Minecraft: The Robinsonade of Creativity or Colonialism?

Group project summary, by leader Adayan Munsuarrieta

Minecraft (2009) is a sandbox survival game that was developed by Mojang and has evolved into a household staple across the United States. The initial premise of Minecraft is similar to that of the genesis of the robinsonade genre; the story of Robinson Crusoe in its survival and resource building mechanics. Robinsonade stories have existed for centuries which means their popularity and colonialist themes have stood the test of time. However, through its incorporation of multiplayer features and creative mode, Minecraft has had a split between being a robinsonade survival game and a creative outlet for people to construct their own worlds. Nearly eleven years since the release of Minecraft, how has it reproduced stereotypes within its genre and how has its new modes influenced the perception of the game?

Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, set the norm for many of its successors through its colonialist origins and themes such as survival, the exploitation of natural resources, and otherness. Throughout the novel, the protagonist is faced with numerous challenges from being taken hostage by Moroccan pirates to being shipwrecked on an island alone; his one goal remains the same: to survive and benefit himself. During his shipwreck, Crusoe made his own settlement and claimed ownership of the land and its resources like the diamond mine. He finds ways to not only survive on the island but also sees things through an industrial lens. Similarly, during his journey we see him make companions such as Xury and Friday and make enemies out of indigenous people he defines as cannibalistic monsters. Despite this distinction between ally and foe that Crusoe made, he devalues the lives of people of color as he makes Xury an indentured slave for ten years and reduces Friday to being his slave. Therefore, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe creates a generic category that reproduces the colonialist experience.

You may be wondering, “why is it that robinsonade games are being based off of genres that come from stories that glorify colonialism?” Well, a performance called Two Undiscovered Amerindians conducted by Coco Fusco may help us understand this unfortunate trend. The performance was a touring exhibit with two actors pretending to be from a recently discovered tribe in Mexico. The faux exhibit was visited by many people and the forms visitors were interacting with the actors were recorded. In Coco Fusco’s piece The Other History of Intercultural Performance she describes the encounters she had and found that “audience reactions were largely divided along the lines of race, class, and nationality” (Fusco, 158). The most telling reactions were from “whites outside the U.S. [who] have been more ludic in their reactions… they have appeared to be less-self conscious about expressing their enjoyment” (Fusco,160). In other words, Anglo-Europeans took pleasure in the “representation of the ‘reality’ of the Other’s life” by making animal noises, taunting them with urine-filled beer cans, and selfishly attempting to alleviate their own guilt. It’s at this point that the intercultural performance becomes solely a spectacle for the Anglo-Europeans. This same pleasure that Anglo-Europeans felt from observing Fusco’s performance could be reproduced through novels and games in which the “fictional narrative of Western culture ‘discovering’ the negation of itself in some thing authentically and radically distinct.” When looking at the story of Robinson Crusoe, we see his description of indigenous people from on the island he is shipwrecked; he identifies them as uncivilized cannibals because of their attempt to defend their island from an intruder. This clear distinction Crusoe creates between himself and the people he “discovered” solidifies how some readers may sympathize with him as a hero that must defend himself against them rather than seeing him as someone invading the island of an indigenous tribe. It gave people during Daniel Defoe’s time a way to place themselves on a moral high ground where they saw colonialism as a form of making money and slaughtering indigenous people as self preservation. Therefore, much like Coco Fusco’s performance, robinsonades allow players to revert back to colonialist tendencies such as placing themselves above the “others” and engage in the exploitation of resources.

Minecraft provides its players with similar colonialist themes that come from the robinsonade genre but trivializes them. One can look as far back as to Minecraft Alpha Version 1.1.0 to see the emphasis placed on said mechanics. In this version, the player is placed on an island where building a shelter and extracting resources is a necessity to survive since nightfall and the monsters that accompany it come quickly. By creating a world in which the player’s default course of action is to settle and take resources from an unknown island, the game normalizes environmental exploitation. Additionally, the sheer darkness within the game during nightfall creates one of two situations for the players and the zombies/skeletons: the creation of borders between the player and “others” or a kill or be killed mentality.The sheer darkness perpetuates an ambiance vilifying zombies and skeletons who represent indigenous people or peoples who’ve been colonized; the cues are meant to induce anxieties, stresses, and fear. By doing this the game denies the player the ability to live peacefully with the “others” and encourages the isolation or killing of these beings. Although Minecraft attempts to displace the violence that exists within robinsonades towards indigenous people, the game still uses beings that were once living people and therefore reifies the violence towards humans. In later installations of the game we are able to see the inclusion of villagers as companions for the player similar to how Crusoe made companions out of Xury and Friday. However, much like the way in which Xury and Friday had abusive relationships with Crusoe, it is evident that villagers become exploitative commodities in transactional relationships. We see how Crusoe is willing to give away his ally Xury to slavery and make Friday his own slave, are reproduced in how players are able to not only settle in the villages but also use the villagers for their items. In other words, Minecraft creates virtual people who are only used as tools for the player to gain resources rather than real companions. Therefore, “survival mode” in Minecraft normalizes colonialist tendencies to provide players with a guilt-free way to engage in the exploitation of land, violence towards “others,” and the commodification of people.

Alternatively, if we look beyond the classic “survival mode” in Minecraft and see its creative mode outside of the robinsonade genre survival mode inhabits, it seems as a creative outlet where emergent narratives can be born. Creative mode provides the player with God-like abilities where the player is able to construct a world however they see fit. Minecraft is a game that places a great deal of importance on the power the player has to manipulate the landscape and shape their experiences. This aspect of Minecraft lends itself to Henry Jenkins’ understanding of the emergent narrative as “a kind of authoring environment within which players can define their own goals and write their own stories” (Jenkins,128). These emergent narratives take the shape of servers and YouTube videos that establish a space for shared experiences among players. In other words, “creative mode” allows players to not only exist within a limitless space, but also shape their interactions with others beyond the black and white dynamics of “survival mode.”

However, “creative mode” only adds another layer of power to the colonialist experience that exists within “survival mode”. This is exemplified in one’s ability to assign themselves a role as a player. The modes allow a player to switch between being God-like and being a settler, which grants the player the power to exert more control over the island. The player functions as both a person and the God the person relies on. Through mechanisms such as spawn eggs, unlimited resources, and enchanted armor, creative mode functions less as a space for creativity and more as a tool that facilitates the conquest in “survival mode.” The ability to simply spawn villagers creates a mass disposable population within the game and further dehumanizes these beings as they are significantly less than than the player, but also replaceable. It grants the player permission to treat the villagers like other livestock within the game such as pigs, cows, and chickens that have similar spawn eggs for the player’s convenience, further commodifying these digital humans. Therefore, “creative mode” is more than a creative outlet as it can also function as a form of reinforcing the colonialist narrative that is present within robinsonades.

Thus, Minecraft is a robinsonade that reproduces the colonialist fantasies of the past and is a space for people to revert to an imperialist mindset. It takes players to a world where “others” are seen as either tools or obstacles in their path to shaping their own world. The player is incentivized to extract resources and settle in a place that isn’t theirs as a means to survive and succeed. The game allows the player to become “God” and help themselves with resources that will make them more in control of their destiny. Ultimately, playing Minecraft allows people to role-play as the oppressor, which rationalizes racist behavior outside a digitized format.

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