When Games Matter: Creating, Sharing, and Not Keeping Score in Minecraft

I recently wrote an article exploring a game that made me angry and what that says about me. Reflecting on that article has caused me to think more precisely about gaming’s bias toward competition. In his article, “Winner: Is Competition Such a Bad Thing?”, Matthew Burns, a former Bungie employee (developers of Halo), reflects on how this bias plays out:

By holding victory high over any other kind of experience, games end up biased heavily toward creating situations that inflame anger and frustration. Players are routinely placed in conditions reminiscent of the Robbers Cave experiment–a classic study of conflict in social psychology in which two insular groups were brought into competition, which quickly escalated into open hostility. But game designers are somehow still shocked or dismayed when players’ behavior turns ugly, and we universally put the blame on our customers rather than our games.

So while the chance to win may keep millions of people playing games, emphasizing victory at the expense of less goal-oriented play means that game developers often overlook the deeper qualities that attract players in the first place (Kill Screen, Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 41).

While it was certainly my fault that I lost my temper playing FIFA 11, it shouldn’t be shocking because after all, when all we do is compete, it shouldn’t surprise us when failure is maddening. Burns says our pension for competition has given us a “creatively impoverished medium. There is certainly more to life and gaming than winning and sadly so few games seem to be tapping into this simple truth.

This week, thanks to the polite nudge of a friend, I have been playing Minecraft, which has been one of the most fascinating and compelling gaming experiences that I can remember. The graphics are blocky and very low resolution–Mario 64 is more impressive graphically and it came out 15 years ago. You, the player, are what makes Minecraft special. You spend most of the game mining and the building things with the material that you mine. The scope of what you can construct with your seemingly limited materials is astounding. You decide how much you will get out of Minecraft based on how creative you want to get. The low resolutions make the player responsible for creating beautiful structures rather than the game itself.  Your avatar is tiny, a mere handful of blocks put together to roughly resemble a human being. But what you can create is astounding.

Minecraft is not without adventure–at night skeletons, zombies, and creepers will attack you if you are not sheltered in your house.  The mines, in which you must find the game’s most precious materials for building, also contain monsters. If you die you will start over outside the mine and potentially lose what you had mined for. While this could be potentially frustrating, I have found that these adventures enrich the experience of building. Your structures and creations become connected to the adventures you had mining for their materials and consequently carry more value.

Minecraft can be played with friends if you can find a server. Thanks to a friend, that is the only way I have played it and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Every time I load the game up, I am noticing things my friends have done to the world and its fascinating because its constantly changing and becoming more diverse. One time I loaded up the game and the only guy on our server who I don’t really know had built a massive glass bridge all the way across a rather large bay that separates his house from mine. There is an unwritten rule in our server that you don’t mess with other people’s houses. This guy had sort of messed with mine as his bridge connected to my house. But it was so amazing that I absolutely didn’t care and welcomed the change.

Early on I was amazed by every little thing that people would do in the game, my friend who helped build my house made a painting and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Now I have 7-8 paintings in my room. As you progress, you and your friends find that you are building more and more amazing things and its a blast to share your creations and the stories behind them with friends. Further when you play with people you know, you find that there is more license to get creative with the world and even the story of the game that you are creating with them.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to go make a statue of a giant leg on one of the beaches.

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  • I’ll just mention that the first thing we saw over in-game chat was a conversation between you and Rich about how you would need to team up together in order to “beat” me and Dan. So even then, there was this sense of approaching the game as competition.

  • That was a joke and my way of complimenting you on your structures which were impressive to me (and mostly still are).

  • MOSTLY?!?!?

  • Kinda tacky. >;-)

  • Well some of the wow factor has worn off–when I first got into the game I thought, “man I will never be able to make as cool things as Dan and Seth.” But yeah your smiley faces are pretty awesome!

  • Dan Davis


    That is a beautiful view you have there. I had hoped the bridge wasn’t offensive. It was meant as an extension of friendship and that yer welcome to come visit any time. Now it seems like you guys might inherit the place as I have found a new land to explore and build upon. I’ll, of course, have to build a new bridge, or freeway. It’s quite a distance from our original locations.

    I’ve gotten frustrated with this game a couple of times. Generally when I was foolish enough to mess with the mob generators and was not very well prepared. I have literally lost my greatest inventories during these times, or falling into lava, or fighting slimes, when it was so inopportune to lose. The last time I failed, I was ready to quit playing. Given enough time to pout and lick my wounds, I found my way back and was glad to return. It has been fun watching you and Rich go back and forth in chat.

  • @Dan the bridge was totally welcome and yeah it was very much interpreted as a sign of friendship. When Seth first invited me on, he understandably said something to the effect of don’t mess with each other’s houses etc. But I am glad that we are all kinda connecting our “stuff,” it makes it feel like more of a community. The only person I may never connect anything to is Seth, only because I feel like if I did, I would ugly up his immaculate creations–he kinda has his own world over there with a unique aesthetic.

    I am also glad you enjoy Rich and I’s banter. I probably enjoy hearing people’s stories as much as I do actually playing and building stuff myself.

    I am considering making my sky bridge into a sailing passage-way which would make travel a bit quicker–it really is too bad that the portals don’t work–that would be really nice for fast travel. Anyway, maybe we can build a huge waterway in the sky connecting your new place to our compound.

  • Drew I think we should make the glass bridge the water-way, since you can’t put minecarts on it. I think it would be better to use the stone bridges as mine-tracks when they release the update with the mine-cart pushers.

    Good to hear from you, Dan!

  • Dan Davis

    Yah, I was seriously considering using mine carts on there, but that glass breaks that idea. I had also thought it could be a water+lava+walkway feature. I’ve found a way to get water to behave a bit better with the glass, finally.

  • Hey I didn’t see this till just now, but yeah I like both of those ideas!