Chris Ware covered the June 22, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. Below, his accompanying essay:
Any parent of a four-to-x-year-old will likely understand this week’s cover. Most everyone else will probably be confused.
Minecraft is a video game invented, in 2009, by Markus Persson (a.k.a. “Notch” to the seven hundred trillion humans who play it), as a sort of intuitive reimagining of the landscape of his Swedish childhood, but with zombies. Simultaneously writing and releasing the game, like a sort of wakeful brain surgery, Persson and his staff coded while an algorithmically increasing number of players sent suggestions, found bugs, and played and played and played Minecraft, before the full version was released, in 2011. Then the whole genome of the project sold to Microsoft last year, for two and a half billion dollars. (Concerned parents can view the fascinating documentary “Minecraft: The Story of Mojang” for more info.) Persson recently became notable to the over-forty set for buying a seventy-million-dollar house in Los Angeles (he only very recently became the owner of an automobile, and appears, like me, to dread human contact), and he no longer works on the game.
“I hope Bill Gates doesn’t screw it up!” my ten-year-old daughter, Clara, says when she and seven hundred trillion other kids somehow heard the news. (She didn’t realize that Gates had already moved on from Microsoft to malaria.) It struck me as fluky that the names “Microsoft” and “Minecraft” look and sound similar, though maybe not so fluky that Microsoft is looking to pair its holographic glasses, the HoloLens, with Minecraft to make the game an immersive environment—Minecraft Office 2017? “I really want those goggle things, Dad,” Clara says. I’ve suggested to her that it’s somewhat amazing that, when she and her friends are twenty, they’ll still be able to visit their imaginary childhood worlds. “Yeah,” she says, uncompelled.
“Hey”—I try harder—“maybe you’ll even be able to talk to each other and sort of hang out there.”
“Yeah,” she says, eyes unfocussing. “But you can already do that, Dad.”
I know nothing about video games. I think the game Osmos is pretty much genius, along with everything released by Patrick Smith’s Vectorpark, but the vast swath of lens-flared apocalyptic shooters that real school shooters reportedly dig appears to me like the illustrations from my old Dungeons & Dragons books, amped up into cinematized heavy-metal album covers, with all the vandalism of the principia of human aesthetic achievement that such a notion suggests. Minecraft, however, feels sui generis. It’s simple. It looks like a game I might have played in college: blocky, eight-bit, almost bad. All of the faces resemble planaria stretched over blocks. Hands, bodies, and feet are blocks. In fact, much of the genius of the game is that it’s built entirely from blocks—like Legos, but ones that you can’t accidentally step on after putting your kid to bed. Perhaps most importantly, Minecraft allows for variations on two basic modes of play: “survival,” where one must find the material means to live for a night while killing monsters (clearly for boys), and “creative,” where one can endlessly build or dig an imaginary world of limitless architectural scope from three-dimensional pixels, with no threat whatsoever. (For girls. And girl-boys, like me.)
Clara has spent hours, days, weeks of the past two years building and making navigable block worlds fuelled from the spun-off fizz of her accreting consciousness: giant ice-cream-layered auditoriums linked to narrow fifty-foot-high hallways over glass-covered lava streams, stairs that descend to underground classrooms, frozen floating wingless airplanes, and my favorite, the tasteful redwood-and-glass “writer’s retreat.” (It has a small pool.) She made a meadow of beds for my wife—a high-school teacher who craves unconsciousness—and a roller coaster to take her there. Though Clara mostly “plays” Minecraft by herself, the game allows her friends to drop into these worlds, too, and I’ve even spent some strange virtual afternoons as a floating block-self, guided by my angelic block-hammer-wielding block-daughter, zipping around a dreamscape that feels, really, less like life and maybe more like death, but in a sweet sort of way. If architecture somehow mirrors the spaces we carve in our memories and make in our minds, then something pretty interesting is going on here.
Currently signed up for a local summer camp where, as luck has it, she is the only girl, Clara runs around and sweats and plays soccer and something called “hand hockey” in the morning. In the afternoon, she dries off in air-conditioning while learning to write mods for Minecraft. Oh, yes: as a function of the programming language that powers the game, it is easily “mod”-ified, and hacking into the game-reality’s matrix to introduce everything from new “skins” to textures to food to animals to changes in its physics is now a software sub-industry itself, and it genuinely compels her. Sometimes she’ll sit down and idly comment about how, for instance, “in Minecraft, you can’t really sit down,” but she’s just downloaded a mod that allows for a sort of almost-sitting-down, which made her actual act of sitting down somehow now so much more relevant, if not more real. I vaguely recall a philosophy class I took on Hume and induction and deduction, but that mental door has been boarded up for years.
“Dad! We played hand hockey again today and I stole the puck from the best player. Twice!” she boasts. “Actually, I think I might have a crush on him.”
“Uh. How can you tell?” I ask, suddenly very lost.
“Because sometimes I imagine him getting shot and me jumping in front of the bullets to save him.”
“Oh. O.K.” Now I am even more lost. (What is hand hockey, anyway?)
An annoyed look crosses her face. “It’s stupid you can’t hold hands in Minecraft, isn’t it?” A pause. And then: “Somebody should really write a mod for that.”