Thanksgiving evening at home — snow on the ground outside, the hum of the dishwasher in the kitchen, half-eaten pies on the counter. The “kids” of the family have taken over the living room: my sister, my two brothers, and I. The TV displays a videogame called Minecraft and they pre-emptively defend it to me: it’s more than meets the eye, they say. When they start playing, I understand their warning. The graphics are blocky and old-school. The 1st-person protagonist looks like a lego man. “Mountains” in this digital world are more like green and brown staircases. When you approach the trees, their “leaves” are revealed as pixelated green cubes.
But here is the charm: Minecraft is a game of building. As the title suggests, it’s a game of mining and crafting. In other words, it’s a game of discovering and creating values in the world. While there is an over-arching structure to the game, it’s mostly opaque — a vague mission to move through a few different levels and eventually find a portal. The game never requires that you pursue the mission, and most of the fun is found in collecting resources and building things. For instance, you can chop wood from the trees and use the wood to fashion tools, construct a shelter, and build its furniture. As you become more adept, you can build fancier structures. My sister and brothers proudly show off houses incorporating caves, a big stately building with a dome and dozens of rooms, and their prize creation: a house built elegantly on stilts over the water.
So-called “open world games” offer an alternative to the usual warrior culture of the video game experience. There are bad guys to kill, but the primary fun is the interaction with the game’s environment. The popularity of games such as Minecraft exemplify the human desire to “[reshape] the earth in the image of his values,” as Ayn Rand describes it in The Virtue of Selfishness. One can picture Minecraft’s square-man laughing atop his blocky cliff, like architect Howard Roark in the introduction of The Fountainhead:
”He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them…”
So why not get off the couch and build real things, in the real world? It’s hard to imagine Howard Roark owning an Xbox. But the stereotype of the gamer who can’t function in the larger context of life is a cynical one. I believe there’s a more honest motivation to play video games. Ayn Rand’s conception of “the benevolent universe” was not a world that granted favors to human beings, but rather, one that was knowable to the human mind. The Objectivist axiom of identity, “A is A,” means that entities in the world behave consistently, according to their nature. This fact enables human beings to formulate principles and laws of nature. Our knowledge sets us free.
Similarly, the lava, trees and rocks of Minecraft aren’t doing our block-man any favors. The spiders and zombies even act against him. But their identities are knowable, their behavior is consistent. Once the player learns their ways, they are conquerable. He is free, healthy, safe in his house, elevated above the elements. Video games enable players to intimately experience their ability to comprehend the world. The world of a video game is a microcosm; it is more easily knowable. Its laws and principles are more neatly discernible. It brings the benevolent universe closer to home.