The Minecraft Affect

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I recently got back into Minecraft but this time I’m taking my friends with me, and I didn’t even have to do anything.

Minecraft

It's just you, a shovel and an endless world. What do you do?

When people make the difference

I started playing Minecraft back in the summer after some friends coaxed me into buying it to play with them online. Much to my surprise, Minecraft hooked me pretty quickly. I played it hard for a while and then it kind of fell by the wayside as games often do. It was quickly “just another game” that I could go back and play if the mood struck me…that was until my wife started playing Minecraft…and then friends at work started playing. In the past week I’ve “sold” four copies of Minecraft without much effort. It’s great having all these people to play with on a common server but what’s been even better is watching a bunch of (relatively) non-gamers get into a very unique game.

Let’s face it, true gamers will play anything. I’m a lifelong gamer and I’ll play just about any game you throw in front of me. That doesn’t mean I’ll like it, but I’ll try it…it’s what you have to do to be a good gamer. But when you’re talking about non-gamers it is an entirely different story. Casual players will often make their decisions based on appearance alone and once they find their favorite genre they won’t stray far. This is why I’ve found Minecraft‘s appeal quite fascinating. It’s not an action-adventure game where you’re shooting bad guys or saving princesses, but it’s not a puzzle game either, at least not in the sense of an Angry Birds or Bejeweled. Then what’s so appealing about a game that has no real goals to people that don’t really play many games? I decided to ask the three people that recently started Minecraft with me; two co-workers, Michael and Josh, and my wife, Jen.

The tale of the non-gamers

Q: Just to get some background, where on the gamer spectrum do you put yourself? Casual, hardcore…how often do you play games, regardless of device or game genre? What type of games do you typically play when you do?

Michael: I used to play a lot of games on the Playstation and PC, but mostly top-down strategy games and stuff. I still have DosBox running Master of Magic and a few other old favs. I have a PS3 with five or six games, and I play like five or six hours a week on that, mostly on the weekends. I buy like two games a year on that once I get really sick of one of the ones I have. I would probably play more games if I had more time. I go on binges when I have a day off or something. I play a lot of games on my iPhone, again mostly strategy stuff. I probably spend an hour a day playing games on the iPhone. Strategery is my current fav. I’m okay at it. The bottom line is that I’m really not very good at most video games, so I don’t play online much or anything. Except baseball simulators: those I’m good at.

Josh: When I was in High school I played games a lot. Racing simulation games, adventure games, and occasionally shooter games, all on consoles. College was same genres/devices but less playing. Since I got married I haven’t really played video games until Minecraft. I guess that makes me super casual? Minecraft is actually the first PC game that I’ve gotten into.

Jen: I consider myself to be a casual gamer. I usually play time management games or games like Words with Friends and Angry Birds. I play Words with Friends for a few minutes daily but that is probably the only game I play every day. I also go through phases when I like playing The Sims. Since getting a DS and then an iPhone, I tend to prefer quick games that I can play on those devices.

In this group we have a true casual gamer and two ex-gamers (lets call them retired). It’s safe to say we all had more time to play games when we were back in school, before life caught up with us, and that makes Minecraft even more baffling to me in many ways. Minecraft isn’t a traditional arcade game loaded with quick decisions or drawn out strategy, and Minecraft certainly isn’t Angry Birds. So if our time is limited thanks to family and full-time jobs, why are they investing time into Minecraft?

Minecraft

There, in the distance...Josh's mega castle. An impessive site to discover.

The allure of Minecraft

Q: So  you heard me and others talking about and playing Minecraft. What about that raised your curiosity in the game? What looked interesting about the game to try it out?

Michael: The fact that there isn’t much of a point to it and it isn’t too competitive. Again, I’m not great at video games, but I do have a lot of time to kind of half pay attention to something. The fact that you are in a multiplayer environment where you can just sort of fool around and make stuff sort of collaboratively…or not. It also looked well suited to the fact that I rarely have large chunks of time to dedicate to a game solely. I’m usually just sort of half paying attention while doing other things.

Josh: I’ve always loved making things and loved playing with LEGO and SimCity when I was younger. I saw you playing and it reminded me of LEGO/SimCity but with the twist of it being first person. I gave it a go and got hooked pretty quickly. I actually played for 5 hours straight my first time (until 3 in the morning!).

Jen: I prefer games that I can play on a PC or on my iPhone and Minecraft is something I can play on my PC. I was mostly interested in the building aspect. It seemed simple enough to start playing so I thought it would be worth looking at. At the risk of sounding lazy, I’m not into games enough to want to spend a lot of time learning how to start a game. Minecraft seemed simple enough to just start playing.

The building aspect of Minecraft is apparently the biggest draw, especially if the game can suck you in until the wee hours of the morning. Minecraft appears casual with a low barrier of entry but like any good game, the depth of challenge slowly reveals itself until you find yourself buying an iPhone app that does nothing but act as a reference book (true story, Jen bought it).

