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Dec 06

Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 1

After years of pestering, my friend Justin convinced me to try Minecraft one evening this past summer. That was early in August. Thanks to Justin, I do not remember August, September, or October of 2014 in terms of real life – I remember these months of my life in terms of Minecraft.

That first night, I purchased the game, joined his server, and spawned alone on a tiny island in a massive ocean. The island about 10 feet deep and 100 feet long. There was a tree, and a bunch of light tan and green 8 bit blocks to walk around on. I was surrounded on all sides by an ocean comprised of cubes of water. One tree, some sand, some grass, some dirt, and an incomprehensible stretch of water without any other bit of land in sight.

My initial thought? This game sucks.

A moment later my friend Justin’s character came to my little island in a boat he had made out of some wood. He told me to right click on the tree’s trunk. I did this and my fist punched it a few times, causing that block of the tree’s trunk to pop out and float on the ground as a little block I could pick up.

He then told me to chop the entire tree down. I did. He told me to put the tree pieces into a item-building area in my inventory screen in a certain way. I did. That created a “crafting table”. Justin then told me to put the crafting table down, right click on it, and build a boat with my remaining wood. I did.

Next Justin instructed me to build a second boat, because boat mechanics in minecraft are infuriating – if your boat touches even a bit of land at a speed of greater than zero, the boat explodes and you helplessly drown in almost all instances.

My thought at this point? This game sucks.

We build boats, jump into them and Justin says “Follow me”. What I didn’t know then was that the journey Justin was inviting me on would be one of incredible self discovery and enjoyment. What I did not know then was the incredible depth of the game I had just labeled “sucks”.

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We travel across the water, chasing a square sun setting in the west. “The sun does this every fifteen minutes”, Justin says. “We’re safe tonight, because we’re out on water, but you need to dig in somewhere safe for night once we hit land – because monsters that will kill you spawn at night.”

I thought, “Monsters, got it. Whatever. Looks like a kids game so far.”

Albeit, a very pretty kids game:

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We chase the setting sun for five minutes and then I see it, an unassuming but well-lit house atop a hill, built from scratch like a 3d version of pixel art built pixel by pixel – our friend Jon’s house – the beacon of civilization and safety for all new players on the map.

We had arrived at ‘the bay’ – a medium sized body of water tucked into the corner of a much larger island. An island large enough for a beginner to get lost on. Justin leads me to his house near Jon’s – a weird hybrid of existing natural game-generated environmental beauty with a short unassuming roofed deck cut into the wall, again – well lit. We wait until morning, Justin tells me to go find a place and dig in.

All I need to do, he says, is find a wall somewhere, use my fist to break some blocks out of the wall, then build a door out of some tree wood to block the entrance. “Don’t forget about the door!”, he says. The door keeps monsters out.

Hole. Door. Got it. Whatever.

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Justin log’s off, it’s his dinner time.

I’m still highly skeptical.

I do what he says, I dig a hole in a wall looking out on a sandy beach and water, put up a door, and start breaking down other blocks. A few minutes later I have a lot of blocks of dirt and rock in my inventory and I want to carry more, so I google “Minecraft store items” and come across the incredible, amazing, Minecraft wiki.

That wiki, and what would happen next, was my undoing – in both the video game, and real life.

The wiki told me I could make a treasure chest out of 8 pieces of wood, and I could make two chests, place them side by side and make a bigger chest that holds more stuff. I knew how to build a new crafting table, so I built that, built the chests, put my stuff in the chest and looked at the wiki a bit more.

I was alone on the server, it was nearing night, and the wiki said I could make a bed and “sleep” in the bed for 15 second to turn night into day. I went out into the night, like a fool, disregarding my friends advice about monsters in the dark. I sought some sheep to harvest wool from. My friend was the fool though, I killed three sheep without problem and didn’t see any monsters at all!

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The trick was, sun sets, and a few minutes later monsters start spawning until dawn. Had I known that and been less of a skeptical jackass, I wouldn’t have left the door way to my hole open behind me in the night. Had I paid attention to Justin’s advice about monsters and the importance of a door, I probably would have kept the door within sight and googled how to make a sword rather than a chest for items first. But, being who I am, I did none of those well-advised things I should have done – and I learned the hard way.

