For Yetzirah and Sherlockfan

Yetzirah and Sherlockfan asked me to explain Minecraft.  A tall order, but I’ll see what I can do.
So, Minecraft is a computer game that’s completely open-ended and what they call “sand-box” – i.e. you can play it any way you like – there’s no set aim or way of winning.  Basically, you are placed in a world that is completely randomly generated and from there you can do what you like.
The world is made up of blocks (roughly 1 metre cubed in the scale of the game), and by hitting blocks you can break them. How difficult that is to do depends on what the block is, and what you’re hitting it with – breaking a block of dirt with your fist is relatively easy, but breaking a block of stone with your fist will take you a long time.  If you’ve got an appropriate tool like a pick-axe though, it’ll be much easier.  Once you’ve broken a block you can pick it up and use it – either to make tools (the “craft” part of Minecraft), or by placing it back down in a new place as a building block.
You start off with no tools or anything, so most people’s first move in the game is to find a tree and start hitting it to get blocks of wood.  Once you have blocks of wood you can craft them into wooden tools (like a shovel, axe, pickaxe and sword).  With those wooden tools you can get stone, which lets you make stronger and more efficient stone tools.  Then you can start digging underground (yep, that’s the “mine” part :-)), and get coal and iron ore, which you can smelt to get iron, and build even better tools.  As your mine gets down deeper, you find better ores, and so on.
There’s also animals, like chickens, cows, pigs and sheep, which you can kill to get food and resources: e.g. chickens give you feathers, which you can use to make arrows, and cows give you leather, which you can use to make armour.  And there’s plants: e.g. grass gives you seeds which you can use to grow wheat, which you can turn into bread, and flowers which can be made into dyes. As you collect more resources, you can make increasingly sophisticated tools which let you build more interesting structures (there’s even tools you can use to build simple electrical circuits).
So far, so bucolic.  But there’s a catch.  When the sun goes down (a Minecraft day lasts 20 minutes – 10 minutes of daylight, 10 minutes of darkness), the monsters come out.  And they all want to kill you.  There’s zombies, who aren’t very dangerous on their own, but hunt in packs and can quickly overwhelm you; there’s creepers, who are completely silent until they get right next to you, when you hear a short hiss just before they explode, probably killing you instantly; skeletons with bows and arrows that will shoot you from a distance; witches that throw poison at you… it’s a pretty scary place after dark.  So basically, you’ve got the first 10 minutes of the game to prepare yourself to survive the onslaught (if you die, it’s not the end of the game – you just get transported back to your starting point, but it’s annoying, because you lose all the resources you’ve collected so far).
There’s two ways to survive – you either build yourself a shelter and hide until morning, or you arm yourself and go out and kill the monsters before they kill you.  Hiding seems like the best strategy, but there’s resources you can only get by killing monsters (like bones from skeletons, which you can turn into bonemeal to help your garden, or gunpowder from creepers), so at some point you really do have to go out and face them.
So it starts off as mostly a survival game – gather resources as quickly as you can to survive the nights.  But after a couple of hours of playing (not necessarily all in one go – you can save the world you’re playing in and go back to it – some people play the same world for months on end) you’re generally in a position where you’re so geared up (armour made out of diamond, and an enchanted sword that will kill almost anything with one hit…) that you don’t have to worry about the monsters all that much, and the creative side of the game becomes more prominent.  That’s when people start building elaborate structures out of the blocks they’ve collected – houses, castles, or even entire cities, complicated machinery, pretty much anything you can imagine (it’s kind of like playing with Lego).  And that’s one of the reasons multiplayer, where several players are playing in the same world, is cool, because what’s the point of spending hours building some amazing structure if you can’t show it off? 🙂
But I think the real popularity of Minecraft comes from its versatility.  Every player gets to chose what sort of game they’re playing.  For some people it’s all about building beautiful things.  Others are only interested in those first few hours when it’s a survival game, and they’ll set themselves speed challenges, to try and get to a certain point (maybe having a full suit of diamond armour, or killing one of the hardest monsters) as quickly as possible.  Others will build huge puzzles for other players to work their way through.  Or set up arenas where players can battle each other.  The possibilities are pretty much limitless, which means it can appeal to everyone from my 4-year-old niece (who mostly likes planting flowers in pretty patterns) to hardened gamers (who can play ever more difficult challenges).
Anyway, hope that gives you some idea of what it’s all about.  Showing is probably easier than telling, though, so here’s a few videos which give you an idea of the sort of things I’ve been talking about:
X’s Adventures in Minecraft – this video is a few years old, so it’s an earlier version of the game, but it gives you an idea of what the game starts like, getting through the first day and night.
Building with BdoubleO – here’s an example of someone who uses the game like Lego to build incredibly complex structures.
Lorgon111 – an example of a speed challenge.
Inferno Mines – someone working his way through a huge puzzle/challenge map created by another player.
PlayMindCrack – an arena battle among a large group of players (it all gets horribly confusing, so don’t worry if you can’t figure out what’s going on in a lot of the video – neither can I!)

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  1. Jaidyn has been playing it for a long time, but I’ve never really had it explained to me. I didn’t know about the short days. I knew about creepers (I bought Jaidyn a stuffed one for his christmas stocking actually).
    I’m amazed how popular the game is really, considering the graphics and how many other games there are out there.
    I have friends with girls between 4 and about 9 and they all play it, to the point of crying when they lose their worlds through either forgotten passwords or ipod resets etc. Girls- crying- over a game!
    Jaidyn builds some amazing stuff, he likes to build things in purple, (my fav colour) to show me. He built a purple castle the other day.

    1. I wonder if the simple graphics actually contribute to its popularity – not having much detail means you have to use your imagination a bit more, which means you can make things be whatever you want them to be.

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