Sunday, 5 February 2017

REVIEW: "Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities" by Nate Garrelts

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities 
by Nate Garrelts
Copyright September 2014
Paperback, 232 Pages

A piercing intellectual discourse on Minecraft and its identity as a videogame. Beautifully written, this scholarly book provides a multifaceted analysis of Minecraft—its mechanics, aesthetics, features, value and applicability—and theorizes the game’s appeal, popularity, uniqueness and success. Organized in compact chapters, discussions in the book are adroitly interweaved with the fields of education, psychology, literature, sociology and technology. The inclusion of interesting comparative assessments also allows the reader to gain additional understanding of a variety of other videogames. 

This book is accessible even for researchers, scholars and students who have never experienced or played Minecraft firsthand. Examinations of the game within the videogame canon is built upon the provision of foundational details of the game—its basic features, the idea of mods, the game’s developmental narrative, and its developer’s policies and vision. This book will also be a delectable treat for ardent gamers who enjoy engaging with critical and theoretical texts. Videogame neophytes can expect to be blown away by the expansive world of Minecraft, and be stimulated and inspired by the immense creativity and talent existing within the Minecraft community. For those who earnestly scrutinize the book’s contents, he or she could surely gain satisfaction from continuing to hone his or her game analysis skills and the ability to verbalize the virtues of videogames and the virtual world the games reside within. 

The book contains a sizable amount of content that spans from being magnificently fascinating to positively interesting. The discussion of Minecraft University as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in educational settings is one of the most engaging topics found in the book, along with the bold attempt to critically relate Minecraft’s virtual environment mechanics and gameplay dynamics to ideologies and issues of the natural environment in our world. Whilst some may dismiss the relevance or even prudence of relating the environmental discourse to Minecraft—where Minecraft was referred to as a “failed ecological game”—it is however incredibly refreshing and intellectually compelling to be exposed to the perspective indicating Minecraft as being antithetical to highlighting important issues of environmental exploitation and its consequences due to the state of its virtual world—as “a theoretically infinite world with inexhaustible soil and virtually waste-free resource conversion.”

The idea of the growth of the community of Minecraft animators and fan producers such as The Yogscast being spurred on by the game’s “narrative silence” or “blankness” is interesting, and the contrast established between the concepts of authenticity versus validity in videogame design is astounding. Observations on the correlations between player personalities—labelled “Curiosity,” “Tranquility,” or more—and their virtual behavior in Minecraft is another outstanding piece of information found in the book. The book is also bolstered with additional interesting content such as the role of Procedural Content Generation (PCG) and the necessary concept of “operational radius” in Minecraft; the range of tools and features of the game which reinforce the player’s autonomy, enhance the game’s universal accessibility, and reinforce its dual creative and survival modes. 

Going beyond expectations, an analytical portion of Minecraft was even corroborated with an intriguing literary citation, namely the book Eunoia by Christian Bok where “every chapter is written using only one vowel,” an example being the first line of “Chapter E” which went, “enfettered, these sentences repress free speech.” In line with the book’s literary qualities and as an instance of its beautiful writing, a sentence went, “In Minecraft, the player character literally spawns on the grounds of an imaginary and abstract wilderness that has been designed for colonization and exploration.”

The chapter “Look What Just Happened: Communicating Play in Online Communities” is rather lackluster, with its lack of academic rigor especially pronounced in contrast to other chapters in the book. Whilst the mention of the Player-Game Descriptive Index (PGDI) and simple demonstrations of its application in the discussion was somewhat interesting, the predominant discourse in the chapter about social dialogue in online communities was mostly descriptive and painfully lacking in insightful syntheses and analyses. Some of the cosmetic descriptions went, “Many responders provided mostly unhelpful comments. Some challenged or denied the validity of a question, without answering it or providing a contrasting remark. In response to a question of what others do to keep from being bored, one responder simply said that he didn’t do anything because Minecraft never got boring for him.” 

Though not perfect, this book as a collective and cohesive whole has surely convinced me that Minecraft is “indeed every nerd’s dream.”

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

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