Put me down as another gamer who loves Minecraft. Even though it has some significant issues, it does so much right–in fact, more than AAA games I’ve tried lately. It’s a player-driven, open game but one whose mechanics push most gamers in the same direction of creating things. [And humans are the tool-using animal.] It’s a game that illustrates that timing and good suspense is never outdone by shiny graphics and surround sound. Those barely-recognizable pixelated zombies are terrifying in a way that Resident Evil 5 wasn’t. Undoubtedly, the craft of timing and the rudimentary media are worth a good discussion.
But I’d like to look at the game from another perspective–the tension of metaphors.
First, a little background. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a short but great book about basic metaphors called Metaphors We Live By. Their point was to look at the mundane metaphors we use daily but don’t always see them as metaphors. Orientation metaphors are one of those basic groups.
- up is good, happy, conscious, health, life, control, virtuous, rational, safe.
‘He’s in high spirits.’
‘I’m in top shape.’
‘I’m on top of things.’
‘She’s climbing the corporate ladder.’
‘She has high standards.’
‘He took the high road in the debate.’
- down is bad, sad, unconscious, sickness, death, subjugation, depravity, emotional, dangerous.
‘She’s feeling down today.’
‘He came down with the flu.’
‘He fell from power.’
‘She’s low on the pole.’
‘Things have been going downhill.’
‘Morale is low.’
‘That was an underhanded thing to do.’
‘That’s beneath you.’
And we’re aware of this cluster of associations so that, when some argue that men are rational and women are emotional, they also argue that men are good, happy, virtuous, and in control. These base, controlling metaphors are prevalent, powerful, and ‘natural’ and I think they evoke a visceral response. For example, Hollywood knows that certain features create discomfort and even fear in audiences–faces with a 45 degree slant are more threatening than faces with more vertical alignment. Think of wolves and other predators. Likewise, being unable to see someone’s eyes makes us uncomfortable, which is why Disney creates doe-eyed characters.
The up-down and light-dark metaphors are strong in Minecraft, largely because of the primitive nature of the game. As this simple and gratuitous graphic shows, the hilltop ‘feels’ like the best place to be in the game while the mines seem the worst.
In fact, I spent a bit of my time early in the game building a good, protective base at the top of a hill for various reasons.
- By building high, I could avoid building a roof so that I could see the passage of time while inside.
- Monsters seemed to be more prevalent at lower levels.
- A tall structure would be easier to find when I explored in search of materials. (Indeed, I had built 2 basic structures which I never could find again.)
The hilltop feels safe, then, because of its height and exposure to light, especially if you have a structure as I did where I could watch even the passage of night and know when to go outside. The hilltop and outside areas in general have a great pull for the gamer [at least for other Minecraft players I spoke with] while the caves and mines have a certain repulsion.
At this point, the game design kicks in for a great experience because Minecraft, true to its name, forces the gamer to the more uncomfortable dark and lower parts of the world, as this second figure shows.
To build more advanced items, the player must go into the mines and caves, almost regardless of how the player has decided to play the game. What is especially brilliant is that most players have a similar experience for that first night in the game–no torch, the player huddles somewhere, probably a dark cave where unidentified noises keep you wondering exactly what’s out there. As crude as the graphics are, that experience of huddling in the dark is an iconic one because the player is completely defenseless, something few games force players to experience. As players, we’re used to having some light for the dark, some weapon to defend ourselves, some knowledge of what is threatening. Not here. And at this point, the graphics do not matter because dark is dark, and you have no weapon to hold.
Yet, if there’s any aspect of the graphics that is superb, it is probably the lighting. First, you have the sun and the moon passing through the sky, which you can watch. With no other means to tell time, this mechanic in itself creates tension, especially in the early stages as the player searches for resources, often far from a base, if one exists. The player might wonder, ‘Do I have time to run back? Do I need to build a new shelter?’
Second, when you go into a cave or mine, you lose sight of the sky and, thus, the passage of time. I don’t think I’ve played any game where that loss of time has been so affective. By the point I was in the caves, I had already internalized that apprehension of the night, knowing what it meant, even if I might not be as affected in the caves. And losing sight of the sky creates another source of tension.
Third, while in the caves, I saw that my torch would sometimes flicker on an object that I could not identify. Did I see something or not? Again, I talked with other players who experienced the same thing. While objects and creatures are primitively represented, we still have the real experience of thinking we see something. Lighting is critical to the game, in my experience, and I think the presence of a torch is not only satisfying and comforting, the torch lighting works pretty well to show a little of the darkness’s secrets.
When asked why Minecraft is addicting, I basically point in the direction of these metaphors, in so many words. It makes me feel, experience some basic emotions. We are used to thinking that sophisticated graphics make us feel ‘as if we are there,’ as people often said after watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and Avatar. The problem is that as gamers and the audience, the details of the movie or game world captivate us, and we’re impressed. Yet, while details can be important, they can also overwhelm, sometimes to the point of distraction.
Minecraft does not make us feel transported to a specific place, but it does make us experience some genuine tension. And I think the primitive graphics and game design actually help us focus on those basic metaphors, of how they affect us.