should be going and what the next objective is. Starting out for the first time in Minecraft can be bewildering at first. But if you want to you can just watch the giant square sun set over the horizon as a bittersweet melody plays out.

Ah yes, the giant square sun. And the moon is square too! Actually just about everything is square. Minecraft is a Voxel based game, Voxel being a combination of the words Volume and Pixel. What this basically means is that almost everything in the game is represented on a volumetric grid. Individual spaces within this 3D grid can said to be occupied by various game elements. A space might or might not be occupied by a block, which might by a stone block, a wood block, or a water block, or the player. Players take up a space 1 block wide by 2 blocks high. Each block being approximately equal to one cubic meter. The extent of a game world, horizontally and longitudinally, is limited by your hard drive. But given the low level of memory recquired to save a world, you have a practically infinite amount of land to work with. Dig down though, and you will eventually hit Bedrock. Situated at level 0, Bedrock is an unbreakable block that constitutes a hard limit on how far down you can dig. Block height is limited to level 255; sealevel being at about level 62.

There are 153 block as of the latest update, each one unique. And as you can imagine this leads to an enormous variety in the landscape. There are rivers, oceans, forests, mountains, deserts and frozen tundras. And underneath those are sprawling caverns of infinite variety. There are underground ravines filled with lava, forgotten dungeons filled with monsters and treasure, and abandoned mines filled with poisonous spiders. And under that is the hellish Nether. A dark land of smoking rock and lakes filled with lava. A land filled with grotesque and dangerous monsters. Beyond even that there exists an alternate dimension called The End accessible only through a special portal found in a special dungeon.  This is a land made up of special End Stone blocks floating in the midst of a black void.

Captured by author

Captured by author

The closest the game has to an antagonist is the Ender Dragon, but he is tucked away in The End and it isn’t all that necessary to defeat him. It’s not like the overworld, with its NPC (non player character) populated villages, is periodically attacked by the Ender Dragon (although I’m sure there’s a mod for that). Instead the main threat the player faces is from other monsters (referred to as MOBs, short for mobile). There are a variety of hostile characters which can spawn in the dark areas of the world, especially at night. Probably the most iconic among them is the Creeper. A silent frowning torso mounted on four tiny legs and a belly full of TNT. Creepers can spawn in the overworld and will try to sneak up to a player. Once they get close enough they ignite their TNT and violently explode, destroying a chunk of the landscape and possibly scaring the bejesus out of the player. The creeper is an inspired bit of game design and perfectly encapsulates the games aesthetic: Colorful, Simple, Playful, with just the right touch of ominous macabre horror. There are also zombies, skeleton archers, zombie pigmen, bats and Enderman (a terrifying riff on the Slender Man archetype).

Given that Mobs only spawn on dark surfaces, a common strategy is to craft torches and put them everywhere. Within an enclosed and well-lit area the player can begin to feel safe. It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this element of the game is. You are literally shining a light into the darkness and holding back the forces of evil with your constructions. But this brings us back to the games seeming lack of purpose. In Minecraft, you are the intruder. The player appears sui generis into a pristine, untouched paradise that exists in perfect equilibrium. Even the NPC  villagers seem to regard you as an intruder. A stranger who might be traded with but should not otherwise be communicated with. Nobody has asked you to come here and place torches haphazardly around the landscape. To cut down all the trees and interrupt whatever mysterious business Endermen the are on. One wonders if the antagonist in this story isn’t in fact the player himself.

There is something disconcerting about the way this game simply drops you into the world. This sense of antagonism on your part. Something I cannot shake. In some ways this is a very optimistic, even naive game. It supposes that given the time and the means, a person might “correct” this world. It supposes that the appropriate way to approach your environment is with a shovel and a pickaxe. In this way Minecraft is also very comforting. In collecting increasingly rare items and building grander and grander structures there is a feeling of steady improvement. You’ve come to put this world right and exert your authority over it. There is a certain amount of 19th century progressivism in all this. A sense of marching triumphantly into a brighter better future. Yet I can’t help but find myself gazing across the treetops towards a field of lazily mooing cows and thinking that the proper thing to do might be nothing at all.

Then again this wouldn’t be much of a game if all you did was stand around. But given the increasing appeal of games like Dear Esther, Journey and The Endless Forest, I can’t be the only one who sometimes just wants to wander around in a pristine, if at times treachorous, environment. We in the west live in a land dominated by concrete, cars and watches. Its nice to temporarily inhabit a place where all that is optional. Thankfully Minecraft doesn’t force anything on you and we’re free to simply watch the squids jumping out of the water.

