Curiosity, philosophy, and open-ended games

An awesome half-review, half-philosophical dive into Minecraft by Jonathan Gourlay:

Being and Nothingness and “Minecraft”

I was born in Minecraft alone and without defense. […] It is a powerful experience to be cast into Minecraft‘s blocky paradise without direction or preparation. On my first day, I thought the game was about punching pigs. So I punched pigs. Then night fell and a demon, kind of like a Hong-Kong hopping vampire, crept toward me in my loneliest loneliness and exploded. […]

Another morning in Minecraft and with the help of fan-made survival manuals I am now equipped to survive the nightly night of the demons. Safety ensured, I must climb my pyramid of needs toward Minecraftian self-actualization. But what is that, exactly? What do I do now? In Minecraft, as in Sartre, existence really does precede essence. There is no goal, no point, no reason at all in this godless universe for playing Minecraft. But then, there is no point to playing with blocks either. There are things you can do with blocks. There are things you can do in Minecraft. You can find an elusive saddle in an underground monster lair and use it to ride a pig. But you don’t get anything — no badge or narrative or points to spend at an online store — for riding a pig. Pig riding is an end in itself. When you have accomplished it, that is simply how you chose to live your Minecraft life. Quit to title. You are your life and nothing else, pig rider.

I love that last part, especially: “no badge or narrative or points to spend at an online store […] Pig riding is an end in itself.”

I’m a sucker for sandbox games and other open-ended games that stretch the classic idea of “sandbox” — at times I’ve played MLB The Show and NCAA Football in the "Franchise Mode" for season after season for that same open-endedness. I’ve played a tiny bit of Minecraft (along with it’s spiritual predecessor, the MMO Wurm Online, which Notch extensively developed before quitting to work on Minecraft). I tinkered on one map of Sim City 4 on-and-off for two years.

I seem to enjoy the lack of focus and the tinkering aspects of games like these. It’s embarrassingly good boredom fodder. And, provided you suspend disbelief long enough, the only thing you truly have is the pride in accomplishing whatever it is you set out to do — most of these games have few or no “achievements” in these open-ended modes. There are few built-in incentives or biases to cause you to do one thing or another: you simply have the framework of the game, your own curiosity, your own ideals, and possibly a few things you’ve heard that you want to try yourself. (In Gourlay’s piece, it’s his ideal of nostalgia and memories that drives him to build a rendition of a home he once lied in.)

These are the kind of games (or game modes) where only curiosity and experimentation can make the experience viable. If you don’t have that, then there clearly is no game here for you. (And funny enough, I don’t think many people I know actually would enjoy any of the things I play in my down time.)