Pilgrimage in (Minecraft) Middle Earth

Before beginning, I ask a moment of your time to view the short video below:

For anyone who played the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the above depiction should be instantly recognizable as the very popular boxing game, ‘Punch-Out!!’.  What might not be so obvious, at least until the video tells you, is that this recreation of 8-bit nostalgia found form not through an emulator of the famed gaming device, but rather through a very creative usage of the relatively new sandbox game known as ‘Minecraft‘.  Unveiled in 2009, ‘Minecraft’ has since gone on to sell well over five million units and is hailed by critics and fans alike for its incredible potential in allowing a wide range of play to occur within its very open, but still limited, architecture.  Players can host their own ‘Minecraft’ servers, make them open or closed, and generally create whatever type of world they want given the basic materials offered by the games constructive engine.  In the relatively short period since its release, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of creative examples involving building mega-structures, universes, really anything the mind can dream up, the ‘Punch-Out!!’ example above only one possibility given the surprising flexibility of the system.

Recently, fellow author Trevor Owens explored the role religion plays in Civilization IV and his insightful take prompted me to think of other ways religious ideas or aesthetics manifest themselves in games.  During my contemplation of such a topic, I came across a very ambitious ‘Minecraft’ project that attempts to recreate the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ series, starting with the actual path taken by, first, the Fellowship and, later, by Frodo and Sam as they sought to cast the One Ring into the fiery depths of Mt. Doom.  In another video below, you can see just what I mean by ambitious as the main creators of the ‘Minecraft’ Middle Earth take some time to traverse across completed sections of the once imaginary and now somewhat tangible fantasy landscape.  (It’s about an hour long, so if you want the highlights skip to the 27:11 mark to see Rivendell & 33:20 for the spacious caverns of Moria)

What struck me while watching this tour is how closely the video mimicked the religious activity of pilgrimage.  The creators of ‘Minecraft: Middle Earth’ (MCME) clearly take their world-building seriously, and the level of detail found in their recreation of something like the Mines of Moria makes it obvious that this is more than just a whimsical attempt to try something new- one could argue that a quasi-religious sense of both reverence and fidelity to the exact path taken by the Fellowship are the primary motivators for the creation of MCME.  Visiting the website FAQ for the project, such dedication and purpose shine through:

Q: What dictates the construction order of MCME?

A: Currently we are following the path of the fellowship.  Occasionally projects outside of this path will be completed, such as Annuminas and Fornost.

Q: What will happen when MCME is completed?

A: If and when this day comes, the server will become primarily utilized for RP (roleplaying- JA) pursuits.  However, surrounding lands may also be attempted.

Q: What era of Middle Earth does MCME follow?

A: The Third Age, specifically as the fellowship would have seen it.

In a recent Journal of Anthropological Archaeology article, titled ‘Pilgrimage as Costly Signal‘, John Kantner and Kevin Vaughn state that anthropologists generally agree that all pilgrimages have two common traits: the journey, or pilgrimage itself, and the destination.  Furthermore, the authors propose that:

“…pilgrimage centers develop as costly signals of status for leaders who reside there and/or who are responsible for the activities that take place at the centers. Furthermore, because pilgrimage centers require pilgrims, we also suggest that the act of pilgrimage itself is sustained as a costly signal of religious adherence that plays an important role in building reputation in a game-theoretic sense, thereby contributing to prosocial behavior.” (Emphasis mine)

What is ‘costly signaling’?  Distilled down to a very simplistic form, it means that participants ‘signal’ to others on the pilgrimage via actions and that these actions, in turn, prove through effort and dedication the authenticity of said participants.  This includes the time required to perform the pilgrimage, in addition to any rituals or labor performed at the destination site.  Furthermore, these actions are difficult to ‘fake’ (as opposed to say, simply attending a church service or engaging in ritual behavior in ones local religious center- actions which can be pursued at a low cost and, potentially, easily ‘faked’) allowing what would normally be a bunch of strangers traveling together to build trust that they are in the company of like and dedicated minds.

Take, for example, the recent MCME activity centered on ‘building’ Helm’s Deep, the climatic battleground featured towards the end of ‘The Two Towers’.  Although anyone could participate, the requirement that everyone use Ventrillo (a free VOIP service that allows easy coordination in a game world where typing is the only means of communication), in addition to downloading the most ‘up to date Rohan texture pack (Helm’s Deep is located in the Kingdom of Rohan), could be seen as ‘costly signals’ demonstrating a participants dedication towards this portion of recreating the Fellowship’s journey.  Further evidence these ‘costly signals’ form norms of behavior that are expected and enforced comes from the presence of the ‘forbidden blocks and items’ list (iron items, lava, water, bedrock, etc…) the possession of which is grounds for being banned, as well as a list where players can report suspicious activity and/or ban users altogether.  A quick glance on the ‘Oathbreakers List’ reveals the infractions that can land one on the banned list- ‘Griefing crops in the shire’ (‘griefing‘ is a Minecraft term for acts that destroy/construct or mess with players in order to anger), ‘Placing dirt blocks all over the Isengard road’ and even ‘Unauthorized Building’.

