What is Minecraft ACTUALLY about?


Pewdiepie, James Charles, these are just two
of the big names behind the Minecraft renaissance. After a bit of a lull period, Minecraft’s
back, bigger and better than ever. Ever since it’s release in 2011, this little
game has had few real competitors that meet its potential as an engine for player expression
and creativity. So all this got me thinking about the politics
of the game, and what messages it sends about the world around it. I’m not talking about the politics of its
creator, because ehumkqnqsf, or about that hoky ending poem when you beat the game. I want to look at the underlying mechanics
of the game and what they incentivize. The gameplay systems that go unquestioned
and that promote certain actions over others. What are the politics of Minecraft? The beginning of the game is all about survival,
it’s in the name. You frantically try to gather tools, build
a shelter, and pick-up food before the sun sets and the monsters come. It’s exhilarating, especially if it’s
your first time. After you do a bit of mining and spelunking
and craft some armor, the day and night cycle isn’t as big of a deal as you can hold your
own at night, and your home and bed offer good protection. You’re done just surviving and you’re ready
for the second phase of Survival Mode: conquest. See, you acquire the materials to create bigger
and better houses, you start farming and raising livestock, and you begin to tackle the harder
dungeons of the game. As you progress you will eventually be able
to dominate every aspect of your world, with automated farms, impenetrable bases, and Godlike
powers. Minecraft doesn’t end when you beat the
final boss, that’s silly. Minecraft ends when you’ve reached the absolute
limit of the game’s systems. When your labor has finally paid off and you
don’t need to engage with the world around you. You’ve made the games yours and it can basically
play itself at that point. Most players move on to Creative mode to flex
with wild builds, or start exploring mods and other things to extend the life of the
game, but the end of the vanilla Minecraft experience is when you reach God-mode. It’s a common issue in every game, end-game
God syndrome. But it’s important to us here because this
exact scenario is actually something thinkers and philosophers have been grappling with
for centuries: the transition humanity has made from surviving out in the wilderness
as hunter-gatherers to living in a fully automated Minecraftian utopia. Growth is good, right? Well, that’s what the modernist thinkers
of the late-19th century believed. The ushering in of new technology and scientific
advances had a lot of people feeling pretty good about our ability to change the world
around us, and modernism emerged as a series of movements reaffirming certain ideas about
humanity. One of these ideas was that human history
was one long line of progress. So for example, ancient farmers lived better
than the cavemen before them. Serfs under the king lived better than those
ancient farmers, since, being a serf is way better than being a slave. The proletarian worker lived better than the
serf and so on. Today, the modern worker lives in conditions
that a worker from a century ago couldn’t even dream of. Considering how little of the modern-day worker’s
life is spent on things like food gathering, and how many of yesterday’s problems have
been automated away, it’s almost like we’re entering our own end-game God mode. Humanity’s progression is self-evident. These assumptions also shaped how we saw the
world around us. Modernist thinkers believed that we needed
to bend the Earth to humanity’s will, much like we do in the game. Now this wasn’t some new development or
anything, we’d been thinking this for a while. Take Genesis for example, God commands Adam
and Eve that the world belongs to man and man alone so we’re free to do with it what
we wish. That’s the modernist way of viewing things. And anybody who was anybody back in the day
subscribed to it. Like, Karl Marx is zaddy, but even he was
all about human history being a series of progressive stages, the first of which he
liked to call ‘primitive communism’. Capitalist, communist, everyone was on the
same page. But, we haven’t always had such a rosy picture
of humanity’s role in the world. Ancient Greek thinkers like Hesiod wrote about
how humanity had actually lived in a state of decline set in five distinct stages. During the Golden Age, the first stage of
humanity, we lived perfect lives and the Earth provided the food and means to live in abundance. It was a pastoral paradise. But over time, the world became harsh and
cruel, and we had to labor to survive. We find a similar story of decay in The Bible. After Adam ate from the forbidden tree, God
proclaims, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat
food from it all the days of your life. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your
food until you return to the ground…” Now these are just stories, mythologies after
all. And considering how terrible the lives of
the average person was back in the day, it makes sense their world view wouldn’t be
as positive as the modernist. But it’s curious that they all tell the same
general story of a fall from grace. And some anthropologist’s think their version
of events might be more right than we originally thought The Worst Mistake Humanity Ever Made is a
provocatively titled article that shook the way we viewed our entire history. Anthropologist Jared Diamond argued that,
much like the fall from Paradise or the Golden Age, the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle
to an agricultural one locked us into a path destined for misery. See, anthropologists had traditionally taken
a progressivist view of the hunter-gatherer way of life, they tended to see the lifestyle
as brutish and inferior to modern living standards. Sprinkle in a sense of western exceptionalism,
*cough cough*, and you can see why this take was the dominant one. They argued that the agricultural revolution
was a good thing because farmers could store crops to weather future shortages, didn’t
