By Olivier Sylvestre
While Minecraft is not part of the “warez” network of freely distributed games Coleman and Dyer-Witheford describe in Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in videogame culture, its community, both in-game and on other platforms like YouTube and Reddit, makes it the prime example of a digital common land shared by its players.
Coleman and Dyer-Witherford describe the concept of commons as “resources that all in a specified community may use, but none can own.” These resources, which may be land, tools, food, etc., are contrasted with “commodities, exchanged for profit on the basis of privatized possession.”1 Video games have an early history of a more communal distribution, where software was shared online or in person and created by researchers. Today, most video games, even independent ones, are treated as commodities. As they went from being the products of a hobby to a full-fledge industry, game creators and content owners needed to profit from their sales in order to make the endeavour worth their time, sweat, and money.
However, some video games can be brought back into commons territory. One video game genre has been singled out by Coleman and Dyer-Witherford as being great communal experiences: Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Most of their examples, like Ultima Online or World of Warcraft could be described more precisely as Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs). After all, the core of the community experience the authors describe is a staple of the genre and is what makes them fit into their definition of the digital commons: players get together on servers in massive worlds, directly leading to the interactions and community the authors describe.
As I was reading Coleman and Dyer-Witherford’s paper, I immediately thought of the New York Times Magazine’s piece The Minecraft Generation by Clive Thompson. Minecraft is a video game that has been released on PCs in 2009 by the independent developer Markus Persson to great success, and has since been bought by Microsoft which ported it to many platforms like the company’s XBOX or Sony’s PlayStation, and even on mobile platforms like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Minecraft has low-resolution, old-school graphics that reminisce of an older time in the video game industry characterized by its world made of building blocks.
Thompson describes the community that surrounds the game, both in it and outside of it. Inside the game, because players can log into servers where they can meet other players like in a MMORPG, but also outside of the game, because of the enormous virtual and live community of players who share tips and tricks and their passion for it. There are more videos online than you can watch in a lifetime dedicated to the game, ranging from just plain play through to careful tutorials on how to build certain things, like mechanism or complex structures, inside the game. Many forums and sub-redits are dedicated to the game. Libraries have even installed the game on their computers and launched private servers for kids to play.
In Minecraft, nothing explains that skeletons will kill you, or that if you dig deep enough you might hit lava (which will also kill you), or even that you can craft a pickaxe.
That omission turned out be an inadvertent stroke of genius, however, because it engendered a significant feature of Minecraft culture, which is that new players have to learn how to play. Minecraft, as the novelist and technology writer Robin Sloan has observed, is “a game about secret knowledge.” So like many modern mysteries, it has inspired extensive information- sharing. Players excitedly pass along tips or strategies at school. They post their discoveries in forums and detail them on wikis. 2
It is that sharing of knowledge, spurred by the absence of tutorials in Minecraft that created the community around it. When played on servers, the land the game creates is common land. The resources, while they can be harvested by entrepreneurial players, are also part of the commons (although they are infinite). The knowledge itself about the inner workings of the game is, also, part of the commons too. As players find new ways to innovate in it, to create new things, they share it, and no copyright is put on it. That is why I believe Minecraft if the penultimate digital common that we have now.
Coleman, Sarah and Nick Dyer-Witheford. “Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in videogame culture.” Media Culture & Society 26.6 (2007): 934-953.
Minecraft (Mojang, 2009)
Thompson, Clive. “The Minecraft Generation.” New York Times Magazine. 14 April 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/magazine/the-minecraft-generation.html