Fear and Gaming: Being and Nothingness and “Minecraft”

Jonathan Gourlay explores Minecraft, an ugly game with no point and endless possibility.

Most of what is around you right now is empty air. Yet, someone will insist on filling that emptiness with Taylor Swift music, especially if you happen to share your swath of emptiness with a nine-year-old girl. And if that little girl is suddenly absent, at a sleepover for instance, your walls will resound with the lack of “You Belong with Me.” The denuded trees in the front yard offer only bare ruined choirs where late the sweet tweens sang.

I sometimes carry with me the lack of a house I once lived in. Picture a house on a mountainside in the jungle overlooking the ocean. Picture a little girl peeing off of the second floor balcony every morning; claiming the world for her own. Now take the house away. Change the girl so that she faces the world from inside a room with the door closed and the YouTube Taylor Swift channel blaring. She could be in that room for hours while I retire to my computer, re-creating our old house in Minecraft, placing a waterfall on the balcony, trying to fill the emptiness with an approximation.

I was born in Minecraft alone and without defense. Browse the nerd-ecomiums about this game and you will find that everyone has a narrative about how they survived their first day. It is a powerful experience to be cast into Minecraft‘s blocky paradise without direction or preparation. On my first day, I thought the game was about punching pigs. So I punched pigs. Then night fell and a demon, kind of like a Hong-Kong hopping vampire, crept toward me in my loneliest loneliness and exploded, saying (at least in my narrative): “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.” In other words: respawn or quit to title.

Another morning in Minecraft and with the help of fan-made survival manuals I am now equipped to survive the nightly night of the demons. Safety ensured, I must climb my pyramid of needs toward Minecraftian self-actualization. But what is that, exactly? What do I do now? In Minecraft, as in Sartre, existence really does precede essence. There is no goal, no point, no reason at all in this godless universe for playing Minecraft. But then, there is no point to playing with blocks either. There are things you can do with blocks. There are things you can do in Minecraft. You can find an elusive saddle in an underground monster lair and use it to ride a pig. But you don’t get anything — no badge or narrative or points to spend at an online store — for riding a pig. Pig riding is an end in itself. When you have accomplished it, that is simply how you chose to live your Minecraft life. Quit to title. You are your life and nothing else, pig rider.

I have completed my monument to concrete nothingness in Minecraft. It is not as spectacular as the Starship Enterprise or as genius as a working 16-bit CPU. It’s a memory in block-form, a simple house built of cobblestone, wood, and wool dyed with lapis lazuli (a difficult ore to mine, only found deep beneath the surface).

Years ago when we lived in this house, my daughter went through a period where she could invest any inanimate object with life. We didn’t have a lot of toys but she was three and didn’t seem to care. She had a handful of change, mostly dimes and nickels, that she thought of as her baby. She took her “baby” to the video store, which was a pile of stones in front of a wooden post in a little hut we had in front of our house. We could create together endlessly in this hut — the rocks and posts were never castles (she wasn’t that kind of girl) but more ordinary buildings like banks and grocery stores. The edge of the hut was the garbage dump. She loved the dump because it was controlled by a pack of cute, feral cats and because on our weekly excursions to the dump we always got ice cream. She would lean over the edge of a little pier across from the dump and let the ice cream drip into the ocean. Purple and yellow fish would dart from the rocks and eat the ice cream drips. Back at home she would re-create the dump trip in our hut and hold her little coin baby up to see the fish .

One day while we played in the hut, she dropped her baby. The look of horror on her face as her baby dripped, coin by coin, into the mud and spread out beneath us as nothing more than, say, 63 cents, still haunts me years later. There was no consoling her for the loss of this baby. Loose change never again became a baby. She learned something horrifying and essential about life in that moment. Sartre needed over 600 pages in Being and Nothingness to communicate what was in my three-year-old daughter’s look. She now held the absence of a baby in her hands.

Legos come in two distinct philosophical stances. Traditional existentialist Legos present you with a box of colored, stacking bricks and no reason for being. For those who feel that life has a set purpose and innate, god-given reasons for being, there are themed Lego sets. No video game before Minecraft has presented the player with a world as simple, beautiful, and engaging as a box of random Legos or wooden blocks or loose change or sticks or shells… toys whose only purpose is to soak up human consciousness and light into being upon a human whim.

Minecraft‘s creator, a Swede named Markus “Notch” Persson, appears genuinely nonplussed by the success of his game — an unfinished product that looks like something that I played in 1984 and only has two short, soporific synthesizer doodles for a “soundtrack.” He has sold about 1.2 million copies of Minecraft and is so internet-popular that he causes bearded men to to jump up and down and make crazed masturbatory mining motions at the very mention of his name. Meanwhile, Notch is the kind of guy who uses his newfound wealth to take his mother on vacation. The popularity of the game makes perfect sense as I ride my pig in front of my cobblestone memory palace. The sun is setting, so I need to get inside before the creepers come. Fear is essential to action, after all. Life would be dull without creepers.

It’s bed time in the real world as well. So I rouse myself from Minecraft and approach my daughter’s closed door — it doesn’t yet actually say “keep out” but the various pop idols taped there seem to strongly suggest that I am not as welcome as I once was. I knock twice and open the door.

She isn’t there.

Of course, she’s at her friend’s house tonight. I had forgotten. The lack of a little girl to tuck in and kiss goodnight fills her room. Taylor Swift, still unravish’d bride of quietness, looks down upon the my daughter’s empty bed from her perch on the wall. Sweet, unheard melodies fill the empty air.

View from Real House View from Minecraft House

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.