have to move much or expose themselves to the elements, and the majority of the human
race transitioned to an agricultural lifestyle overtime, that had to count for something! But, revisionists like Jared Diamond have
argued that there’s not a whole lot of evidence that the farmers had it better. I mean, we can’t exactly study 100,000 year
old humans, so we mostly had to rely on existing hunters-and-gatherers like the Kalahari bush-people
or Hadza nomads to prove our hypotheses. And they weren’t very good evidence for
the modernists. They spent much less time working than we
did, and had access to enough food to live healthily. You wouldn’t see a 20th century hunter-gatherer
suffer from famine, while food shortages wiped out millions in modern nations. And when recent break-through’s in science
allowed us to analyze ancient skeletons, they confirmed what we had been seeing. The skeletons of people from farming societies
were much shorter than their hunter-gatherer counterparts, had numerous defects from malnutrition,
anemia, bone lesions and other degenerative conditions. When we traded a high quality and diverse
diet for cheap carbs that were prone to bad harvests, things went South real quick for
our ancestors. And that wasn’t the worst part of it either. Before agriculture, humans didn’t keep surpluses
of food or livestock. the Earth was abundant, and we didn’t exactly
have refrigerators so it wasn’t necessary. Without resources to control and a highly
mobile lifestyle, tribes of humans lived in relatively egalitarian societies. That’s the “primitive communism” Marx
was talking about. Everyone, both man and woman, gave what they
could and took what they needed, and we lived this way for the vast majority of our history. But once we had standing and limited resources,
early humans began to organize around militaristic lines. The modern nation-state, different wealth
classes, gender inequality, they all owe their origin to this shift in agriculture. The slave societies that arose were brutal
and violent, at least for 99% of the people at the bottom. Sure, me and you might live nice here as we
plan for our end-game God mode, but think of all the suffering and pain it’s taken
to get us here and keep us here. Agriculture set us on the path of development
and as we face the existential annihilation of our species, the minimum we can do is ask:
has it all been worth it? [break] So hey look, I’m not an anarcho-primitivist
or anything, I don’t think civilization is a bad thing. But I still think these are worthy questions
to look into. Now, it’s time to return to Minecraft. I’ve been talking about it because it’s a
good vehicle to talk about modernism. But is the connection only skin-deep? Or can we make real connections to the influence
modernism has had on the game. Well first I need to set a few starting assumptions. 1. All games have values, even if only implicitly. And those values are influenced by a whole
lot of things, but most importantly here, they’re influenced by the material circumstances
of the society that the game gets made in. Example: Minecraft’s primary source of food
is meat. It’s clear to me that since this game was
made by a Western meat-eater, in a culture where industrial meat is a primary food source,
this was probably an unconscious choice that just made sense to the developer. If the game was made 100,000 years ago, maybe
the first ten minutes would be spent collecting berries and not taking out cows. Or if it was made 100,000 years in the future,
maybe they’d be space cows, you see what I mean? The world produces natural influences to our
pieces of media. And most of the time, they’re imperceptible. We’re blind to our natural biases. And Minecraft clearly expresses other values,
the game incentivizes you to build, farm, and eat animals for survival. I think it’d be a stretch to say that the
game moralizes these things in any way, the game has a very minimalist approach to everything. But I do think that the presence of these
survival mechanisms illustrate what we think is normal and justified for a survival-based
game. we’re primed to not feel bad when we do
any of these because, why would we when it’s so normalized in our real lives? 2. We live in a militaristic culture. Ever consider it odd how when a nation gets
attacked by another nation, even if it’s just like a ship in the middle of the ocean,
there’s suddenly a bunch of calls to arms? Probably not. I mean, when you get attacked, you defend
yourself, it’s human nature. Well, anthropologist David Graeber argues
that’s not quite true. In The Bully’s Pulpit, which is 100% worth
your time, it’s an amazing piece. He relates the “parable of the tribes.” It goes that in a river valley shared by five
tribes, coexistence requires that all tribes be good to each other. The moment one breaks bad and attacks others,
the other tribes have to either a) become militaristic themselves b) run-away, or c)
be conquered. It’s logical, and it’s used as a justification
for militarism in the animal world and in humans. But the anthropological record proves otherwise. In his words, “as anyone familiar with the
history of say, Oceania, Amazonia or Africa would be aware, a great many societies refused
to organize themselves on military lines. Again and again, we encounter descriptions
of peaceful communities who just accepted that every few years, they’d have to take
to the hills as some raiding party of local bad boys arrived to torch their village, ****, pillage,
and carry off trophy parts from hapless stragglers. The vast majority of human males have refused
to spend their time training for war, even when it was in their immediate practical interest
to do so.” So no, it’s not exactly some inevitability
of human nature. If you look at the history of Europe, with
all the warring and warlords that led to the creation of today’s nations, yeah, it makes
sense that modern society is a militaristic, authoritarian one. And it’s the one our games get made in. Finally, 3. Minecraft is an escapist power fantasy, but
not in the destructive, testosterone fueled way we’re used to. See, you might’ve thought Minecraft is a
