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A world without end

Minecraft is perhaps the most extensively shared landscape on Earth

Robert Macfarlane | May/June 2015

The imaginary landscape in which I spend most time is born not of a book or a film, but of an algorithm. It is a place of snowy peaks and deep-gouged gorges, of wolf-roamed plains, and jungles in which abandoned villages are slowly hauled back into the earth by liana and vine. Its underworld is riddled with abandoned mines and flooded cave-systems. Off its coast, an archipelago rises from clear blue sea in which giant squid cruise and palp. And in a fertile valley at its heart, my two children have built a mansion that is a hybrid of a dictator’s palace, a Scottish hunting lodge and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

If you’re a child, you’re likely to have spent hours of your life in the Minecraft world. If you’re a parent, you’re likely to have spent hours of your life trying to extract your children from the Minecraft world. If you’re a game-minded adult, you’re likely to have fulfilled your wildest architectural fantasies in the Minecraft world: a blingy re-build of Lord’s Cricket Ground with an emerald-clad pavilion and an orange-wool wicket, say, or a Shard-like omphalos with an obsidian skin and a cantilevered roof-garden. Not that these are my fantasies, of course. And if you’ve never entered the Minecraft world, what can I tell you about it?

Minecraft is a sandbox computer game, in which you inhabit a 3D environment whose solid aspects (earth, rock, ores, trees, crops, snow) are made of textured cubes. These cubes can be “mined”, “crafted” (combined to make new substances) and re-placed, allowing you to build almost anything. The cubes give Minecraft its signature look: blocky, retro, graphically low-tech.

And that’s pretty much it. Minecraft is magnificently purposeless. “What am I supposed to do here?” is the question most beginners ask, to which the answer is “Whatever you like.” It is a Rorschach test for the computer age. Should you wish to proceed like a one-person Rio Tinto, let it be so. Should you want to adventure in derelict infrastructure like a hardcore urban explorer, I salute you. Should you aspire to create a vast subterranean poultry battery-farm, look to your conscience. There are no rules beyond the limits of the physics of the game-world, and no obligations other than staying alive—which requires, reasonably, the securing of shelter and food.

Minecraft offers, arguably, the most extensively shared landscape on Earth. At any given moment, more than a million people are there. Though it was only released in its alpha version in 2009, the number of players is estimated at between 100m and 200m. Except that there is no single Minecraft landscape, but millions of them, too—each originally generated by means of a “seed” code.

Until recently, there was a theoretical limit to a Minecraft world. If you set off walking in one direction, and if you walked for hundreds of hours of game time, you would pass through regions of desert, prairie, canyon, forest, peak, lake, lava-field and sea, and at last you would reach the uttermost point of the algorithm: the zone at which the mathematics began to break down. What a threshold to reach! The very edge of numbers!

For a year or so, I rather relished the notion of setting out on this epic virtual journey, this arrow-straight mega-tramp. It would be a post-modern homage to the Heroic Age of exploration, a psychogeographic dérive worthy of Richard Long and Captain Scott…But my children mocked me. And then the developers solved the glitch, so the algorithm could extend its pseudorandom generative power ad infinitum. Now, like an early Arctic pioneer walking against the spin of the pack ice, you could march through the Minecraft world until you aged and died—and still be no nearer reaching an end.

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