Last week at work, I was at a meeting about gaming in education. No, we’re not talking about Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail, as awesome as they were (AppleII IV eva!). Our particular subject was the game Minecraft. I only caught the tail end of the meeting so I missed a lot of specific applications, but we were each given a free trial of the program to try it for ourselves.
If you haven’t heard of it, Minecraft is an open-ended game with an emphasis on exploration, construction, and problem solving. It is referred to as a sandbox game, in that there is no particular plot and no direction in which the players are pushed. You essentially roam a massive world (either your own private world or a multiplayer world on a server) collecting resources that you use to craft tools and build structures. As you dig deeper into the earth, you find more valuable resources that allow you to craft stronger tools and further customize your world. If you are killed, you respawn back at your starting point or back at your house if you built one.
I’ve known about the game for a long time, and the idea of it really didn’t appeal to me. As a friend recently described it, it sounded just like playing with legos. After I started messing around in it, though, the appeal became quite clear. The amount of things that you can create in the world is huge. I spent some time finding materials to make my two story house with a glass enclosed bedroom and a tree growing out of the roof. I harvested wood and spider silk to make a fishing rod. I made a furnace out of stone and baked some bread. I found diamonds at the bottom of a deep mine shaft, which I then used to make a strong pickaxe. I found the remains of an ancient tunnel covered in cobwebs and with remnants of mine cart tracks.
Perhaps the most exciting moment for me was when I tunneled to the bottom of the earth and found a vast pool of lava. Next to it, I found an underground spring. As a lover of explosions and “what-if” moments, I had to know what happened if I directed the flow of water into the pool of lava. Liquids in Minecraft follow their own laws of physics that are different from real-life physics, so I began experimenting with placing blocks to control the flow of the water. Sometimes the results were the opposite of what I intended, but after some trial and error, I was able to turn a huge swath of lava into a field of obsidian. The 8 year-old in me who used to love mixing different chemicals in a big bucket just to see what happened was absolutely elated.
It was at that point that I slipped and fell into the remaining lava, incinerating myself as well as all my possessions.
This wasn’t the first time I would have to start from scratch in the game. While I was learning how the game worked I had fallen off a giant cliff, starved to death, and been mauled to death by a zombie. Yes that’s right, there are zombies and skeletons and a really creepy thing called an Enderman that all come out once night falls. I eventually had to turn off the monster component until I knew what I was doing. Each time I started from scratch, I knew a little more about the world I was in and how I could make it as engaging as possible. I learned the things to craft earlier and the ways to build a house quicker. In some ways, I’m actually excited when I have to start from scratch, because I get a clean canvas upon which to imprint my vision.
In real life, the idea of starting from scratch is terrifying to me. Whether it’s a project I’m working on, a work process, or fundamental shifts in the way I live my life, stepping outside of the prescribed method and exploring new options is something I rarely attempt. While all the fears I have about starting from scratch are negative (I’ll be wasting time, people will look down on me, I won’t be able to support myself), there are also positive potentials as well (I could save time, people will respect me, I’ll be able to support myself better than ever) that I conveniently ignore.
However, it’s too easy to become mired in the same processes continuously when we’re working on a project. At some point it can be useful to scrap the safe approach that has produced adequate results and pioneer into uncharted territory with a bold new vision. We still hold onto the knowledge from each new attempt, even if we’re using it in a different way or within a different discipline. As I’ve noted multiple times, many of the skills I’ve learned playing music have been useful in my office life, and vice versa.
In a way, we never really start from scratch. When the skeleton shot me in the head with an arrow while I was starving to death, I lost all the wood I had harvested, the coal I had mined, and the chicken eggs I had found. The next time around, I was able to build a shack before falling off a cliff into a ravine. After I consulted a Minecraft expert named Ned, he gave me pointers as to where to keep my house, how to construct some of the basic necessities for survival, and how to build certain structures. That iteration was the one in which I died in lava. However, I continue to learn from my failures and grow from the experiences. Even though I start each time with no possessions, I retain the knowledge to better survive in the next world.
I am quite aware that this analogy is not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. Certainly trying something new and different from what we are accustomed is a scary experience, but it’s also an exhilarating experience. My “demises” in the various facets of my life are less grisly, but they retain the same impermanence that I’ll encounter bouncing back from endeavors that may be unsuccessful. I can embrace the change, embrace the exploration, and even embrace the metaphorical (I hope) fear of being eaten by monsters. Minecraft may be a “sandbox” game, but I’m loving discovering how useful it is on the playground as a whole.