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.