Et Tu, Minecraft?
If there’s two game design tactics that indies hate, they’re grinding and slot machine mechanics.
Grinding refers to performing some time-consuming task over and over again, usually with some sort of exponentially growing reward. It takes lots of time and no skill. This is one of the things that get people so riled up about Farmville and its compatriots. Professor Ian Bogost wrote, “The ire [toward social games] isn't without rationale: these challenge-free games demand little more than clicking on farms and restaurants and cities and things at regular intervals.” He mentions this by way of announcing his own game, Cow Clicker, which neatly skewers Farmville by condensing it to a single task: clicking a cow, over and over.
The other reviled design element, the slot machine mechanic, is a blanket term for any sort of variable ratio (VR) reinforcement schedule. That’s a fancy psychological term, courtesy of the great B.F. Skinner, who famously demonstrated just how addictive gambling could be through his experiments with rats in boxes. As we slowly realize that humans, too, can be made to press a lever over and over again, Professor Skinner is getting invoked increasingly often. See references to “Skinnerian time- and money-sinks” and “an industry that so blatantly manipulates people like rats in a Skinner box”. Essentially, we’re rediscovering the power of these psychological techniques. We’re learning that we can, in fact, control minds, and it’s actually kinda scary.
But enough about all that stuff. You know what we love? Minecraft! Yes, Minecraft, the indie darling of the year. The game comes with my hearty recommendation, by the way. In Minecraft, you dig deep underground, mining for stone and precious metals, and then you use these materials to build whatever your heart desires. Some people build ships, some people build working CPUs. My friends and I dedicated our efforts towards a simple yet gigantic castle. The outer wall alone contains about twenty-four thousand blocks of stone, each harvested one by one.
Minecraft is the quintessential indie success story. It was built by one person, Markus Persson (AKA Notch), who became a multimillionaire just because gamers loved what he made. Minecraft opens up a world of exploration, adventure, and creativity. It’s no wonder that the game is so celebrated.
Until, that is, you consider some of Minecraft’s core mechanics.
The most basic verb in the game, unsurprisingly, is mining. This involves mousing over a block and holding down the button for a second or so. In return for your effort, you get a bit of some material and a nice little sound effect. Then, repeat a thousand times. It’s not a skill challenge; I could collect any number of almost any block if I just put in a little bit of effort and a huge chunk of time. Could this be... grinding? I thought we were beyond such nonsense!
Then, consider a common experience in the game: you’re deep underground, digging a tunnel, hoping to find something valuable. And for every block you hack away, you have some small, pre-randomized chance of uncovering something valuable. Re-read that, and let the horror dawn on you: even in Minecraft, the messiah of indie games, there’s a slot machine hidden in the core mechanics!
I’ve felt its hypnotizing allure firsthand. I spend hours chipping away with a pickaxe, happy to find resources that I’ll never use and thrilled to discover ore that’s both extremely rare and *explicitly useless*. The best find is diamond, which will let me play the slot machine even faster. Awesome! And if I grind for long enough, I get to customize the game world. Sounds almost like Farmville!
I’m being a little unfair here, of course. The materials in Minecraft are mostly a means to the end of building stuff, which takes strategy and creativity. And mining isn’t always just a time sink. There’s danger too, since you’re about as likely to unleash a horde of zombies or a gout of lava as you are to strike it rich. If we say that Minecraft’s fun comes from mining, building, exploring, and fighting, three out of four parts are immune to my critique. But there's undeniably some aspects of grinding and gambling, and I find it fascinating that a game that I so love can contain design techniques that I so loathe. I’m left wondering: what would happen if we removed the time sinks and the slot machines? Could Minecraft be made pure?
We can already get a taste of that with the game’s Creative mode, in which the player gets an infinite pile of every resource and is set loose to build whatever he or she wants. There’s no need to spend time digging, so you escape the need to gamble for the good stuff. And people have fun with Creative mode! But not as much fun, usually. I played primarily in the default mode. My castle is a pretty significant piece of work (or at least a ridiculous time investment), built from tens of thousands of blocks lovingly collected one by one. Any idiot could build that castle on Creative mode, I snort derisively, but it takes an especially *dedicated* idiot to build it under default settings. And for some reason, the fact that I spent (read: wasted) so much time on that castle makes it more special to me.
And realizing that makes me scream. Why??? Why is it that I get more satisfaction out of knowing that I needlessly spent more time on my buildings? If it’s all just grinding, why does anyone feel good about their giant castle or their extravagant farm or their level 80 character?
I see two possible answers, and they both scare me to death.
First, we could say that the satisfaction I get from having spent more time on my castle is perfectly justified. Not every task in life is fulfilling, and there’s virtue in hard work, even when it tends toward drudgery. By grinding, I'm proving my ability to commit to a goal. In this case, someone who wants the biggest farm in Farmville ought to take real pride in their dedication, even if it meant spending huge amounts of time and money to reach a wholly virtual objective.
Second, we could say that I’m being tricked by a brain hack, and I’m ultimately the prey of some sinister Skinnerian psychology. In this case, if I ever take pride in a game, it shouldn't be for the time I put into it, since that didn't prove anything real. The only true rewards are those that correlate to skill or strategy, i.e. those that act as some actual indicator of creativity or mental acumen. The reward should be intrinsic to the gameplay. I should be proud of what I did, and not just of how long I took to do it.
Now we've dug deep enough to reach the really valuable questions. Can there be true meaning in gaming, or is it “just for fun”? Where does the meaning come from? What do hardcore gamers get out of their hobby that slots players don't? Does Farmville require “dedication”? Is this dedication something we should value?
Depending on the answers, we'll end up in one of two places. In one case, accomplishments in Farmville are legitimately worthy of pride, and we indies need to shut the hell up. In the other case, Minecraft is flawed, and we indies need to recognize and criticize the faults in the game we love. Heads they win, tails we lose.
What do you choose?
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