What Makes Minecraft So Addictive?

It is a strange coincidence that during a summer when the world was riveted by 33 Chilean miners trapped in unimaginable conditions, hundreds of thousands of internet gamers were crafting pickaxes, lighting torches, and venturing into pixelated caves of their own. Much like those brave Chileans, the Minecraft players found themselves cut off from their family and friends, not trapped but hopelessly addicted. The game recently sold its 500,000th copy, and another 1.1 million people use the free version. Not bad for a game that was mostly developed by one guy, and is still in Alpha Testing.

So here’s the gist. When you start playing Minecraft, you’re placed in a randomly-generated world of lush green fields, majestic waterfalls, and gaping caverns.

Everything is made up of textured blocks, which can actually be quite beautiful. There are even blocky little pigs and sheep. (POSSIBLE TOPIC FOR FUTURE OVERTHINKING: The rise of 8 bit chic. Think of Chiptune music. Think of the Scott Pilgrim movie. As video games start looking and sounding more and more like movies, our generation feels a certain nostalgia for the old school videogame aesthetic.)

The log.

Unfortunately, when the sun sets, you’re going to be attacked by zombies. So you better start punching trees. No, it’s not just a way to relieve stress. Punching a tree creates a log block. Then you can break the log block up to make four wood blocks. Then you can take two of the wood blocks and make four stick blocks. Are you having fun yet?

The wood.

Okay, now take four more wood blocks, and use those to make a workbench. On the workbench, you can combine 2 stick blocks and 3 wood blocks to make a wooden pickaxe. Who cares? YOU care, buddy, because now you can look around for some stone to mine. After that, combine 3 cobblestone blocks and 2 sticks to make… a stone pickaxe!

The stick.

Anyway, skip about an hour of chopping down trees and turning those trees into wood blocks, and you’ll finally have enough wood to build your first house. And by house I mean a wooden box with a door, where you can huddle in fear as the zombies roam the countryside. When the sun comes up, you can venture into a cave in search of the raw materials to build a nicer crib. Just remember to bring a torch (combine a stick and coal) because monsters spawn in the darkness. Life may have been tough for those Chilean miners, but at least there weren’t any giant spiders down there.

Behold the glory of the wooden pickaxe!

This is not a game that is determined to shower you with pure fun the moment you start playing. This is a game where you have to do a lot of repetitive things to survive, and a LOT of repetitive things if you want to create anything interesting. (It’s also a game without an instruction manual, so if you’ve not willing to watch a lot of YouTube videos to figure out what the hell you’re doing, you won’t get far. The first time I played, I immediately dug a massive hole straight down, until I fell into lava and died.)

All this begs the question: why is Minecraft so popular?

The Minecraft neophyte might assume the game is all about action. After all, the game’s main mode is called “Survival,” and the goal is to defend yourself from hordes of monsters every night. But if you start watching Minecraft videos on YouTube, it’ll be a long time until you find one that shows a battle. What you’ll find are lots of people showing off the amazing things they built.

Here’s a nice little home. Make sure you watch until 1:15:

Still not sold? How about this massive replica of the Reichstag:

Ironically, it does NOT burn down.

But it’s not just structures. Here’s a guy who built a sheep-shooting cannon:

I urge you all to go to Google, search for “Minecraft,” and click on Images. Some of the things you see will make you simultaneously proud and ashamed to be a part of the human race.

14 Comments on “What Makes Minecraft So Addictive?”

  1. Tyler #

    Yes. I have been waiting for this article. Thank you.

     
    • Matthew Belinkie #

      Actually Tyler, you INSPIRED this article with a comment you made like five weeks ago. (I was just busy watching all the Saw movies for a while.)

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Truthfully, I haven’t played Minecraft a lot myself, and I’m hoping a lot of the hardcore players read this and respond.

