Lately, I’ve been thinking about Minecraft, a 3D exploring/digging/building game that has been receiving a lot of attention lately. I first started playing Minecraft about a month ago, and it was clear after two days that it would consume my every waking hour if I let it. I put some self-imposed limits on how much I could play it, with modest success. After 10 days, a painful-yet-fortuitous glitch deleted my world, and I used the opportunity to try to pry myself away from the game.
Yet, even though I haven’t played it in over three weeks, I still feel an urge to play it nearly every day. There is something about its creative, free-form play that is incredibly attractive, even addictive. Meanwhile, I have my own OpenSim region where I can create and do anything I want, yet it sits neglected for lack of time, interest, or motivation.
Why this stark difference? Why is Minecraft, the more limited and less creative of the two, the more appealing? And what, if anything, can I do to harness the creative drive that Minecraft inspires, and channel it into my OpenSim region and other projects?
Minecraft is entirely open-ended, with no set objectives, no experience points or character levels, no quests or story or ending. Just a world — your own world, infinite and unique — waiting to be shaped by your hand and imagination. In that respect, it’s very much like Second Life / OpenSim (SL/OS). Both start as pristine worlds, with no inherent purpose or goals, but which the players progressively transform into something unique and personal.
Of the two platforms, SL/OS undeniably has a vastly greater range of creative possibilities. Yet despite Minecraft’s limited toolset, it has inspired amazing feats of creativity: elaborate bases built into cliffsides, vast minecart railways, replicas of the USS Enterprise, even working simulations of computer microprocessors.
On the surface, Minecraft is quite simple, and not the sort of thing you’d expect to yield such creativity. You’re dropped empty-handed into a vast, randomly generated world of pixelated blocks of dirt and stone, trees, animals, and monsters. The monsters come out when it’s dark, so you need to build some form of shelter before nightfall. You accomplish that by digging up the dirt and stone blocks to make a cave, or stack the blocks up to make walls for a house or fortress. You can cut (or punch!) down trees, then use the wood to make various kinds of tools, which let you dig more efficiently, mine for coal and metals and gems, and craft weapons to defend yourself against the monsters.
From there, the game goes deeper, with dozens of items and objects you can create: doors, ladders, furnaces, minecarts, dynamite, even simple pseudo-eletrical circuits that can control doors and railways. As the game progresses and you gather more kinds of materials, the number of possible items you can create grows. But you are still limited to the items the game creator thought of. You can’t add a swishy cat tail to your avatar, or build a working airplane of your own design, or any of the countless other things that SL/OS lets you do.
So why is Minecraft so inspiring, so addictive, so fun? Why do I find it so much more compelling to build a create a castle in Minecraft, when I could create the same or better castle in SL/OS?
I would say that it’s precisely because of its constraints and limitations that Minecraft is more engaging and compelling. Too much creative freedom is daunting, and can actually stifle creativity. Minecraft strikes an appealing balance between constraint and freedom, guiding your creativity without forcing anything.
- Minecraft suggests a motivating purpose, but lets you ignore it. The danger of the monsters coming out at night gives you a reason to create a shelter. That initial purpose naturally suggests further courses of action: gather materials, expand your base, and make it really grand and elaborate. The game never forces you to do anything, but always provides a selection of constructive activities to choose from.
SL/OS, on the other hand, provides no motivation or purpose. It is a blank canvas upon which you can paint anything you like, in any way you want, with near-limitless possibilities. But you have to bring the motivation, the purpose, and the focus to decide what to create.
- Minecraft provides a rich, interesting world as a starting point. When you first play Minecraft, the game generates a random landscape, just for you, complete with scenic mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, trees and beaches. This constrains your freedom somewhat, but also gives you ideas. You may stumble upon a cool mountain formation, and think, “That’s where I’ll build my fortress!” Or, you may find a series of caverns that descend deep into the earth, filled with valuable materials and dangerous monsters, and think, “I’ll explore these caverns, and build a minecart railway to carry the minerals back home!”
SL/OS does not provide any such a starting point. Instead, you get a flat plain, a featureless island, or (at best) a prefab terrain constructed by someone else. There are no naturally-occurring landmarks or points of interest, and the way the world is laid out in a grid of individual square regions discourages free-flowing, natural terrain. Again, you have to bring your own inspiration.
