Recently I came upon a Facebook post by my older brother, concerning his dislike of Minecraft “My son is horrified that I don’t like Minecraft. He says it’s cool cause you can do stuff.. like in real life. I said, so it’s like real life, but with crappy graphics.” This had me thinking, since I too had been among the voices denouncing this apparently cheap, gimmicky farce whose near-instant popularity struck the nose of what I considered to be a highly developed sense of ‘what makes a good game good’. Indeed, like many a veteran gamer I generally don’t like being told what I should play; I tend to think of games as an artistic medium like film, painting, and (some may scoff) fine wine.

“It’s cheap” they said, “you can play it offline,” ‘they’ amongst the many I had seen avoiding work and study responsibilities to participate in what I reactively saw as a mere pop trend, one by principle I would not contribute to simply in order to uphold a well-entrenched grunge sense of ‘alternativality’. Despite the game’s obvious appeal to a retro gamer, my mind was largely made up. Besides, this simple prejudice had already helped me to avoid the demoralising effects of many spiritually bereft bestsellers – those most readily identified by a rapid ascension, and often equally quick and disdainful relegation to the bargain bin.

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Bread and butter gaming

After an endless iteration of ‘tried and true’ titles by developers whose efforts (during the late 80s and early 90s) secured a generation of ‘hungrier than hippo’ consumers who would steadily devour the following tirade of sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs in search of that golden gem of gaming bliss.. Minecraft and games like it have been a breath of fresh air for those put off by the turn of a corporate lead, innovatively stifled and disturbingly conventional gaming industry. Indeed, Minecraft is cool, and for a number of important reasons.

For starters, Minecraft is cool because it avoids the critical flaw of most modern games, inherent in its ability to leverage a player’s imagination to create an illusion of reality, rather than handing it to them on a technically and aesthetically heavy-handed platter. Just like a certain brand of polyunsaturated spread many of us born in the 80s may have had bestowed upon us (by well-meaning mothers whose persistent requests for us to ‘go outside and play’ no doubt fell on deaf ears), its simple mode of presentation and lego-style freedom of expression.. really ought to be congratulated. Not only does its symbolic representation lend itself to spontaneous interpretation by the player, it builds upon a host of signifiers unique to the medium of video games. For example, the pick-axe, which in its pixellated form not only stands as primary signifier of the game world itself, its animation subtly points to seminal games such as Quake. With a timing and mechanical flow approximating that of the hand axe – Minecraft’s basic mechanic issues a potent reminder of the survival based physicality afforded a gamer when all extravagance is spent in relentless pursuit of the often hyped, integrally twisted but nevertheless ultimate goal – one’s continued existence.

While possibly unintentional on the part of the developer, Minecraft’s tendency to refer to earlier game moments could be seen as the veritable marketing ‘goldmine’ that allowed a single man to hook on a subconscious level the sympathies of an older and generally jaded player demographic. Minecraft attracts not only more seasoned gamers because of its immediately accessible look and feel, but also those simply done to death with the expense and waste of premium titles.. largely due to the dependency of online licensing, update procedures and budget reaming, expectation denying prohibition of ever steepening entry level hardware requirements.

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The time has come again my friends..

In fact Minecraft’s ‘sys reqs’ are so minimal, they allow literally any kid, bum, dole bludger, or monetarily deprived arts student with a cheap laptop or handheld device a go. This ensures that people from a wide range of socio-economic groups populate the shared online spaces of Minecraft, contributing to a sense of ‘fun for all’ and not just the spoilt first world brats whose parents can afford a monthly subscription fee or the relative excess of a current generation console with 55 inch LED and mandatory surround sound – for that matter. The low system requirements of the graphics engine allow the player unimpeded focus on constructing and deconstructing their own world out of cubic ‘voxels’. As the basic unit of visual representation these hark back to the simplicity of early arcade games that emphasise ‘fun’ over flashy, update demanding, programmable shader compliance requiring, generally ‘busy’ run-of-the-mill mainstream game titles.

Its lean presentation not only lends itself to interpretation on the part of the viewer but also an unprecedented scalability that allows one to flesh out the architecture of a unique individual space over time, the results of which reveal a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. This ultimately leads to an appreciation of a limited set of actions as tools through which one can achieve a unique and verifiable expression, as evidenced by the shared efforts of a community who exchange their creations in a file size small enough to be emailed, reworked and collaborated on. In fact, were its relative dimensions transposed to that of actual kilometres, Minecraft’s collective online space would dwarf the face of several large planets in our solar system, with a surface area of some 64,000 kilometres or 130 quadrillion blocks (Source: Cary and Micheal Huang, 2012). While many may label the game and sandbox-style collaborative games like it a mere phenomenon, Minecraft may safely be considered a definitive cry from the gaming masses for ‘no more of the same’.

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an unprecedented scalability which allows one to flesh out the architecture of an (err..) unique individual space over time

Despite all this (and the fact that my nephew thinks its cool), some may choose not to participate in this particular movement of gaming and stay with what they have grown used to. Indeed, I will probably spend more time in far less contemplative casual and free to play online arenas as they continue to enjoy a steady rise in user-base (and concurrent influx of fresh noobs). There are many who regard the discussion of games as a medium as mere rhetoric, another means of bolstering the now undeniable capital of an entertainment form which has outstripped even film in terms of profitability, inevitably opting for the readily available stereotypes of ADHD-inducing, Dorito chillin’, button mashing, reality-escaping degeneration.. but sooner or later these people will all be retiring into generation-X designed lifestyle villages, where their eternal punishment will be daily regimes of life-prolonging and bone marrow stimulating exercise facilitated by Xbox Kinect and Nintendo Wii.

This is a game that has brought justice not only to the broader gaming community but to a media form whose malnourishment is not something to be overlooked, considering an intergenerational rise in popularity and its reverberation on the state of media in general. Minecraft’s beauty and inherent ‘cool’ is certainly in the eye of the beholder, however it’s a fine example of the way games (like art) shouldn’t be limited by technology or flashy appearances and blurs the line between what we might consider retro and what we may tentatively refer to as ‘new’. For all the dissenters out there on either side of the indie and mainstream games scene, there is still thankfully.. something for everyone. However, to abject haters young and old who cry ‘just say no’ to Minecraft, I say, rest in peace.

Rohan Ford

Rohan Ford

Contributor at GameCloud
A fond reader of PC Format in the early 90s, Rohan has a background in graphics and is an active musician in his home town of Perth. With a penchant for narrative-based adventure, fighting games and the casual multiplayer space, he has a particular reverence for the dual aesthetic and technical challenges faced by indie developers and those charged to do 'more with less.'
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