I walked into my hole, left the door open behind me, looked away from the door toward my crafting table, starting putting the blocks in place to build a bed when suddenly I heard a fizzling sound like a fuse on a firecracker. Two seconds later a monster called a ‘creeper’ exploded right next to me like TNT. He blew my hole into a much bigger hole on the side of the mountain, and killed me instantly.

“You are dead. Respawn?”

Wait, what? I had a few days worth of stuff in that chest! Did that monster blow up my chest too?! Justin had said items disappear after ten minutes if they’re not in a chest. Perhaps the chest explodes like a piñata and my stuff is laying around? If so I only had ten minutes to get back. I panicked.

About twenty real-life minutes later I was very literally on the edge of panic and tears – not only had my stuff probably despawned completely, but I could not find my hole – I was lost. Me, the beginner, on this island that was just big enough for a beginner to get lost. I wasn’t lost lost, but I lost my “home”. An hour or two of effort, gone – just, gone.

I was lost, alone, and infuriated. Nothing drives me more than the chance to get even and make things right (I harbor a severely unrealistic sense of justice..), so I was determined that though I may quit this stupid sucky game, I would at least find that hole I had dug before I rage quit.

I never found the hole. Instead, I found addiction.

A real-life hour, or what felt like a year, later, Justin rejoins the game.

“Dude, I lost my hole. Like, I can’t find it. This green monster exploded and I just gave up and dug a new one. I figured out how to make glass though, this game is crazy!”

Justin led me to my original hole near the beach, an embarrassingly easy distance away. The hole was exactly as expected – a much larger hole blown up by this green ‘creeper’ TNT monster from hell, all of my hard work gone, only the crafting table in the corner remained.

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While Justin was offline I had self-taught myself some tricks, dug a new hole, put up a glass wall, which required making a furnace from 8 stone, sticking coal in the fuel part and sand blocks in the cook part, and waiting on the sand to cook into glass.

By the time he had logged back in, my boiling rage at losing my original home had faded into a budding addiction. I was learning to shape the minecraft world as a sculptor would shape a statue. Although I am not a very good sculptor:

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An hour later I was digging a massive hallway in a random direction and Justin screams “STOP!!!” on the chat – he can see my nametag hazily floating in the distance, through the back wall of his house. He digs my direction a few blocks and sees this insanely large hallway I was aimlessly mining. He looks around, tells me where I am. He pauses, looks some more, says the hallway is cool, and now our houses are connected.

I tell Justin that I keep dying because my health keeps draining, he tells me I need to get some food – go kill some more sheep or pigs. I can’t find any on the small island we sjare, because my two friends, Justin and Jon, went around and killed all of the animals not long ago for their own stash of sustenance, so I was screwed until the game would spawn more animals.

Rage quit.

A real-life day later I log on and Justin has prettied up the place – there’s artwork hanging on the walls of the hallway between our houses. Justin’s friend Andy has joined the game and while I’m mid-rant about no food being available, Andy tells me I can go right click on grass and get seeds from the grass, use a hoe to till a soil block near water, and put the seed in the ground with a click. Five minutes later – a wheat stalk is ready for harvest.

Three wheat stalks together on the crafting table = bread. Bread = a good substitute for meat when your fellow players have completely ruined the ecosystem by killing every last animal. Fortunately they can’t kick a bunch of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the game, so I’ll always be able to grow some wheat. At least there’s that.

I instantly kick into Jason-the-engineer mode, automating my way out of worrying about food – I build a massive farm. Not understanding that I can build a bucket to transfer water blocks, I take soil blocks and build a massive deck of dirt block block out into the sea near my house. I make a farm big enough to harvest 64×3 wheat stalks, and fill an inventory slot with 64 bread (enough to last for several real-life evenings of game play).

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Four real-life days after the Monday I started playing the game, my wife and I go to lunch – abnormal for us because we work far apart from each other and she has a short lunch break typically. Today is kind of an exception though, she’s off early, and she hasn’t seen me since Monday (when I started playing Minecraft).

“How are you doing?” – She asks, happy to visit with a long lost friend.

“I’m sorry I’ve been playing the game so much, but, Amanda, this game is like no other game I’ve ever played, I’m having fun in a video game more than I have in countless years, can I tell you a story?”

It should be mentioned that my wife has immaculate patience and kindness, she allows me to go on.