curious game to connect to politics and modernism. I mean, if we want to talk about the dangers
of growth, maybe SimCity or Civilization might be better starting points, right? And yet Minecraft is a much better vehicle
for the discussion because of one important difference: you’re not some omnipotent God
looking down at the world, instead you’re just some guy. You don’t press a button to build a house,
or send your troops somewhere. It’s only you, and you have to do everything
by hand. Succeeding in the game is work. You can spend days and weeks on a project,
and when you finish, you feel real accomplishment. It’s a much more engaging power fantasy. Now, okay a lot of people argue that things
we do in games doesn’t really matter because it’s all fantastical and there’s a few degrees
of separation. They don’t feel bad about a few pixels on
the screen. You don’t think about the moral repercussions
and politics of Space Invaders, why would you for Minecraft. It’s not like this is a game about some big
war. But, it kind of is about a war, isn’t it? You’re engaged in a battle with the world. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who
felt bad when they heard the horrible squeals pigs and cows make when you get rid of them. Seriously listen to some of these death sounds. [horrible sounds] This is the fantasy crumbling before you,
when your virtual self does something you wouldn’t do and the cognitive dissonance is
too much to ignore. You’d have a much harder time getting rid
of the dog than the cow. And you probably didn’t even think twice about
cutting down that tree. If Minecraft was made back in the days of
The Epic of Gilgamesh, we’d probably incur the wrath of a forest mini-boss if we cut
too many trees. This is how our culture infects our media. And it’s my job to help unpeel all of the
layers ๐Ÿ˜€ So let me ask you a question. Our modernist way of thinking has gotten us
into a whole load of heaping trouble. Climates changing, species are going extinct,
communities are threatened, we know the story. why do we think that it’s going to be more
growth, more science and more technology that’s going to get us out of this mess? Why do we keep having faith that by just doing
the same thing over and over and over again, that we’ll finally reach the magical state
where we’ll be able to solve all of our problems? What makes us so confident that we won’t collapse
before we get there? And Minecraft’s lore contains grains of
this fate. The story is slim, but there are elements
scattered throughout the world of an advanced society of builders. Buildings and strongholds by ancient builders
are everywhere. What brought this society down? We don’t know for sure with what the game
shows us. But fundamentally, the story of Minecraft
is about the rise and fall of civilization. Now, I’m not trying to be one of those people,
that are like, “What if good guy… bad?!” No, standing on its own, it’s no big deal. Minecraft is a game, and growth mechanics
in games make intuitive sense. Bending the planet and all life who inhabit
it to your will, is really fun! But isn’t it a little weird when all of our
escapist media, all of our power fantasy’s, involve us re-enacting the same narratives
that got us here today without even asking, “hey man, you sure you wanna slice that lil
chicken up when you can just survive off mushroom soup and apples?” Every game centers the same mechanics of growth
and none stop to ask if it’s a problem. Extra Credits makes a good point in their
video The Issue with Power Fantasies. The problem here is that the protagonist isn’t
always right! There’s a misconception that stopping and
asking, “hey, am I doing the right thing here?” will somehow make a game worse, or shatter
the feeling of power and escapism. But I think that’s false, very few experiences
are made worse by making us introspect even just a little bit. Extra Credits hypothesizes that the lack of
moral introspection of our actions contributes to a culture that “associates being wrong
with being weak. And critical examination of what you’re doing
with being attacked.” But Graeber argues that it’s actually our
militaristic culture that makes this so. We have a huge cultural blind-spot that doesn’t
allow us to associate being wrong with being powerful. We routinely call horrific attacks “cowardly
acts,” when that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In his own words, “Personally flying an
airplane into a skyscraper takes guts. Nevertheless, the idea that one can be courageous
in a bad cause seems to somehow fall outside the domain of acceptable public discourse,
despite the fact that much of what passes for world history consists of endless accounts
of courageous people doing awful things.” So we need to ask ourselves, do we want Minecraft
to be a black and white fantasy like Super Mario Bros, or do we want it to be more like
Braid? Do we want it to be Dragon Quest, or Undertale? So how would Minecraft be able to question
the narratives of growth, and experience of total control without fundamentally changing
the experience? I actually have a good example. When you tear down a grass block, or build
on top of it, you’re left with a mound of dirt. I was fascinated by this when I first started
playing. In a game where you can control almost every
aspect of the world, this is the one time where your building has an impact on the world
that isn’t controllable by you, and you have to wait some time for the grass to grow
back. Animal Crossing: City Folk has a similar mechanic
where every-time you walk over a part of a grassy field, you slowly start creating a
trail, that won’t grow back unless you stop walking on that path. They’re mechanics that show that your actions
can have uncontrollable consequences, and they should be explored. We don’t need a grand judgement day or some
poem at the end to tell us to think about what we’ve done. Just small, simple things that remind you
that hey, our impact on this world can cause things that are out of our control. And sometimes, our impact might not always
be a good thing.

