By Jordan Shapiro
At the time of this writing, Minecrafthad sold over 16.2 Million copies of the desktop PC/Mac edition. The “Pocket Edition” (for tablets and smartphones): 21 Million copies. Add in XBOX and PS3 sales and it makes it to number three on Wikipedia’s best-selling video games of all time list (no. 1 is Tetris, no. 2 Wii Sports). That is a big deal.
Ask anyone with a tween-aged child and they will tell you that their kids are obsessed. My eight year old son sets the alarm on his watch for 5:30am every morning so he can squeeze some Minecraftplay in before leaving for school.
There is a mod called MinecraftEdugeared for classroom use. There are toys, Lego sets, and clothing. Certainly, Minecraftis more than just a game, it is cultural phenomenon.
But what does it mean that so many kids are playing? What are they learning? What does Minecraft tell us about the way they are making sense of the world around them? How is their experience in the game world related to their experience in the life world? What are the significant characteristics of Generation Blockhead?
Minecraft is a world of its own–an existence constructed from code and experienced as blocks–within which kids are developing not only social-emotional skills and cognitive skills, but also a worldview. The way humans play as kids becomes the way they will work as adults. Minecraft, therefore, has probably already had profound impact on decades to come.
Could it be that when Generation Blockhead opted out of “Survival Mode” in favor of a make-your-own-objective competition-free “Creative Mode,” they simultaneously turned their back on a rigid race-top-the-top Darwinian economy and sent a ripple of change into our collective future? I’d like to think so.
However, only one thing is for sure: theirs is a far different playground from the one I grew up on. Some days, I think theirs is a better one. Other days, I think it is worse.
At its best, Minecraft looks like a “maker-space.” It works as a sandbox in which kids can practice STEM skills in a contextualized way. Anything is possible; like Phineas and Ferb, my kids can build roller coasters, skyscrapers, underground cities. It just involves on-the-fly counting, engineering, and imagining how consistent modular units can conjoin into something new.
At its worst, Minecraftreinforces an already predominant worldview in which everything can be reduced down to common-denominator monads–in this case, blocks. An over reliance on rigid, angled, quantifiable ways of being in the world eliminates the equally important soft fuzzy curves of qualitative ambivalence. Martin Heidegger once wrote, “being is not something that can be found in the nature of a table, even if the table were to be broken down to its smallest parts.”
On some level, we all know that the world is not actually made of extractable resources (human or ecological) available for guilt-free rape and pillage. Still, for some reason, we choose to see it that way. Never forget: it is a choice, one for which each and every one of us bears responsibility.
It is interesting, therefore, that the next generation has mostly turned off the mining in Minecraft. They choose to make rather than take. They mod their own worlds, connecting on servers with others, creating scenarios for friends to explore. This is what social networking would look like if it weren’t weighed down by rhetorical rules inherited from thousands of years of linear thinking.
For most of recorded history, humans have communicated in the same way. We tell stories–linear stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. The technology with which we distribute these stories has changed many times. We have transitioned from oral myths to cuneiform on tablets; from animal-skin-parchment to paper; from feather quill to fountain pen; from the graphite pencil to the word processor; scrolls to books; monastic scribes to the printing press; mass-market paperbacks to eReaders; etc.
On a foundational level, however, information mostly remained linear until the past few decades. Then, something happened. We began to construct knowledge differently. Now, on the web, information no longer has beginnings, middles, and endings. It opens, hyperlinks endlessly, and then hovers permanently in the realm of possibility.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably start by explaining that I roll my eyes whenever someone discusses how the web is changing humanity. I do not believe it is changing us at all.
I do believe humanity changes–sometimes even in such significant ways that our perception of the world around us, and therefore consciousness itself, is fundamentally shaken. But these changes do not happen because of technology. Rather, after we have changed our thinking, we then build tools in ways that allow us to interact with the world accordingly. In other words, tools do not change us, we change tools.
These days, technology often tricks us into thinking that we serve it rather than it serving us. But that is not the case. Plato knew this. He put τέχνη “technê” (handicrafts, fine arts, machinery, etc.) in opposition to ἐπιστήμη “epistēmē” (knowledge, or the way in which one gives an account of the world through narrative). For Plato, both belonged to a category called ποιέω “poiesis” (bringing forth, creativity, poetry).
Plato described the world this way because he understood that technology is not simply about making; it is also about a way of bringing forth a particular worldview so that it can be experienced tangibly. It is a kind of poetry. When we swipe our fingers across the touchscreen of our smartphones we are not just checking twitter, we are also embodying an aspirational image of the good life, bringing it forth.
In every gadget there lurks a vision of the world that could be possible if only all the tech just worked right and adoption was ubiquitous. What the Maker’s Movement is uniquely to each participant, technology, as a whole, is to a generational collective: we always construct the world as a reflection of our own consciousness.
For humanity, the technê has changed often, the epistēmē has remained more constant. But maybe it is changing. What defines the consciousness of Generation Blockhead? What is left now that the kids have removed winning and losing? It is a world of offerings, invitations, and possibilities rather than objectives.
Without predefined objectives, ambition falls by the wayside along with linear thinking. After all, what is an objective besides the ending toward which a beginning already points? Beginnings and endings are locked together. In fact, in a linear world, at the beginning, the ending is already there. So we never really get anywhere, do we? We just live statically within an illusion of forward trajectory.
Non linear thinking is different. It does not aim to get anywhere. It just reaches out for connection. It is a world in which communities, networks, and social systems simply aim to strengthen their own sustainability. Life is measured through relationships, procedures, and processes. Success is a product of what each individual can construct for the others.
Perhaps I am being overly optimistic. Or, perhaps the Blockheads comprehend something that the Baby Boomers, X, Y, and the Millennials have all mostly missed: life is nonlinear, just an opening, without progress, innovation, revolution, or improvement. The ends are just a figment of our imagination. After all, each individual erupts out of a swirl of cellular soup and is recycled back into the compost heap when the work is done.
Minecraft’s success tells us that the future generation of grown-ups understand that there is only iteration. We constantly reframe. We perpetually redefine. We try on new categories and always see that there is room for improvement. Everything is dynamic and flexible. Nothing is fixed; neither in time, nor space.
I can hardly wrap my mind around it. But then, how could I? I’m not a Blockhead.