With all of the proper ingredients gathered, I baked a cake. I baked this virtual cake as my two companions in our shared Minecraft game set about building a portal to the underworld, taking care to ensure that it looked sufficiently menacing. We had been discussing the construction of this portal for some time, having already planned and built an ominous (and elaborate) room in which to house it.
“We are ready,” one of my companions announced as he put the finishing touch on the portal.
“I brought a cake,” I offered. “To celebrate.”
“Yes!” We each took a slice of the pixelated confection.
We had all of the equipment we needed. The resources to produce this equipment had been gathered by us over the course of our last several play sessions, then crafted into the finest gear. We were about to head into the foreboding underworld of Minecraft, and we had steeled ourselves accordingly.
Knowing we had done all we could to do prepare, we stepped into the portal.
We watched our characters appear in the cavernous, lava-filled void. Then we all plunged straight into the lava, dying instantly, our equipment scattering everywhere. For a few moments, we all sat in stunned silence. As our characters respawned in the home we all shared, we burst out laughing. All of the buildup and anticipation to the moment, it turned out, was for naught. We later figured out that we had been randomly assigned a spawn point that was directly over the lava.
It was one of my favorite gaming moments, ever.
The underworld of the game, known as the The Nether, is a dangerous landscape that features far more menacing creatures than other areas of the game. Getting there requires the construction of a portal which leads to it—that’s all. Everything else we did—the room, the build up, the cake—were just things that we as players did to make the experience more fun. Our Minecraft game was our own little world, and we crafted our world to emphasize a shared experience and story. The particular experience of preparing ourselves for battle only to plunge into lava emerged from the mechanics of the game.
Emergent play is often defined as experiences and possibilities that aren’t necessarily built into a game, but rather emerge from its mechanics and the interaction of various elements. The rules of chess, which dictate primarily how play progresses and ends and the movement of individual pieces, can be learned in a relatively brief amount of time, but the strategies and play styles that are possible once those rules are mastered are essentially boundless. What I want to explore here, though, is a little different. There’s a kind of emergent social play that comes directly out of games’ mechanics, as well—the kind of experience where one not only bakes a cake to celebrate building a portal, but this act becomes a running joke and communal point of reference, given meaning and significance by shared experience.
These kinds of social emergent play experiences are one of the standout aspects of multiplayer games. These moments can be the most memorable and fun parts of games- the last-second red shell thrown by one friend at another in Mario Kart that determines the outcome of the race, or the Dungeons and Dragons player who, to the dismay of her dungeon master, pulls off stunts with her character that are not accounted for in the rules but are not, strictly speaking, disallowed.
Sandbox games and other less explicitly goal-oriented experiences, like Minecraft or The Sims series, are especially promising for these types of experiences. Of course, any game can generate these kinds of moments. But I argue that games like Minecraft, which allow—and even encourage—creativity and freedom as a matter of course, are great places to look for examples of weird and wonderful emergent experiences.
Even without any kind of modification or addition to the game, though, the experience of exploring the basic world of Minecraft invites the players to project their own interpretations of the world on to the game. The vaguely representational nature of its artwork leads to endless queries and discoveries in a player’s first few hours and beyond: Is that a monster? Is it out to get me? Oh wait, is that supposed to be a sheep? The looseness of the gameworld (and the resulting ease of making aesthetic modifications to it) means that players can project just about anything they want onto the game.
Of course, Minecraft isn’t the only example of its kind. Survival games are a genre unto themselves, many of which are fun but ultimately much more punishing than Minecraft (here’s looking at you, Don’t Starve). However, nothing is as delightfully vague as Minecraft, a somewhat blank slate for players to explore.
The experiences of playing Minecraft on one of these large servers or on a smaller, private one with friends or family highlights how the game is defined not only by its mechanics, but also by the norms, values, and interpretations of players themselves. Minecraft means exactly what one wants it to mean, and can be played in any number of ways. It is arguable that older experiences like Second Life have achieved this feel; indeed, any online game will have its own communities that bend the intended rules or setting of the game. However, Minecraft inherently has little built-in in terms of player interaction, and so the interesting thing about playing the game with others comes out of the emergent experiences of shared gameplay.
These experiences tend to be delightfully absurd- they might include debating whether to settle down or keep exploring, an argument over the gaping hole to the underworld that a friend has left in a previously pleasant-looking bedroom, or frantically trying to find a safe house when the host of the game refuses to use any “cheat” commands to warp players. The possibilities for interpersonal world-building are near endless.
As such, when I meet gamers (especially adults) who say they don’t care for the game, I sometimes ask if they’ve played with other people. The answer to this question is almost always no. I think many of these individuals would find they like or even love the game if they tried playing it with other people, either in the same room or online. It’s where the game really shines, and most of us could do with more fond memories of portal mishaps and baking cakes.
Although plenty of player-created content can be added to Minecraft, in the more recent console versions of the game, these additions have manifested as DLC. Themed character designs and textures can be downloaded which change the look of the game, and this content often draws on other video games, movies, or television shows. This add-on material, much like the base game itself, can lead to emergent social play experiences. The Mario-themed version of Minecraft released on the Nintendo Switch is one example of such crossover content. It adds gigantic structures shaped like Mario and other beloved characters, as well as skins, textures, and music which make the world feel like a Mario game. To me, the sight of these massive statues looming over the abandoned world, as Mario music loops in the background, grant the game a rather post-apocalyptic feel, and my partner and I can’t help playing it as if we’re in some post-Mushroom Kingdom universe. We mine the statues of characters for resources on which to survive, and steal beds and other such treasures from the empty castle. In general, there are unique play experiences afforded by adding content on to Minecraft- in my case, we are playing some bizarre version of Mario-Minecraft, exploring novel play experiences almost certainly not intended by the creators of Minecraft or Mario.
Since my initial experience with Minecraft, there has been more of a sanctioned story added to the universe of the game. Minecraft: Story Mode, a story-based adventure game from Telltale, builds out (hah) the world of the game. We meet characters who occupy the world and learn about what they do and what sorts of things happen in the world. In this way, much about the world is “revealed,” although some fans protested the imposition of story and other world building on the game. An upcoming Minecraft film promises to tell a story set in the world of game. However, these exist independently from the core game, and therefore don’t, at least for me, particularly affect the experience of playing. Minecraft remains as open-ended and ripe for emergent play experience as ever. When I meet people (almost always adults) who are gamers, but insist that they “don’t get” the game, I always follow up and ask if they’ve played it with other people yet. The availability of the game on various consoles makes it easier than ever to enjoy the endless stories an emergent play to be had.
As I reflect on my own and other players’ experiences in not only Minecraft but other multiplayer games, what really stands out to me is how much of the fun in many games is dependent on these kinds of social experiences. Thinking about other of beloved games and how they in their own way support these kinds of experiences is an endlessly entertaining exercise. What is it about Gang Beasts that grants it so much friendship-ending potential while at the same time makes it a hilarious party game choice? How does Overcooked, which only uses a few buttons and has only a few core actions, so masterfully create situations for discussion, argument, and compromise? Why will players spend entire afternoons running around in Goat Simulator even though it is inexplicable, and it might be impossible to answer the question of what the game is about or what one is doing in the game? These are the kinds of questions that highlight interesting points about games and design. I would argue that, even more importantly, these play experiences create the most powerful memories. They are the ones that cause us to most fondly look fondly back at games and the people with whom we have shared them.