Actual gameplay consists of breaking and collecting blocks, then combining resources you’ve collected to create weapons, tools, and other useful items. Crafting is done through a special window made up of an input grid consisting of 9 spaces, and a output window that displays an item if you have the correct recipe arranged on the grid. The game has a sort of tech progression in which tools made of wood are the weakest, while tools made of diamond are the strongest. This is a deeply intuitive system that just makes sense. In order to craft a cake you need eggs, sugar, and wheat. You can get eggs from chickens you raise. Sugar comes from reeds you grow and wheat from your wheat farm. This further implies that you’ve collected seeds to feed your chickens, planted reeds where they grow fastest (on sand blocks next to a water source), and that you’ve set up an efficient wheat farm. The result is that since you start out with nothing and everything you get has to be earned the hard way, there is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and ownership over everything that you do. That painfully simple 3 block wide “house” you build? That’s yours. That clever auto-hatcher that collects eggs dropped by chickens and automatically hatches them while you’re busy doing other things? You designed and built that. That huge impregnable castle sitting up on top that mountain? Took a while, but it’s yours.

And this seems to be the point: playing and being successful in Minecraft entails breaking, collecting and placing blocks and other resources, yes. But success can also mean accomplishing goals that you’ve set for yourself. What you get out of Minecraft depends on what you put into it. It’s a game that rewards and is responsive to creative expression in a way many other games aren’t. In the beginning this might mean collecting some wood by punching a tree block until it breaks. Later on you might decide to create a house out of the wood blocks you’ve collected. Then after you’ve collected more wood you might decide to build a bridge over the river outside your house so that you can get to your mine faster. Or you might decide to do something else entirely. Whereas in other games success might mean fulfilling game objectives or collecting trophies or having the most kills, in Minecraft progress is measured in the objectives the player sets for himself, whatever those objectives might be. A player with an inventory full of gold blocks isn’t necessarily doing better in the game then the player who has spent his time building a castle. Many people have never reached the end credits, and that’s their prerogative.

Considering that the game is loath to tell you what to do, this can lead to awkward moments where you can’t really think of anything to do. Some people are fairly turned off by this and the game has been criticized for being boring and unresponsive. And although while there is no tutorial in the game, there is a basic sort of “Achievement” system whereby you unlock various icons on an objective tree. These range from opening your inventory to smelting iron, and seem to be meant more as a comment on the Achievement system in other games then as an aid or guide to game progression. This is can be a source of some annoyance with the game. However I think this is a core strength, and provides a hint to the reason behind its success.

As mentioned earlier, Minecraft somehow sparked an explosion of voluntary content creation and involvement. Whats more is it did all of this without any advertising, instead relying on word of mouth and a bit of something else. But what was this “something else”? Well, the fansites, youtube videos, and wiki pages seem to have grown organically out of the players need to figure out how to play the game. Minecraft, unlike almost every modern game today, doesn’t have a tutorial. It doesn’t have any tool tips or help messages. It doesn’t, like so many Square Enix games, have a character whose sole purpose is to provide you with “the lowdown”. Instead the player has to figure out how to do pretty much everything by himself. Consider the process you need to follow in order to craft a pickaxe. You need wood for a crafting bench, which gives you 9 crafting squares to work with. Then you need to array wood sticks and wood blocks into a crude outline of a pickeaxe in the crafting menu, which will output a wooden pickaxe into your inventory. Simple enough. But what about fences? Pistons? Do I use melons to brew healing potions or do I need carrots. How do I get this switch to open my door? Minecraft, whether by design or laziness, does not tell you these things. You either have to experiment through trial and error, or ask someone for the answer.

And this seems to have been the impetus behind what is today a vibrant community; one centered on sharing experiences, creations, tips and tricks for Minecraft. What started out as people asking the same question, led to people posting tutorial videos on Youtube. Today many of these videos have millions of views. People took those ideas and added variations of their own. People naturally felt proud of what they created and wanted to share their personal experience inside the game with other people. Learning and sharing like this created a feedback loop in which the more people learned about the game, the more they created. And the more they shared, the more other people saw the creation and wanted to learn more about the game themselves. All of this is not without precedent of course, but whats incredible about Minecraft is that it all happened organically with no influence from marketing campaigns or the crass manipulation inherent in so many modern titles.

