Curiosity Killed the Player

So lately I have been playing a lot of Minecraft, which probably is not surprising considering its recent rise in popularity. I keep finding myself coming back to play it whenever I get some free time. However, I have had a difficult time figuring out why I keep coming back to it. For anyone that does not know, Minecraft is a game about building and survival. Sort of like a digital Lego set with some enemies that try to kill you as you build. I consider myself a somewhat creative person, so no doubt I enjoy the building aspect of the game; and exploring the caverns and open spaces of the virtual world are rather fun as well. But really, what is the point? Anything I create in the game will probably never been seen by anyone, save my wife who will just say “that’s nice”. So what am I spending my time for? Long gone are the days of my childhood when I would build Lego structures in order to pretend my constructed spaceship was a real one. I do not plan on pretending my castle in Minecraft is genuine. Let me leave this here  for now and I will come back to it.

Another game that I have been playing lately is ESPNU College Town, a Facebook game where you essentially maintain and build a college campus. Since I am studying games, I try to get a bit of experience with everything and I could just not bring myself to play Farmville; but I wanted to see what these Facebook games were about. Plus, with my psychology background I was curious to see the reward schedules I had heard about in them. So I played the game; placing and upgrading buildings, collecting revenues, and getting more students. And essentially, all that is really occurring is that I am clicking on objects at the right time. A very apt point made by Ian Bogost‘s Cow Clicker. I also realized that that ESPNU is not so different from Minecraft.

I think part of what is really drawing people in is curiosity and possibility. In Minecraft, I have this intense curiosity of what the game world has presented me (caverns, building tools, etc.) and a sense of wonder at the possibility of all the things that I can create. It has been said before, games are possibility spaces and games like Minecraft are great examples of that. In ESPNU, I also have a lot of curiosity about progressing through the game. What do buildings look like at their highest level? What will my campus look like at higher levels?  And so on. However, there is not the same kind of possibility that is in Minecraft. While there certainly are some creation aspects, it is so limited as to be pointless.

And that is where I find the true rift between a game like Minecraft and most  Facebook games. Both games try to harness that human desire to manipulate ones environment, to have power over what is going on, and to make real progress. However, while most Facebook games are trying to take your time and money (and that of your friends as well), Minecraft gives players a tool for expression. It allows players to make whatever they want, from the Starship Enterprise to a recreation of Rapture from Bioshock. It is in that added possibility space where I gain respect for a game like Minecraft and lose respect for a game like ESPNU. Games are not just about utilizing behaviorism, but instead offers elements of it in order to create a greater experience for the player.

For game designers, there are some ethical issues here that I will perhaps revisit in another post. I will say that just because psychology gives us the tools does not give us the right to use them. Games are meant to craft experiences and enjoyment, not lock someone into a reinforcement schedule.


About Jonathan Frye

Ph.D. student at NYU. Game researcher. Game Design/Usability/Theory nerd. Research focus on psychology of players. RA for Games for Learning Institute. View all posts by Jonathan Frye

6 responses to “Curiosity Killed the Player

  • Dan

    So what about the implications on multiplayer,already I have run a small server with a couple of my Rl friends (until it went beta and somehow alot buggier), I too reached the same conclusion about the games finite playing time before your realise your only building to show off, so why should I have to mine etc.

    however I also remember playing runescape and its pvp, of you kill you get the players loot. that in minecraft with a penalty for dying perhaps? rewriting code to make food harder to come by in terms of growing and harvesting. Ive seen amazing storys from such a free to do as please game as Eve – online. and I can’t help but think Minecraft would be a pritty gd MMO. obvs tech capabilitys with all the block updates, but can see something in that surely? besides its only just at beta, I hope notch still pretends its in alpha and keeps adding to it.

    • Jonathan Frye

      Thanks for the comments Dan.

      I think the point you make Dan is really pertinent. In a sense, Minecraft is not that much different than other persistent experiences. I played World of Warcraft for three years and when I quit, what did I have to show for it? Technically nothing other than an account I could have sold. But to me, I had countless experiences with my friends, both RL and in-game. I think games with a social aspect are so engrossing and prolonged because of the social experiences. For instance, would you keep playing Minecraft, if not for your RL friends?

      And to your point about why should you have to mine, I think you have prodded at the essence of the Wii. Why should the game be difficult if I just want to use it to spend time with people? I wonder the percentage of people that play their Wii when no one is with them.

      I think Minecraft is great and an MMO version would certainly be interesting. Notch has really increased his team and is still putting in tons of work. I can’t way to see how the game evolves.

  • Evan

    Wow… I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ll be sure to follow this site now, and maybe even read some old posts. Well done, sir!

    • Jonathan Frye

      Thanks Evan!

      If I can ever get this damn dissertation done, I will definitely start posting more often.

      • Dan

        well you’ve sort of said it yourself Jonathan, what did I have to show for it? the same can be said from reading a blog, watching a youtube vid. In an MMO environment minecraft essentially has a huge platform for people to come and view your creations. The whole server buisness is abit fussy, but I genuilly think the possibilities of minecraft are limitless if the current version of it has a very finite time. As did farmville/frontier ville have possibilitys, in the sense im sure alot more people would have played it given you didnt have to know people to visit their farms and could have wandered around a full sized world to get to peoples farms.

        I read somewhere that minecrafts world can be up to 7 times the size of the earth. interesting scenario could be played out there, even get some real time data of what happens to the world when it get overpopulated and dependant on finite resources. diamond in the game’s economy would be worth tons, as are all rare items in games. I think an eve online like economy, corperation/guild/clan structure, Mmo style ddition to this game could make it totally unique and virtually invincible. I’d love to see Minecraft still going in a few years and evolving like eve has done,(now with walk in stations, a graphic rehaul 3ish years ago).

        but I doubt Notch will take it in this direction and I think thats a shame. I’d Love to know if it could actually be done. What limitations are there to servers running that kind of thing, I have no idea. Im mearly CGI animator with dreams lol.

  • Dan

    p.s. I really to need to be more clear;

    *1st paragraph @what did I actually take from it?
    *2nd paragraph @having to mine & why that would only ever be a good idea
    *3rd It’ll only work if everything came together like this, one without the other is just lackluster.

    Il shut up now 🙂

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