I explode with a cheerful recounting of my last few days of playing the game, occasionally choking up as I recount some of the incredible emotions the game has made me feel for the first time in a very long while.

My childhood was full of fear. I’m a worrier at heart, as are my parents. As a kid, my parents were constantly threatening to kick me out of the nest for the slightest wrong (a marilyn manson cd, for example), and that didn’t help matters. I was born a ‘little grandpa’, as my wife puts it, and I learned the meaning and comfort of safety and security far too late in life.

I endured college under a constant cloud, the cloud being the story my parents had tricked me into believing: “If you do not graduate college, you will not enjoy life, and if you get bad grades, we won’t pay for college and you’ll never make it or be happy.” There was always one of these stories, “If you don’t do something I say you must do, you will be sorry.” – for better, and for worse, I always trusted and believed these stories.

I was so worried about these stories that when school was nearly finished I saved every last penny of my last college summer job’s money in anticipation of graduating without a job and being heartlessly kicked from home.

In retrospect, with hindsight, the stories change as history march forward – now, 10 years later, firmly on my own two feet with solid financial safety (read: no chance I’d ever need to go back to my parents..), our parents predictably assure us that they never would have actually left us ‘on the street’. Our memories disagree and we’ve agreed to disagree.

I graduated college, and fortunately I found a decent paying job. For about two years I saved as much money as I could to build the fabled “1 year living expenses in case you’re on your own” nest egg. Hint: Nobody does that, unless they’re scared worriers like me.

Say what you will about threatening parents, but mine inadvertently tricked me into being a very cautious person financially, and my life is extremely comfortable thanks mostly to good fortune and a little bit due to financial responsibility.

For about a decade of my life from 15 or so to 27, I lived my life in fear. Consistent fear and anxiety over not being able to pay the electricity bill and being unable to cut it in this big bad world that my parents were so adamant was out to get me and would offer no help.

Life, of course, is more complex than a single emotion – I had an extremely privileged and fortunate upbringing, and in truth I never wanted for anything that was a necessity. Still, being the ungrateful little shit that I am, I obsessed and worried about this real life fear of failure. The fear affected my life and development in profound ways. The cloud of fear and worry had such an affect on me that in retrospect I regret many thousands of missed beautiful moments I skipped over or missed with my obsession on responsibility and justice – so many moments missed because I couldn’t see beyond fear…

I wouldn’t go on rollercoasters – I already feared enough, why ‘enjoy the exhilaration of fear’?

I would never go on random camping excursions with just a backback – Why take a chance where you could be afraid or hurt or lost?

I would never watch horror films or play scary video games – I fear enough in real life, why bother?

And so on.

Roll back a few years before the drama, back in the days before parents turned the corner from “you are our son, we’ll always be here for you” to “you need to grow up or else”. Coincidentally, they turned this corner around the same time I became an insufferable rebellious little shit.. funny how that works.

There’s always more to the story, remember that.

Before “grow up or else”, in the halcyon days of childhood, my friend down the street had a computer in his room – with one rule and only one rule – we weren’t allowed to play violent video games. Naturally, the rebellious asshole from up the street (that’s me..) obtained a copy of id softwares seminal 3d first person shooter horror game Quake. We installed the game, and had a blast.

There was a problem with Quake though – it’d be safer to play in the evening after parents were asleep so we would not get caught, but the game was so damn scary that we didn’t *want* to play it at night. The game gave my friend and I real-life nightmares. So, we only played it in the day.

We were so filled with fear for the game of the crazy horrific monsters therein that we’d rather risk punishment and losing the game than play it at night.

That is the last time I remember be afraid of a video game.

The last time I remember before Minecraft.

Back in the present, at lunch with my wife, I recount how Justin taught me to dig down to just the right level for mining diamonds, iron ore, and coal for more efficient and longer lasting tools. How I happened upon a series of lavafalls (a water fall made of lava) deep underground in an expansive cavern, and how I made a house full of glass protecting me from the lava.

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I told my wife how I learned the lava blocks could be used in a furnace like coal, so I had created 30+ iron buckets and found an underground lake of lava for an infinite supply of coal to make “the glass factory” – a bank of 25 furnaces powered by lava kicking out glass far faster than I could ever use it.