       
  2. KeiraH #

    never played but it seems a lot like Sims and i feel like that game became so popular for the same reason

     
  3. Exodus #

    I think Minecraft’s draw is expressed as you realise the kind of complexity you can pull out of Minecraft’s apparent simplicity, I was a total skeptic until a friend encouraged me to get a copy.
    It also helps to be able to play with people you know or at least can talk to via teamspeak or something, multiplayer just gets better all the time! (well, until a biome expands over all your buildings after a server reset, that was… Interesting)

    Great article, Overthinking It rocks :D

     
  4. Jon Eric #

    “Touch” should be “tough” (p.1)
    “Vise” should be “Vice” (p2)

    -your humble proofreader.

    I’ll comment on the creative content of the article when I’ve had a chance to read it a little more closely.

     
    • Matthew Belinkie #

      Fixed! It’s nice that there’s a site on the internet where people will catch your typos IN LATIN.

       
      • Jon Eric #

        Aw, shucks, “vice versa” ain’t hardly Latin no more. :)

         
  5. Jon Eric #

    I’ve never been a “grinder” type gamer – RPGs don’t appeal to me very much (except for Zelda, which pointedly omits the leveling-up grind), and when I hear my co-workers talk about their WoW guild, it sounds to me like they’re talking about a second job.

    Still, I think you’re on to something here. Of course, I believe there’s a limit to how much resistance a game can put in front of a player before that player gets frustrated and moves onto something else, but you also can’t just put all the tools right there, or else it feels like using Photoshop or something…

    It’s in Minecraft’s favor that it has a specific objective (surviving), plus combat and possible death. You can’t die in Second Life. More than anything else, Second Life is like a giant chat server with supercomplex avatars. More than anything else, Minecraft is like a cross between SimCity and a survival-horror game. The difference in popularity (at least, current popularity) might be due to the games’ different objectives. It might be due to the fact that Minecraft is new, while Second Life is seven years old. Or it might be due to the difficulty barrier that you focused on.

    One potentially theory-wrecking observation: Minecraft doesn’t have a public server yet – you can network other players in, but they need you IP address. Youtube is the most efficient way to share a lot of these Minecraft accomplishments, whereas in Second Life, most of the people interested in seeing your giant Charizard statue are the ones who are already logged-in to Second Life and able to see it in-network.

    Minecraft is still in development, of course, so who’s to say whether its following with grow or shrink when the server gets centralized, and when the bugs are fixed and other features added (many of which, I hear, will make the game EVEN HARDER)?

     
  6. Tyler #

    Thanks for keeping that comment in mind. I know very little about Second Life but the comparison seems to raise valid points.

    Something that I just know began to consider is the isolation of the game, at least in the single-player mode which is all I know. I’m thinking about it and I don’t think there is a single instance of the game pointing you in any specific direction. IIRC the inventory screen doesn’t even say inventory. I think that that may change in the future and I’m kind of upset to hear it. As it stands now, the game is completely open to any play style, and you can spend your time doing anything. There are no NPCs, there is no quest log with pre-planned goals, etc. The music is extremely sparse, and I often I turn it off, so it’s just 16×16 blocks and me.

    Minecraft is one of the scariest games I have ever played. The very real sense that I could lose everything I have been working towards for the past two hours or so makes clunkily designed, pixelated monsters more menacing than any big-budget survival-horror experience. And I think the isolation that I was talking about amplifies the fear factor a great deal. Most of the time, my Minecraft experience is extremely peaceful. I’ll dig down into the earth and start systematically branching out in search of materials. I am in complete control of the experience and there is literally nothing in the game that is trying to communicate to me or get me to do something else. And then suddenly I can stumble upon a giant cavern and the flip gets switched. I’m immediately in survival mode, since I know I have to go down into this giant foggy hole, because it’s there, and I know that there will be things trying to kill me at the bottom of it. Going from being completely alone to being completely alone except for zombies is an effective way to raise one’s heart rate.

