Minecraft is a broad, multi-faceted video game that allows players to express themselves in a multitude of opportunities. Youtube is a similarly broad platform which encourages people to express themselves through video content. Minecraft provides Youtube with desired content for a range of audiences.
Approximately one year from this coming Tuesday, the indie video game Minecraft will turn ten years old. While that number might not sound particularly impressive to some, it will undoubtedly be a milestone worth remembering for the 70 million people who continue to actively play the game. And it will certainly be a day of celebration for its studio Mojang which has sold almost 150 million copies of the game so far. Yet these statistics look pathetic compared to the sheer amount of views Minecraft-related content has earned on Youtube: 47 billion. Yes, billion. To the outside observer, the natural question might be: how? Or, why? How can a video game that has been out for so long command such a powerful presence in the gaming community? Why would said community spend so much time digesting Minecraft content on Youtube when they could be playing the game themselves? These questions will be the focus of this article as we seek to uncover the relationship between the most popular video game of all time and the most popular media platform of all time.
To begin with let’s look at Minecraft. Minecraft is described as a sandbox video game, which is a game that features an expansive environment with various features spread out for the player to discover at their leisure. There is no set end in a sandbox; the player determines their sense of progression within the sandbox. Additionally, Minecraft is procedurally-generated. This means that rather than create a physical boundary around the sandbox environment, Minecraft‘s creator Mojang designs set pieces that randomly link together as the player moves around in the environment. Thus, Minecraft is physically infinite in the x and z coordinates. Finally, Minecraft is not a static product. While it was released to the public on November 18, 2011, it has continued to be updated periodically by Mojang (it was also available in an unfinished state well before its release date, with an ‘alpha’ version available for download on PC in early 2009). These updates take the form of bug fixes and content additions that tweak the environment and even the sandbox-like nature of the game. For example, Mojang has added in a boss for players to fight that triggers a credits scene after victory. Despite that, the game still continues after the fight, and even lets the player return to the boss lair to fight them over and over again. Another update added new biomes and structures for players to explore. Because of the constant updates it is more accurate to say that Minecraft is always being rereleased to the public every so often. Not only that, but the price of game has not changed since it released. Thus the temptation to purchase the game increases with every update as there is more bang for the buck.
Beyond the nature of the game itself, Minecraft has two major affordances that make it a seriously attractive product in the gaming market. First, its simple controls and easy to learn crafting recipes make for a shallow learning curve. Second, Minecraft is available on every major gaming platform, from computers to phones to consoles, which removes the technology barrier common to most popular games. These affordances allow for a wider potential audience to pick up the game and begin playing. More importantly, these affordances make Minecraft a perfect match for content creators on Youtube.
A large part of Youtube’s content revolves around gaming. Gaming content often takes the form of tutorials, playthroughs or demonstrations of skill. Within a particular game there is often an online community or culture that develops with the aid of said content. Players who master an element of a game might post a video explaining how they achieved their expertise as well as offering advice to new players. This is especially abundant in Minecraft. As Minecraft lacks the typical structures that other games have such as a story or a set of skills, players often create their own vision of mastery in Minecraft. For some players this is multiplayer survival, for others an exploration of the in-game computing system, and for others building. I will focus on the last option as the goal of building translates to the three types of content described above. There are three Youtube creators who feature Minecraft predominantly on their channels who I will use as examples: BDoubleO100, Jamziboy, and Grian.
BDoubleO100 uses Minecraft to tell a story. He builds castles, cities, and towns to create worlds in the minds of his viewers. He admits in many of his videos that he is not as talented as other Minecraft Youtubers but he focuses on improving his skills and trying new styles. His channel focuses on the playthrough aspect of gaming content. His episodes are generally half-hour in length and he spends large amounts of the video conversing with the viewer and going over his life. He has two daughters who make appearances in some of his videos. BDoubleO100, or BDubs as his fans call him, frequently asks for feedback from viewers on his buildings. BDubs’ channel highlights an aspect of Minecraft that Margaret Mackey calls ‘thick play’. Thick play refers to a varied experience within a universe and “offers ways of lingering in a particular fictional world, savoring, repeating, extending and embellishing the imaginative contact with that world” (pp.93). BDoubleO100 returns to his Minecraft world over and over again because his viewers want him to continue to flesh out the universe he has created within the game, and due to the procedurally-generated nature of Minecraft, he can theoretically keep expanding his universe forever. This of course translates to an endless amount of content for Youtube.
Jamziboy and Grian follow in the vein of tutorial channels for players who seek to build better in Minecraft. Jamziboy specializes in medieval European styles and features houses and castles that reflect that time period. Grian is much broader in his designs, offering inspiration for players who seek a general improvement to their building rather emulating a particular style. Both channels contribute to another one of Mackey’s concepts, that of the ‘big world’. In terms of video games, a big world is one which is “ever-expanding”, a “fiction that extends beyond the limits of one text” (pp. 93). While this might not appear to apply to Minecraft, I would argue that the game’s constant updates serve as expansions to the original fiction that was released in 2011, and so the game has become more like a series rather than a single product. The big world that Jamziboy and Grian participate in is one where viewers can adopt medieval houses and castles into modern constructions or vice versa. There is no limit between the two channels’ styles: viewers are free to incorporate both or neither into their own worlds.
Mackey, Margaret. “Exciting Yet Safe: The Appeal of Thick Play and Big Worlds.” Play, Creativity and Digital Cultures. Edited by Rebekah Willett, Muriel Robinson and Jackie Marsh, Routledge, 2009, New York.