Minecraft And Successful Media

Last column I posted more only theory that the social elements of a media, the ability for people to connect with others via that media, were a major factor in its success.  This element of success was more important than originality and other factors due to the nature of human socialization – we want to connect with others first and foremost.  Building on this theory of "socialization-driven media popularity," I want to explore what I consider a prime example of it:  Minecraft.

Now an important disclaimer: I have not played Minecraft.  This is for much the same reason I have not played World of Warcraft; I only have so much time and I know how I react to crafting-driven games – I play the hell out of them.  So this perspective is one of an outsider to the game, but not the phenomenon surrounding it.

If I had been playing Minecraft, I probably wouldn't have even had time to write this column.

Minecraft is everywhere.  It's constantly mentioned on game sites like www.kotaku.com.  It's been mentioned in Penny Arcade in a comic that pretty much sums up why I shouldn't play it.  All it lacks is some kind of mainstream news scandal where people accuse it of corrupting our youth, and I'm sure that's coming.

From an outsider or non-gamer view Minecraft probably seems to be a strange beast.  It's a simple game where one manipulates a block-based environment to make tools, fight blocky creatures, and build buildings out of . . . well, blocks.  To those who haven't followed it or haven't gamed it must seem like wandering around a world of not-quite-legos, or a game engine in search of a game.

Yet it's huge, a Million-copy selling phenomena that draws in the money, produces endless creations and news commentary.  Minecraft, this simple game, is insanely popular for an indie creation – and I'd say it is such because, in large part, of its socializeability.  It is big because it is a shared and shareable phenomena, and I'd like to analyze that success.

First the minimalism in Minecraft works.  It does what it does exactly, an open-ended, building-oriented, game.  It is not trying to be all things, it is exactly what it is without pretense or overproduction.  It hits a sweet spot of elements that draws in a given crowd of people without making the gaming-familiarity barrier to entry too high.

Second, the freeform nature of Minecraft, from the randomly generated elements to the ability to construct is going to have appeal to certain groups of people – those into crafting and exploration.  This personalization of experience further draws people in as they can create as they will.  It's simplicity allows for originality as expressed – and experienced – by the players.  It is theirs, which makes it a very personal experience.

Third,this personalization goes to ludicrous levels thanks to the game's engine and tools.  People can build castes, skyscrapers, dungeons, almost anything.  Just do a quick search at youtube and have your mind blown by people building the Enterprise D, or Isengard, or . . . the Earth.

Fourth, you'll notice people talking about working together in Minecraft – and on top of the game and the personalization people can cooperate and work together in the worlds they build.  You've taken a simple game engine, put on a construction engine, and given the people a chance to work together to build anything.  The end synergy creates a huge social phenomena.  I suspect Minecraft would not have nearly been as popular – or gotten the media play – without the cooperative elements.

Fifth, Minecreaft became a kind of self-replicating media sensation.  A simple but effective game gets popular, lets people do many things, that makes waves in the gaming media, more people join, more people do amazing things . . .  and it all plays into each other.  I wouldn't be surprised if right now movie execs are asking themselves how they can make a Minecraft film.

What's the common factor?  People.  The right game for them, the ability for them to participate, and the ability for them to interact.  Minecraft is a social phenomena.  I would not be surprised if papers on economics and soforth are written about it in the future (hint to you academics and econogeeks out there – here's your next thesis).

Minecraft pretty much fits the theory of socializable media I presented – it is actually not so much innovative as minimalist, but the elements of the game created played extremely well to making it a social phenomena.  The tools were there to let it, itself, become its own social experience.

So how are you going to apply these lessons?  I know I have my plans . . . which I can carry out as long as I don't get distracted by the siren call of building . . .

Steven Savage