Home of the Tree Creepers-Thornhollow by: c12095

Home of the Tree Creepers-Thornhollow by: c12095

This being said, the community does have a dark side. Since collecting resources is the main element of the game, it is tempting to spend all your time hoarding  resources. The multiplayer community is rife with people who have little interest in creative expression and instead spend their time increasing and boasting of their diamond horde. Certain “anarchy” multiplayer servers have no rules governing block ownership or personal safety. The result in some instances is a terrifying “Lord of the Flies” situation in which roving bands of players seek each other out only to kill and loot each others property. New players are killed instantly, and there is no effort whatsoever to preserve the environment, resulting in a pockmarked landscape devoid of trees or food and covered with lava. Players construct elaborate traps and enslave those unfortunate enough to fall into them. You might find a safe spot and manage to squirrel away some resources only to fall victim to a player using an illegal “X-ray” mod that allows one to see through blocks. Such multiplayer worlds give those of us wondering how humanity is going to handle this centuries problems cause to shudder.

Such servers are the exception rather then the rule however, and are thankfully optional. Many multiplayer communities exist in which block ownership (blocks you’ve placed yourself) and personal safety is strictly enforced via special server tools. A multiplayer world might consist simply of two close friends, or it might consist of thousands, or even tens of thousands of players on a single world. Over the years some of these servers have gotten incredibly complex. It’s not an exagerration to say that entire cities have been constructed within these worlds, complete with mass transit, farms, market places, rentable lots and even gladitorial arenas complete with custom rules. A google image search for “minecraft city” is highly recomended.

Minecraft is going on 5 years old now, and that getting quite long-in-the-tooth in game years. Yet the player community remains vibrant and active, even if it isn’t growing at the astronomical rate it once was. Mojang have done an incredible job in continually updating the game. The steady updates made to Minecraft have breathed new life into it each time. One update added an entirely new Dimension, another reworked the way Redstone worked (about which many words could be written). Another added horses. These have all been made available free to the community. And while some elements of the game still seem sparse (villager interaction) that is because while Minecraft is a hugely popular game, the development team is still very small and focused on other games now. While another, lesser, developer might have turned Minecraft into a cash cow and started squeezing..Mojang have presented themselves as a model of ethical games development. And the community seems to have taken this philosophy to heart.

The years since the release of Minecraft have seen new life breathed into an old genre. It used to seem like the only way to make money with a sandbox game was to copy whatever Rockstar was doing. Games like Grand Theft Auto and its subsequent sequals and copy-cats had settled into a comfortable groove by 2008. If you wanted to turn a profit you needed a photo-realistic and exquisitely detailed world, coupled with a huge media budget and lots of explosions. Minecraft turned all that upside down, and in its wake weve seen a succesion of similar games follow it. Games like Ace of Spades, Fortnight, DayZ, Rust, Space Engineers, Terraria, Project Zomboid, Prison Architect, Starbound, Kenshi, Edge of Space and StarForge all feature open worlds, player driven narratives, interactive/destructible environments, and resource collection. This isn’t to say that they are all copying Minecraft, but in them you will find some of the same spirit.  Minecraft was also among the first in a wave of games to be community funded. That is: developed through angel investors who simply want to make the game happen. Minecraft paved the way for the success many other games have had with Kickstarter, a project investment platform.

Indeed, Mojang seems to have been at the forefront of an entire movement in the games industry. Minecraft wasn’t the first game in the sandbox genre. Other notable sandbox games include Dungeon Keeper, Sim City, The Sims, and Grand Theft Auto. But Minecraft seems to have struck a certain nerve in the gaming audience. Mojang have demonstrated that there is a massive audience for games that enable players to tell their own stories, unencumbered by the bloated systems that get tacked onto other sandbox titles. They have proven that games can be much more then just a very pretty train ride, and that lots of people care about the integrity of the company they interact with. The widespread and diverse  community shows that you don’t always need a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to generate interest. Most of all Minecraft has shown that the future of video-games is up to us, the players. Its for these reasons that I think Minecraft is among the most important games to be released in the past 20 years, and worthy of your attention.

The sandbox is a place of optimism. It is also a place of pragmatism, and even idealism. It is a place full of endless possibility coupled with the immediacy of reality. It is a place to tinker and play in. Yet it has been stripped of the things that make our lives such a chore. There is no racism in the sandbox. Wars are only for pretend. In the land of the imagination the banal platitudes of our politicians and the dehumanizing elements of our society seem like a distant mirage, easily forgotten. It is a place of comfort. A place for those who feel out of control to become grounded. Mostly though, it’s about the diamonds. Minecraft is such a sandbox.

Snow Sunset by BoringPostcards

Snow Sunset by BoringPostcards