- Minecraft offers challenges and obstacles to overcome. It takes effort to gather the materials necessary to build anything. You have to dig up each block of dirt and mine every piece of metal, all while avoiding monsters and lava flows. Each material and item looks and behaves in a certain way and has its own limitations, which can inspire creative solutions. If you’re building on a high tower or cliffside, you risk falling and dying, thus dropping all your hard-earned materials onto the ground.
These kinds of gameplay elements add a sense of danger and excitement to the creative process, and overcoming challenges increases the sense of accomplishment when you finish something. Building in SL/OS is comparatively safe and straightforward. Prims are a free and unlimited resource, not a valuable commodity that takes effort to collect. Most of the obstacles are due to technical issues or lack of training/skill, both of which tend to cause frustration, not excitement.
- Minecraft promotes spontaneous, continuous creation. You can just grab a tool and start digging, laying out blocks, or crafting items. Of course, you can do some planning if you feel like it, and it’s surely necessary for the really complex builds like the micoprocessor simulation I mentioned earlier. But in general, you just build as you go, drawing inspiration from your surroundings, and see where your imagination takes you.
This is true to some extent with SL/OS as well, but most of the “serious” content creation these days is done outside of the world. Skins, clothes, textures, animations, sounds, sculpties, and meshes are all created in other programs like Photoshop and Maya (or GIMP and Blender), then imported into the world. This creates a joy-dampering divide between the act of creation, and the pleasure of seeing it come to life.
- Minecraft is pure play. The things you create are just for fun, and have no impact or consequences beyond the game (except perhaps the pride of showing off via YouTube videos). As far as I am aware, nobody is trying to monetize Minecraft by selling their creations or their creative services. Someone might think to do so — but that would, I suspect, ruin most of the fun, and turn the play into work.
Meanwhile, SL/OS is increasingly saturated with people trying to make a buck. In the same way, I’ve observed the individual lives of many SL Residents (including myself) gradually shift from self-indulgent play and entertainment, to more serious business and moneymaking. Making money isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does tend to take away the joy of creating things purely for pleasure.
So, if Minecraft has these engaging and addictive qualities, should SL/OS try to emulate them? Not necessarily. It’s important to remember that SL/OS is not a game. It sits halfway between a tool like Blender, and a game like Minecraft. It is both a content creation tool, and a content delivery and consumption platform.
Some aspects of Minecraft would simply be inappropriate. SL/OS would not be improved by requiring the user to cut down trees to make plywood cubes, for example. Nor would anyone find it entertaining to lose years worth of inventory because they fell off a tall building or were mauled by a zombie while
But, other aspects of Minecraft can be used to make the creative process more engaging, both in SL/OS and in the “real world”.
- Nudge yourself towards a motivating purpose, but don’t cling to it. Think about what you’re creating, and why (even if the reason is merely “it would be totally awesome”). Keep a selection of possible future courses of action in mind, and let your gut choose which to pursue. Allow your motivations and feelings to change, as they naturally will, but always be aware of them.
- Use a chaotic or inspirational starting point. Look for serendipitous inspiration in the shapes of coffee stains, ink splatters, the lines of a crinkled-up piece of paper, or other random shapes. Use a random terrain generator like L3DT as a starting point for designing sims. Or, get some modelling clay and just mush it around chaotically for a while.
- Set challenges and constraints for yourself. Use half as many prims as you thought were necessary. Pick an unconventional color or style, and make it work. Build it in a way that would be totally impossible in the real world. Make up rules about which shapes or colors can be next to each other.
- Start with media that promote spontaneous creation. Build with prims first, instead of jumping straight to sculpties or meshes. Work with malleable physical media like charcoal or clay. Make quick, throw-away sketches, mockups, or prototypes.
- Create for yourself, for fun, for the pure joy of creation. Be selfish. Indulge your creativity. Work on fun, cool things that stir up your imagination. Make a crazy hat to wear, or a secret fort where you can hide out with your friends. Be a kid. Play.
With any luck, learning these lessons from Minecraft will allow me to focus my creative urges on more meaningful and important things.