I also find it very interesting that Michael cites the lack of competition within Minecraft as a perk. Most video games revolve around competition, whether through high scores or levels passed or items collected. Minecraft doesn’t explicitly suggest any of these concepts so the motivation to play is entirely self-generated, which is also one of the great things about the game. Not to be too overly zen or anything but the only true challenge in Minecraft is to challenge one’s self…which is often a tough gimmick to sell.

Minecraft

What kid doesn't want their own treehouse?

How long will the magic last?

All this is fine and dandy but we all know new games have a honeymoon period. Games are fun because they’re a new toy to play with, and in the case of Minecraft it’s a very different experience than what you’re used to playing. These three Minecrafters are big into the game right now after only a week or so, but how long will the fun last? Does Minecraft have real replayability or will the magic wear off once you build the ultimate skyscraper or dig the world’s largest hole?

Q: You’re still new to Minecraft so there’s a certain novelty right now. How long do you think you’ll keep playing before the fun starts to wear thin…or will it keep being fun?

Michael: I thought about that before I forked over the money. I sort of equate it to the iPhone games I buy for less than $10. A few have been great games that I keep replaying even though they are just the same thing over and over, like Lux Touch which is a Risk emulator with decent AI opponents, and Strategery more recently. The games I keep playing are hard enough that they remain challenging, but easy enough that I do stand a chance. To me, the replayability depends on continuing to feel like it’s a fun puzzle to work out, or there are new strategies to be experimented with. I don’t know yet if there are elements to Minecraft that keep it challenging as you progress, or if there are different strategies to pursue or anything, so I don’t know if I’ll still be playing it in a month or three, but I get the sense that they keep adding new stuff to it, so that could help. Who knows? I still play Master of Magic, and that came out in the mid-nineties.

Josh: This is a question that I’m interested in too. I don’t know if it will still be interesting after I’ve finished [building my castle]. I know that I need to explore more, and want to see what it’s like to play more socially (i.e. explore, build with others) and to play on harder difficulty. I like that the game continues to evolve and updates seem to come reasonably quickly. The game definitely has a good time killing-to-fun ratio, and I like that.

Jen: This is hard for me to say right now. I tend to get bored with games easily, but because the game is somewhat limitless (i.e. always a mob to fight, massive maps to explore) I think it will hold my interest for a while.

Minecraft

It might not be much, but it's home.

The science of Minecraft

It doesn’t sound like the jury isn’t in yet on the longevity of Minecraft but with so many different ways to approach the game I think it’s safe to say everyone will be coming back to it on a regular basis…although maybe not for five hours at a time. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Minecraft is the seemingly “simple” challenges you have to deal with…like not getting lost. In watching and guiding these new players around the game, one of the most common struggles is not getting lost. How do you maintain a sense of direction without a map or directions? A challenge most of us don’t have to deal with on a daily basis in real life nor often in virtual life, and Minecraft gives you the opportunity to explore that challenge. Some of them dug trenches like sidewalks, others placed torches like crumbs and some erected towers that could be seen from a distance…all effective strategies but all different.

Playing with a bunch of new players in a shared world has been a wonderful study in gaming and social behavior that I’ve found to be another game within the game. For example, one thing all three of them did when they started was to just dig straight down until they reached the bottom. This fascinated me because I never did that…it never really entered my mind to try, so why did they all do this? Was it because they are non-gamers without much exposure to common gaming conventions that might suggest otherwise? Or was it because they just wanted to see if it was endless? One of them has built a huge castle that can be seen for miles. Another seems to prefer smaller bunker-style dwellings while another just seems to enjoy wandering the great outdoors. Each behavior most certainly relates to their personality and problem solving techniques, and out of all the games I’ve played over the years, few expose this as well as Minecraft.

The Minecraft virus

My enthusiasm for Minecraft may have coaxed my friends and family into buying the game and playing it with me (a dedicated server didn’t hurt either), but will their gaming experience go on to infect their friends?

Q: When someone asks you about Minecraft and you have to explain to them what the game is, what will you tell them? Would you recommend the game?

Michael: I will recommend it because I’ll be looking for more people to play with. I think of it as a huge shared world where you can explore and make things and discover weird stuff. It’s really low stakes and open ended.

Josh: I tell them that it’s like playing LEGO and SimCity at the same time, with the added challenge of a smidgen of fighting. I definitely recommend the game to someone who I could see being interested in this type of game.

Jen: I will recommend the game. I would describe Minecraft as a game that can be played independently or with others. I would also explain to prospective players that you can set your own goals. You can focus on mining, hunting, collecting items or fighting the mobs.

If any of that holds true then it sounds like my group of Minecraft friends may grow quite a bit in the near future, and that is always welcomed. Minecraft is a game that can be a lot of fun playing solo with a near-endless amount of challenge, but playing this type of game with others is a not only just a lot of fun: it can be a real study in human behavior as well. I’ve also found that Minecraft is a great equalizer when it comes to gaming ability. My years of hardcore gaming doesn’t help much when it comes to Minecraft. In fact, it might be a disadvantage. Minecraft‘s barebones approach really puts experienced gamers and casual gamers on the same level for once. The one thing, and maybe only thing, that separates its players is creative problem solving…but then again, what problem are you trying to solve?

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About Author

Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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