Online environments and Minecraft – first thoughts

(Please note this has been written before I’ve given Minecraft a more than a initial trial. It’s just intended to capture some early ramblings on this).

Although I’d never consider myself a gamer, on reflection my experiences in this area have always involved ‘big spaces’. This goes way back to early ‘point and click’ adventures such as Simon the Sorcerer, which although limited in scope did allow you to travel round and explore the world that had been created. Then it was Tony Hawks in the early 2000s. Even though you had a skateboard strapped to your feet you could still venture round. Pre-children, there was a time when I did binge the Assassin’s Creed games. I loved these – I think it was the open world feel combined with history that gave a real sense of immersion.

However I’ve never played these online, collaboratively with others. I think this is largely down to:

  • A lack of a powerful computer to run these
  • A fast-enough broadband connection
  • On the odd time I’ve given it a go, found that the level of ability of those already in the ‘world’ so ridiculously high that when involved in a ‘skirmish’, I’ve been killed before I even realise I’m playing it.

(I am aware using the term ‘play’ may not be the right choice. I think it infantilises activity in these environments, as it can be so much more than simply play. But for the want of a better phrase, I’ve used this at times in this blog).

This does make me think about some of the real world barriers that prevent access to online spaces. In my own personal experience, it’s largely come down to the set-up cost, or finances to be blunt. When I have tried it, I’ve struggled to find that way in – the learning curve was so steep it was disheartening.

I realise Minecraft is somewhat the antithesis of all three points, in that it a) is specifically designed to work on as many devices as possible, and b) it’s geared around creation and collaboration, rather than competition. Perhaps that’s where it’s success lies.

I have certainly been aware of the popularity of the Minecraft, although until now never given it a go. My 7 year old nephew is hooked on it (I’ve never been able to ask him about it as he speaks Dutch, and I don’t!), and I was aware of the masses of youtube videos. It seems to be able to capture that elusive sweetspot that if companies could identify and articulate, they’d all be millionaires. I am also aware of the popularity amongst autistic children, as a way of providing a environment for them to explore and socialise in, that seems to be a good fit for their condition. I’ve learnt that it’s opened up communication between these children and their parents, and given them a common metaphor to open up dialogue.

It’s interesting to think what is defined as social, and cultural views on what’s make a social setting. The pub or cafe may be seen as the perfect social enabler for some, and terrifying for others. With the development and increased adoption of these online spaces (and social media is included in this), it’s could be redefining what it means to be social.

Moving away from ‘games’, and more towards online environments, I do recall the intrigue around second life, perhaps around 2005-6. There was a huge amount of hype around the time with commercial companies buying virtual real estate. I think it was seen as the next dotcom boom, with everyone so keen to get on board and speculate on the off-chance it would become a success.

My initial thoughts are that even if it’s fairly loose, and changes over time, an online environment needs to have a purpose. Minecraft is to build, to explore. Second life didn’t have this hook, by its very description it’s simply a virtual version of ‘this life’, so perhaps fell foul of some of the issues we have in the real world. Who wants to experience them twice?!

I’ve also been thinking about augmented reality, and where this fits in. Is this an online environment, or is it simply a different lens on our current world? For something like Pokemon go, I’d be tempted to lean towards the former, as the landscape was a backdrop for the game. But with discussions around activity happening between friends as much offline as online, is the term ‘online environments’ too specific? Do we need a new term to capture the developments in AR?

Now, best get cracking on with my build in minecraft…