When my young son and his friends told me about the cute little retro game Minecraft—one of the most popular video games of all time—I had no idea that within a few months I would be navel-deep in an architecture of hyper-efficient murder, the pure scale of which would dwarf most actual atrocities. I would accomplish this feat largely by myself, while my son played happily alongside, he creating “tree houses” and “fountains” in the sparkly fantasy of the Minecraft Overworld, and me getting lost in a murder machine.
I’m not trying to equate the death of digital beings to actual murder. My sensibilities here are not an objective moral compass. But there is something morbid lurking under the surface of this game.
The usual context of “murder” in video games is self-defense, or at least second-degree culpability in backed-to-the-corner battles to the death. Mario crushes Princess Peach’s kidnappers underfoot, Halo’s Master Chief staves off bloodthirsty aliens with battle rifles and plasma grenades. In the ultraviolence of Grand Theft Auto, most of your mayhem is paltry and ancillary to the actual story.
But there’s a freedom in Minecraft that’s never been granted in any other game, and that freedom brings us very quickly to the limits of existential possibility. These other examples pale in comparison to the Minecraft farmer, who grinds millions of digital beings in painstakingly constructed abattoirs as a matter of routine. At peak performance, I estimate, a Minecraft player can destroy over 200,000 beings in a single 24-hour period.
For the uninitiated: Minecraft is a building game, like digital LEGOs, a sort of virtual “sandbox”—an infinitely large world with no predefined goal or destiny that players are required to pursue. There is nothing in-game pushing them inevitably to some conclusion. Player can build and explore, and set their own goals to complete at their own pace. There are two modes of play: Survival, and Creative. In Creative there are no resource limitations—no need to commit genocide. In Survival, players need to gather resources manually—by mining the earth, chopping down trees, farming, exploring dungeons for treasure, and slaughtering creatures like cows and chickens and monsters. In this mode, you can die any number of ways: hunger, night-spawning zombies, skeletons, spiders, and explosive “creepers” that sneak up behind you at night. It’s this mode where I discovered a disturbing truth about the game, and about myself.
I began with Minecraft Pocket Edition, mostly playing by myself on my iPhone. I mined and built happily, attempting to create a fortress in the side of a cliff, complete with a large viking-style dining hall. Soon, zombies, skeletons, and creepers were appearing out of nowhere, spawning inside my base, killing me and blowing up my fortifications.
This is how I learned that monsters drop valuable items when killed. Creepers drop gunpowder, skeletons drop arrows, and zombies drop feathers for the arrows (it doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to). I broke my personal rule about not looking at game guides and learned that these monsters—what players sometimes refer to as “mobs”—can only spawn in dark areas. It didn’t take long from there to understand that I could manipulate the darkness to my advantage, and I quickly built dark gardens of doom in which monsters spawned and died efficiently so I could harvest the goods they left behind.
My murderous agriculture expanded in sophistication from there. I dug deep pits into which I could drop sand or gravel, suffocating anything spawning within. I built a pulpit of death from which I would shoot arrows at helpless creepers in unlit rooms. I had grids of blocks meticulously crafted such that there was only enough space in each cell for one monster at a time to spawn, trapped within a single pitch-black square for the duration of its entire sad life, until I deigned to kill it for supplies.
As the effectiveness of my home-grown techniques developed, I began to find my behavior in Minecraft Survival more and more disturbing. I’d terrorized the innocent landscape, reshaping the land, leveling mountains, building fortresses, and dominating all simulated life within my realm. All this as I calmly tapped on my iPhone sitting on the couch next to my son, who was happily building zen gardens and underwater bases in his Minecraft game.
But that was only a precursor to the power and flexibility available in the flagship PC version of the game, and things soon got a whole lot worse.
GENOCIDE AS A BUSINESS MODEL
Minecraft was built on PC, and the PC version is the most up-to-date in terms of content and feature updates. Switching to playing on my computer introduced me to a new resource that I could exploit: the game’s friendly villagers, dumb and mute and useful as they are. They’ll trade with you, but some offer better trades than others. And since there’s a cap on how many villagers can be alive in your world at a time, one has to die for a new one—with new, potentially better trades—to appear. It became clear to me that murdering villagers would be to my advantage, and luckily I’d had a lot of practice in that area.
But I couldn’t kill the idiot villagers with many of the direct and efficient methods I’d used to farm mobs. In the PC version of Minecraft, they’re guarded by large iron golem guardians that don’t hesitate to fight you to the death, which can be very bad for business.
I needed to find a way to indirectly kill the villagers—to set them up for fatal “accidents.” I turned to some of the same techniques I’d used in Pocket Edition, refining and perfecting my suffocation pits and lava-dumping traps, and ushering villagers over the edges of cliffs like sheep fleeing from a tank.
Minecraft “survival” ceased to be, as reputed, a jaunty adventure to find rare treasures underground and build my dream vacation castle and enchant my sword using books carved from trees. That had ended on my first day playing. It was now a race to control and grind the mechanics of the game in order to become, as the kids say, “OP.” That’s overpowered, for you noobs.
LEARNING FROM THE PROS
I plunged into researching Minecraft technology and strategy on planetminecraft.com, minecraftwiki.net, and the youtube channels of skilled players like Sethbling, William Goosen, and others, and I discovered that I had only just scratched the surface of Minecraft farming strategies. Experienced players create complex and super efficient mob farms and mob “grinders”—huge constructions that cause monsters and more innocent creatures to spawn, then immediately destroy them and harvest the resources left behind, from gunpowder to eggs and leather. One sophisticated design combines multiple NPC villages and manipulates the game’s rules to create bubbling villager-spawning vats, with automated rail systems that destroy each individual and extract the spoils like a factory line of death.
As I combined my rituals with these more advanced methods, I felt ready to leave behind the comforts of solitary “survival” and take the next step: a multiplayer server, where I’d play with other people, witnesses to my genocides. And it wasn’t long before someone accused me of cheating, the controversy centered around my source for “god apples.”
These “god apples“—so-named due their their power-imbuing properties—are designed to be extremely rare and hard to get. But thanks to my dark efforts, I had stacks of them. I hadn’t invented the god apple pigman grinder, but few of my opponents knew how to build it (or were willing to go through the mind-numbing drudgery needed to build it). They thought I’d somehow hacked the server, when in reality I’d simply tapped into something dark in the fabric of the Minecraft experience.
I’d become a farmer of death, summoning the souls of the dead and squeezing power and wealth from their crushed, burned, and drowned bodies. Munching on the fruit of the gods, I used this power to dominate other players—ostensibly my “playmates”—killing them with impunity. Whose idea of fun is this? Apparently, it’s mine.
This is a not a call for hand-wringing. There is no absolution at the end of this gory rainbow. I still play Minecraft alongside my son, and while he builds roller coasters and zen gardens, I still farm and grind, cheerfully pushing villagers and pigmen over cliffs. As Megadeth may or may not have written, “Killing is my playtime…and playtime is good.”
Alfred O. Cloutier is a virtual mass murderer who lives with his wife and son in the suburbs of Boston, MA. Follow him on Twitter @Alfred_Cloutier.
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