I Don’t Know How to Play

I lack imagination. I know that now.

Playing Minecraft has taught me something: I don’t know how to play.

However, by that, I don’t mean that I don’t know how to play Minecraft. I mean that I don’t know how to play. At all.

Maybe I should explain.

I generally distinguish between the idea of play and the idea of a game in a very distinct way. While I often talk about “playing a game,” I use that nomenclature out of a sense of convention. What I actually mean is something different in my own mind. Basically, I mean that “I am gaming.”

The experience of play is something different to me then gaming. Gaming is something that I define as having a win-state or a fundamental goal (like earning points or completing puzzles), something that requires that I conform to some externally established rule system (and by externally established, I mean outside of myself, not outside of the game necessarily) in order to achieve that similarly externally established win-state.

Play or “playing” (sans the “game”) is something different to me. It normally is an experience that may not have a win-state and generally is defined by some kind of internally derived set of “rules” (or maybe just “guidelines”), often these are rules that are made up as you go along.

Playing Monopoly is “playing a game” to me (not a great game, granted, but a game nonetheless), as it is a game that has an established rule set that governs play and win conditions. Sure, you can quibble all you want about the house rules concerning Free Parking, however, the basic rules are still largely what govern the game and its resolution.

You also could choose to simply play with the various pieces and make something up about how the car moves or the thimble or whatever. You aren’t playing the game Monopoly anymore at some point though. You might be defining a new game entirely or you may simply be “playing.”

Playing with a box of Legos is also then simply “playing” in my mind. Take a bunch of connectable blocks, build something, play with it, demolish it, restructure it, play with your newly revised creation, whatever. The play, the narrative surrounding it or lack thereof, whatever you do is largely the concern of the person playing, something to be abandoned or continued at whim. There isn’t really a way to “win” at Legos (unless you turn its pieces into something like a game).

There is then certainly some room for slippage of play into gaming (my Free Parking example) and game into play (what if you create a hockey team and rink with your Legos and then play that game within the context of your play?), but I still feel like gaming leans more towards the acknowledgment of external authority in order to function as a game and play is largely derived from personal autonomy and imagination.

With these fundamental definitions in place for the sake of this discussion, this brings me to my first encounters with the free-to-play version of Minecraft. Given Minecraft‘s rapidly growing popularity as a kind of cult hit even its alpha stages, I had to check out what all the buzz was about.

Minecraft is a “game” about building. In my own terms, it might be better described as a virtual play space that allows one to build. In the browser version of Minecraft, the player is provided with a description of controls — how to move, jump, break blocks, copy blocks, place blocks, etc. — and then is left to his or her own devices in a randomly generated virtual space that consists of blocks that represent different kinds of terrain and materials, like grass, stone, brick, and glass.

For someone who tends to prefer gaming to play, like me, this is a horrific starting point for a game.

Okay, I can break up the world around me and start placing stuff, but why? What is it that I want to accomplish by doing so?

Following my gamer instincts, I messed around with the controls a bit in my first randomly generated playground, smashed some stuff, and then set out to explore the world, mostly looking for something to do — something purposeful. After looking at blocks in the form of trees, some canyon looking areas, and discovering some passageways underground (seemingly the “mines” of Minecraft), I picked some mushrooms from below ground and attempted to plant them above ground. They immediately disintegrated. Then, I tried relocating flowers that grew above ground. This worked well, unless I attempted to plant them on glass. Okay, I was starting to understand some rules of the world. Certain representations of living things needed to be planted in the appropriate spots.

I then headed back underground and wandered around. For awhile. Having nothing else to do, I began to dig and dig and dig. Eventually, I reached hot lava, which delighted me in a fundamental kind of way (having been a kid, I am fully aware that all worlds rest on hot lava — a good enough foundation for a world and rule system in my mind). Since I was trapped slogging through hot lava, I hit the respawn button though.

With nothing left to do, I kind of sighed and built a little house out of bricks, stone, and glass (for a window). Looking at my creation, I realized that I was bored silly. The house looked like crap (like every Lego house that I have ever built), and while mildly distracting for a few minutes, it couldn’t continue to occupy my attention given that it seemed to serve no purpose in “my” world. Frankly, my “world” wasn’t that engaging at all. I was done.

Now, I realize that Minecraft is unfinished and that the version that I was playing with has less to do in it than later versions that one has to pay for (these versions include the ability to craft, as well as animals and antagonists to interact with). I also realize that its designer intends to add more game-like elements as the game continues to take shape. Frankly, seeing how a game develops around some mechanisms of play is a fairly interesting prospect, not a process that the average gamer is normally privy to.

However, I am merely commenting on my own personal experience with the game as it exists in its free-to-play form and the realization that I had by experiencing it in this way. Very simply put, it is the idea that this discussion led with. Minecraft has taught me (or simply reminded me) that I just don’t know how to play. I have always been lousy at this sort of activity, rather than play with a big box of Legos, I have always preferred kicking a sibling’s ass at Scrabble.

By the way, I don’t mean to discourage folks from trying Minecraft or to criticize its current aficionados. Quite the opposite. Y’all do something well that I simply have never been able to get my head around and more power to you. I am glad that you can enjoy play. I kind of wish that I could.

Despite my own sense of myself as a libertarian who eschews authority for the sake of autonomy, Minecraft just reminds me of why I have such trouble playing The Sims in sandbox mode (I need a console version that gives me goals to get me interested in playing the game). Truth be told, I am a gamer, and as such, I need to be told what to do.

I have always worked better within a context.

As a result, I’ll probably return soon to solving puzzles in a Professor Layton game or something. Not that solving those puzzles is actually any more meaningful than building my crappy little house in Minecraft, but I need to believe that doing so will help to save London. I need to feel like I am accomplishing something . Because as a gamer, I am always sure when I have reached a goal. After all, someone else has told me that I have.