Please read Robin Sloan’s wonderful reflection on Minecraft — or rather, the implications of the game for people who enjoy thinking about generative engines and collaborative creation.

Here’s what gets Robin’s wheels turning. As a Minecraft beginner you might find yourself presented with something like this:


But people who really know what they’re doing can end up with something like this:


Or this:


(More examples here.) Robin comments, “People often compare Minecraft to LEGO; both support open-ended creation (once you’ve mastered the crafting table, you can build nearly anything) and, of course, they share an essential blockiness.” But in his view there’s a major, major difference: “I think this comparison is misleading, because a LEGO set always includes instructions, and Minecraft comes with none.”

Now, that is actually only true of what we might call Modern LEGO, which tells you on the box what you’re going to make and teaches you how to make it. But the good old Basic LEGO sets — buckets and boxes of many different kinds of bricks — are a lot more like Minecraft, except that it’s pretty obvious what to do with those bricks, whereas, as Robin points out, finding your way around Minecraft without help is a trial-and-error process with “a lot of errors.”

But see, Minecraft as such doesn’t help you. You’re on your own — unless you consult resources (websites, YouTube videos, books) created by users, by the community of players. This is what fascinates Robin about Minecraft: that it is not complete, exhaustive, and closed, but rather open-ended and generative. It doesn’t finish itself, but is comprised, essentially, of the instructions that allow users to develop it further and further.

And one of the ways this happens is in books. Robin — a tech guy who also loves books, as a recent novel of his demonstrates — is utterly taken with codexes about Minecraft: “I’m not a huge Minecraft player myself—my shelter never grew beyond the rough-hewn Robinson Crusoe stage—but I look at those books and, I tell you: I am eight years old again. I feel afresh all the impulses that led me towards books and writing, toward the fantastic and science-fictional… except now, there is this other door.”

This other door — a door that Robin thinks he might be able to walk through in some future book of his own. A door that links the world of screens to the world of print, a linkage that holds out at least the possibility of stories being collaborative and self-generating in ways that go beyond Choose Your Own Adventure. There have been attempts at this already: the Mongoliad created by Neal Stephenson et al. seemed at one point to be headed in this direction, though in the end users were able only to “supplement” rather than direct the course of the narrative and the development of the fictional world.

I don’t think Robin knows where these thoughts are headed — and that’s the exciting thing. Doors are opening in unexpected places, but we can’t yet know where they’re leading. Not long ago I was having a backchannel conversation on Twitter with a designer whose work I really, really admire, and we said to each other, “We should do something together.” I don’t think either of us had any idea what that might be, and in any case both of us have big tasks to complete. But there is something intrinsically exciting about the idea of collaborating, not only with people in your own field, others who do more or less what you do, but with people who do totally different things. In such a circumstance one of the prime drivers of collaboration is the desire to find out what collaboration looks like and feels like — to connect with the experience of gifted people who think differently than you think, use tools that are alien to you, approach problems from what to you are strange angles. It’s interesting that the mystery at the heart of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore requires people who come from rather different worlds and possess rather different skills to pool their resources and work together.

I’m thinking about all this because of Robin’s post, in which he says that he’s got a book to finish — a book of the kind that he’s written before — but wonders what the generative world of Minecraft might teach him about future projects. Well, I too have a book to finish — but after that, why not something different? And why not look for models of intellectual and creative energy in unfamiliar locations? There might be some pretty cool surprises around the future’s next corner.

Text Patterns

September 17, 2014