     
  7. David #

    What I really like about Minecraft (in regards to the building aspect of the game) is that your building materials are about as basic as possible. All you have are blocks, equally sized, with different textures on them. I have a friend who doesn’t like the game (although he’s never tried it) because he thinks that it’s too limiting, but I think the simplicity of the blocks has the opposite effect. When you have such basic materials, it’s all the more impressive when you can build grand structures like bridges, castles, cities, or replicas of the Enterprise. The same applies to the circuitry in the game, as there are a few very basic materials (redstone wires, redstone torches, and a few types of switches) that allow you to build essentially any real-world item that uses digital logic in your minecraft world. When each simple material has the potential to become something amazing, the game is a lot of fun to play.

     
  8. Darin #

    Oh…my…God!

    Maybe I should have my kids handcraft their legos. So what happens to the Zombie dynamic once you have a sheep killing machine or the Enterprise?

     
  9. Fact #

    Minecraft is powered by raw autism. Its world is made of discrete, easy to understand blocks that follow a rigid set of rules, there are bright colors and contrasting textures all around, no narrative or pesky human characters to confuse you with their chatter, and the game rewards you for performing repetitive tasks in an obsessive manner.

     
  10. Nathan Hanks #

    Really interesting article and I’m glad you had all this research. I had no idea about the ‘grinder’ culture or the structures getting built. Here’s the interesting question I think you asked, Why is there a larger youtube community for structures in Minecraft than structures in Second Life? And the asnwer, people are watching the Minecraft vids because, on average, creation is more frustrated in Minecraft.

    Here’s my follow-up, does this ‘popularity of hard to achieve’ show up anywhere else and, if so, does it follow rules? Say, in a time where a music industry is producing less and less records, are the more popular artists ones with hard-won success stories? Or, do ‘underdog’ tales gain popularity when a large potential audience feel themselves to be underdogs?

    Put another way, How do aggregated individual desires affect and reinforce media?

    Great read! Thanks for the work!

     
  11. 8B #

    The problem with second life as a *mass-market-attraction* is preciesly the lack of NPCs as others have pointed out.

    There is a certain niches of the population that are very attracted to Second Life.
    The first is those who just love creating stuff.
    The second is those who are narcisstic and want to look good while they *chat* in 3D.
    The third is those who believe in the 3D web and the whole virtual meeting thing.
    The fourht is those who want to roleplay.
    The fifth is developers who like to code & hack stuff and fancy themselves to be some kind of Neo in the matrix.
    The last is those who want to engage in pixelsex and the other forms of porn available in SL.

    There are other smaller niches but I believe that’s the majority of the major users who stick with SL.

    The MUCH larger niche is those who want to play games against MONSTERS.

    SL doesn’t have any reasonable monsters anywhere.

    It’s my position that if it *did* then it would be the primary gaming platform (along with all the other niches) inside of about a month.

    But much of the population inhabiting the other niches seem to not really be interested in NPCs in games and many are actively *opposed* to the idea of NPCs.

    In any case, returning to the point, SL (and it’s opensource clone OpenSim) will never be anything other than a niche market precisely because many people looking for games like minecraft or halo or call of duty or WoW or LOTR log onto Second Life, look around, find it *completely empty* except for nice buildings and stuff to buy. They try out the roleplaying games or the first person shooters and discover that often there are only people standing around chatting if there are even any people there at all. There are *no monsters* and pretty much nothing else to do unless you’re into building stuff or having pixelsex.
    The shopping isn’t that great because although it’s a marvellous idea *in concept*, you can’t really try anything on except hair or skins. There is no equivalent of the girls going round a mall trying on clothes.

    *Then* the average person who is into playing games-vs-monsters just *leaves* and never comes back. And that’s the end of that.

    I don’t think SL is going anywhere because they cater to a specific niche and the other SL-competitors don’t do that as well as SL does i.e. no freely buildable in-world content, no pixelsex and not enough user content to customize the avatar to make it look pretty. Having said that, without NPCs it’s not EVER going to ever get any bigger.

    But maybe that’s what they want. Maybe the owners of Second Life and the incumbdent Second Life community simply don’t *want* gamers.

    Too bad I say because SL could be the gaming platform par excellence.