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I told her how every night I’d go to real-life bed satisfied with accomplishing some goal in Minecraft, only to think of something the very next morning that I *must* do before I call it quits. One day it was ‘I must build an underground railway between the bay and Andy’s distant mesa’. Another day, it was ‘I must take some lava blocks, dig a hole in my house, put the lava at the bottom of the hole, put a glass floor over the hole and have a bed in my home above a pool of lava.’ ‘I must figure out some way to easily kill and harvest loot from the monsters coming from the ‘zombie spawner’ near my house – those monsters give me free armor and swords!’ .. ‘I must make a fishing dock way out on the water to safely fish without worry of monsters coming by.’

And so on.

At the end of my story, with my wife half asleep over our lunch, I tell her about fear in Minecraft. I remind her of my financial fears when I was younger and how lucky we are and I am that I’ve outgrown and been fortunate enough to live without that fear for a little while. I tell her about how when I was a boy, a friend and I were so scared of a video game that we’d rather lose the game if caught than play it in the dark.

I tell my wife how I don’t remember fearing anything in a video game for a very long while, until the night before, in Minecraft. Until, the redwoods.

As video-game-time in minecraft wore on, my house turned into something a bit more impressive. I found some diamond, I had an impressive bank of furnaces running ‘the glass factory’, and I was on the verge of finishing the game – I had done what I wanted to do.

For whatever reason, as my last act in the game, after about two weeks of playing, I decided to extend my fishing pier. One last go-out-with-a-bang big impressive accomplishment – a pier that goes out so far that you couldn’t even see the end of it from the house.

I started building the pier, happily plugging along, when I noticed across the way, in the distance, there was another island. A very dark island with massive trees. The trees were what the game called ‘dark oaks’, but what I called ‘the redwoods’.

Each tree’s trunk was 2×2, one redwood trunk was 4x as much wood as another tree, and they were super tall. Where other trees could be axed down while standing on ground, axing a full redwood down would require building an intricate series of ‘steps’ up into the tree’s trunk as you axed your way upward.

By this time, several days into the video game, Justin had taught me that dark = monsters. Even in the day time, a dark room or dark forest would be dark enough (light level 7 or something) for the game to spawn a monster. To prevent the game from spawning a monster, a player places torches around on the ground or walls to light the area up.

I knew about torches, so I stocked up on my way over to the mysterious redwood island with a new goal in mind. I was going to chop down a redwood and start a forest of them on our bay island.

I boated over to the ominous island, dark as night at the height of day, and stood on the shore. I explored a little, perhaps 30 blocks (30 feet) into the forest – and I discovered there were so many trees that my torches would run out far before I could light the area well enough to prevent monsters.

At that point, I had a choice to make – would I haul tail back to our safe bay island, or try to make for some spoils anyway and get the hell out?

Naturally, I went for it.

I chopped down two full redwoods without any bother from any monsters at all. I was extremely careful to stay out in the very small lighted area of the shore and do my work. I took my wood, and my redwood ‘sapling’ (a tree you can replant) that fell from the tree, and headed toward my boat.

Deja vu. My back turned to the forest, my life bar starts draining and my screen is jumping erratically. Somewhere in my mind I’m immediately subconsciously replaying that first moment a creeper blew my little house to hell. I’m mentally paralyzed and unable to act. I’m being hit by arrows. I finally manage to look behind myself and turn just in time to see three bow-and-arrow skeletons and two zombies gun me down.

I gasped in real life. My heart was racing, and for the first time in perhaps 20 years, I was frightened by a video game – I had so much time and emotional investment in the video game that the game had started having emotional responses beyond a the norm of addiction and conquest – and it was amazing. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was responding to a video game with such enrapture as I had once a million years ago, as a child playing quake in the day light.

For days and days on end, my real-life waking life was consumed by the game. Every day I had a “one final thing I’ll do then I’m done”, then it’d be every other day, then it’d be every week. Then I’d get bored, store all my inventory safely, and run out in some random direction naked as the day I first spawned on the tiny island, with nothing, and start again.

This series of posts will recount some of those stories, but more importantly it will finish out with a series of self-discoveries and real life discoveries I would not have had without this incredible game entering my life. Thank you, Justin.

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Please do read on, we haven’t even start talking about building machines.

Continued here: Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 2

Music: Caspian – Waking Season, and Hymn for the Greatest Generation.