34 thoughts on “What is Minecraft ACTUALLY about?

  1. Beat me to it! But you make amazing videos anyhow, thanks for making great videos man! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. So, I'm not a gaming channel, but last video was on a videogame and next one might be too. Don't worry though I'll be making non-videogame videos real soon ๐Ÿ™‚

    Check out The Bully's Pulpit narrated by Audible Anarchist!
    https://youtu.be/inyk2b80IS4

  3. ๐ŸŽˆ๐ŸŽˆ๐ŸŽˆ dont mind me just inflating the algorithm ๐ŸŽˆ๐ŸŽˆ๐ŸŽˆ

  4. Talking about how late modernist thinkers believed growth was good while panning over Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger is quite the oversight.

  5. You adressed so many of my thoughts I've had while playing Minecraft. What helps me to relax and not stress about the game is thinking about how many bioms around my builds are still unexplored and unaffected by my actions. I never thought to put it into the context of modernism or anything like that though. Great work!

  6. I like that you put Marx in the lineup of modernist thinkers. He is obviously straight up modernist, but some silly lobsters think he's postmodern.

  7. I typically avoid killing animals. My sister got disturbed by me killing sheep for wool, so I have to get iron before wool now. You can be vegetarian or vegan in minecraft.

  8. This is a great video, but I really don't like the implication that letting more aggressive societies walk over yours and just writing it off as an unavoidable loss is somehow noble. I think there's an important distinction between defensive militarism and imperialism. Imagine if people took that same sort of tactic when facing modern imperialist or fascist groups and societies.

  9. oh poor humanity, cucked by the grain! man, agriculture is the shit that's lead us onto the path of curing death and returning to the glorious communistic existence we evolved under, fuck people who diss it.

  10. I remember that Jared Diamond mentioned a decline in living standards due to the transition from hunter-gatherers to herders/farmers in "Guns, Germs and Steel" but I didn't really look into it at that time. Maybe I should learn more about this process, anthropology seems very interesting and this Graeber dude has some interesting points.

  11. Great vid, I'm an anthology masters student and interested in hunter gatherers and I loved this vid. Also love Graeber

  12. Great video ๐Ÿ™‚ tbh tho you don't really have to kill animals in Mc to survive even early on. You can pretty easily forage seeds and grow wheat and usually you get some kind of vegetable from the environment too.

  13. great example of the spiteful disbelief of European ethnocentrism in assuming harvest and storage is optimal for hunter-gatherers who don't experience winter.
    they're just tight that they are miserably cold for half the year eating boiled turnip preserves while the rest of the world eats fruit in the sun.

    awesome video! more anthropology please ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Your style is great (fun and engaging!), and I appreciate your analysis. However, I had to stop the video partway through. Your understanding of "the way things were" is, to be frank, quite brutally ahistorical and focuses exclusively on a Eurocentric understanding of what agriculture is and what it means. The vast majority of agricultural societies were not militaristic or authoritarian, and framing this as a "fact-of-the-matter truth" relies entirely on Victorian-era capitalist accounts of the exploited classes, races, and genders. These people had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, in which they had all the power. Of course they framed it as inevitable! I know you don't trust the prevailing capitalist theories on race or gender, so why not extend that distrust towards their understanding of power and agriculture? Not doing so ignores the realities of indigenous communities in the Americas, in Africa and Oceania, and even European cultures that utilized agriculture without being victims of their own hierarchy, or of constant famine and malnutrition. Heck, there are even examples of foraging cultures that led themselves directly to ecological collapse, the historical aboriginals of Rapa Nui being a particularly memorable example.
    I've noticed a general trend in some of your works that I've seen, that you tend to profess a belief that "things used to be better in the distant past, they can become better again, and we should be willing to make sacrifices to achieve that 'better'". I'd really appreciate it if you were to examine these biases, particularly your tendency to romanticize the way you envision things "used to be". I see this as a worrying trend when taken into concert with your tendency to overgeneralize pre-industrial cultures, particularly indigenous or aboriginal ones, as being "inherently good", which leads directly falling into the harmful "noble savage" archetype perpetuated by modern Euro-American capitalistic cultures.

  15. Citing Diamond as an anthropologist is problematic, though he does have some good work. James C. Scott and Graeber have lots of writing on the origins of agriculture and civilization that give a muddier, more nuanced picture.

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