Stacking Minecraft Up in the History of Construction Play
A few weeks ago my colleague Colin Fanning (who coauthored this post with me) forwarded me a call for papers for an edited scholarly volume on Minecraft, the beloved and near-ubiquitous sandbox game by Mojang. Initiated by Nate Garrelts, Associate Professor of English in the Department of Languages and Literature at Ferris State University, the forthcoming book will explore the broader social and cultural impact of the game and its design.
Since Colin and I both researched and wrote about toys and games while studying at the Bard Graduate Center, we’re particularly interested in the cultural history of construction play and how Minecraft fits into and deviates from that longer story. Unless you’ve been digging for diamonds and dodging zombies in a darkened cave for the past two years, you’ll know by now that Minecraft has met with massive popularity and critical acclaim, frequently hailed as a groundbreaking new approach to gaming. But we also believe—without wanting to discount Notch’s innovative contributions—that Minecraft’s success builds on well-established modes of play, especially those surrounding the long-standing genre of educational toys. In the essay that Colin and I are planning to propose, we want to discuss:
- Various episodes in the history of construction play, and their contribution to a kind of background radiation that enabled Minecraft’s overwhelmingly positive reception.
- How Minecraft taps into specific ideas about toy design and psychological development, which contributed to the acceptance of the game’s value and use in educational settings.
- Diversity in the community of players and the ways in which Minecraft’s many-to-many culture resists the usual categorizations applied to physical toys.
- The rhetoric surrounding Minecraft and how it highlights contemporary understandings of the game’s connections to analog precedents (and how they stack up against historical examination).
We’re certainly not alone in our thinking that Minecraft has some affinity with the physical toys that came before it. Note how it’s nearly impossible to talk about the game without someone eventually making an allusion to LEGO bricks, everyone’s favorite modular building block. In “Minecraft: The Story of Mojang,” the excellent 2012 documentary by 2 Player Productions, game designer Peter Molyneux dwells on this comparison in some depth, suggesting that Minecraft is filled with the creative potential that LEGO once had. While Molyneux’s point is helpful in understanding how designers and contemporaries view the importance of Minecraft and reasons for its popularity, his argument sets up a bit of a strawman re: LEGO toys and that company’s efforts. In our essay, we’re hoping to complicate the notion of Minecraft’s exceptionality (while still recognizing its uniqueness; don’t worry, we love punching trees, too!) by digging into the history of the larger ideas underpinning the game.
Since beginning our research on this topic, Colin and I have noticed that one of the most integral and unique parts of Minecraft’s success is the willingness of players to collaborate and share. In the spirit of this transparency and openness, we are sharing our ideas here in hopes of fostering a larger generative dialogue. We’d love this project to receive many proposals and encourage you to read the CFP (listed on H-Net here) and share it with your colleagues—the deadline is October 1st, so there’s still time left to submit! We also want to ask you, our readers, to share your personal thoughts and/or associations on the similarities and differences between Minecraft and physical construction toys (e.g. LEGO, obviously, but what about Lincoln Logs? K’nex? Anyone? Bueller?). Additionally, are there any crucial points you feel need to or should be made about Minecraft’s place in the history of play? We look forward to hearing your thoughts!