Beyond MCME, there are other ‘mega-projects’ that observe similar rules and ‘costly signaling’, albeit to a lesser degree than that found in MCME.  There is ‘Hyrulecraft‘, an attempt to build a 1:1 recreation of the ‘Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ world found originally in the very popular game for the Nintendo 64 console system.  The ‘MC Enterprise‘ project is currently recreating a complete layout of the famed Enterprise (NCC-1701 D) from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’.  And for something not out of a fictitious world, there is ‘Project 1845‘ which seeks to make a 1:1 scale replica of Beijing City, circa 1845.  While not all these projects adhere to the ‘pilgrimage’ model in such close fashion as does the MCME project, one can still draw parallels between the social behavior expected of the builders in these projects and the operation of believers when engaging in religious space.

In my next post, I want to explore similarities between Minecraft projects like the ‘Punch-Out!!’ video above and tradition of Iconography found in the Russian Orthodox belief.

(Authors Note- In a previous version of this post, I stated that ‘Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ was a Nintendo Gamecube game when, in fact, it originated on the Nintendo 64 game console.  Thanks goes to John for pointing this out in the comments field below.)


  1. A basically unimportant correction, but Ocarina of Time was originally on the Nintendo 64, not the GameCube.

    The strict adherence to a particular path and the commitment of time and effort involved in working on MCME seem like real parallels to the pilgrimage. Though the idea of the path is more or less missing in the other projects you cite, the commitment and effort involved are largely the same (as are the “rules of the road”).

    On the other hand, once you drill down to the requirements to use a particular voice chat software or download the latest textures, these start seeming less like “costly signals” than merely the (rather low) cost of doing business. These are mostly rules for a construction site, not religious rituals, even though the objects being constructed may be given quasi-religious reverence.

    1. Author

      John- Thanks for pointing out my error regarding Gamecube vs. Nintendo 64- once I finish this comment I will make the correction and give you credit.

      The ‘pilgrimage’ aspect is definitely weaker in the other Minecraft examples I cited. I should have been more clear and established these other projects as ‘places of secular worship’. But if you, for example, decided to retrace the path of Link in ‘Hyrulecraft’ or roleplay a specific episode of S:TNG on the MC Enterprise, then that could definitely fall more along the ‘pilgrimage’ ideal.

      While downloading Ventrillo or a specialized texture map are, indeed, low cost digital efforts, it still is something that immediately signals a participant is of a like mind with the rest of the builders. Because the digital world deeply obscures the sort of symbolic action tied to physicality, it may be that the cost of all signals in the Minecraft world become reduced to a bare minimum. In that case, something as simple as having Ventrillo or the correct textures could be the ‘bright line’ that establishes legitimacy. Also, given the presence of a ‘banned blocks’ list and fairly strict guidelines in producing ‘authenticated’ builds, it is possible to see the construction effort akin to building a temple or other ‘sacred’ worship site guided by strict ritualistic doctrine.

      Thanks for bringing up these valuable points- I’m very interested in seeing both the scope and limits for this kind of inquiry.

  2. I think the focus on ritual and performance here is spot on, but I’m not so sure about pilgrimage. In my mind, a key factor of pilgrimage is participating in an experience that is common with others. Many people go on the hajj, while the trip is different it results in people going to a particular place sharing an experience and then becomes a part of who they are. In contrast, the YouTube PunchOut video, and the other examples, are (to me) all about being “the guy who made that video of PunchOut using Minecraft.” This is to say, doing something the hard way and recording it is itself a genre of YouTube game video. For example, I love Nick Hagman’s description of his YouTube sensation, beating Ninja Gaiden with a dance pad.

    Some of this kind of online performance may be about what works in web video. It may be a question of, to what extent these situations you describe are like the hajj and to what extent they are like asshole mario.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comments Trevor- and thanks, also, for exploring religion in your post on Civ IV. It was very inspiring to my post above.

      When it comes to sharing a common experience, I feel MCME totally embraces this ideal. All of the builders and role-players share in having read the Tolkien trilogy, and the insistence that those who travel the path will share in the same experience as that of the Fellowship, in my mind, is akin to religious pilgrims who travel, say, the Camino de Santiago. Now I am certainly not saying that those who travel this ‘digital road’ will have the same level of experience as a pilgrim who travels the Camino de Santiago, but I think the enthusiasm and purpose of the MCME does a good job of approximating this feeling in what is a purposefully limited environment.

      As regards the Punch-Out video, I hope to address in my next post why I feel recreating, in stop-motion, classic video games aligns with aspects of the icon experience found in Russian Orthodoxy. For one thing, the image is stylized (partially because of the constraints of the original system, partially because Minecraft utilizes ‘blocks’) and it also is presented in a frame from a perspective which lets the viewer ‘gaze in’ to discover the story behind the images. Granted, this is not a perfect correlation- but the insistence that the ‘viewer’ of Punch-Out has to stand on a platform above the action heavily lends itself to a religious tradition that is very much focused on the viewer. They could have easily made this a simple ‘flat-view’, but the use of perspective, for me, is key.

      I also enjoyed the Nick Hagman description you linked to- there is definitely something related to the sacred in trying to accomplish regular tasks with a self-imposed burdens. I also think you are right on about web video experience- while MCME is definitely meant to be ‘played’ in order to be experienced, ‘Punch-Out!!’, I think, is definitely meant to be watched. But, again, this would correlate to the various types of ‘religious’ experiences and spaces believers willingly put themselves into.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. Very informative and interesting (including the comments). If a map like this in MC could be put in actual action would be really cool.

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