04 March 2014

help your writing with video games

My brother Steve showed me Minecraft a while ago (back when it was still in alpha). He said I'd like it, but I try not to have too many time sucks around, so I didn't get my own copy. Then Peter Newman mentioned he was getting into the game, and I wanted a good game to play on my phone... That was the middle of January, and I've played it pretty much every day since.

The phone (Pocket Edition, or PE) version is a smaller world with fewer features, but the essentials are the same as the full version: you play in a "sandbox" (limited world) made of different types of blocks, scaled to be 1m cubed.

There are two basic modes of play:
  • Creative: there are no monsters, and no way for your avatar to die. You have as many blocks as you want, of whatever type you select. Your avatar has the ability to fly, which can come in useful for some of the construction work. The experience gets compared to virtual reality Lego a lot, which I think is fair. The landscape is created for you randomly by the app, and it is always a beautiful, sunny day.
  • Survival: there are monsters, mostly at night, and they are all trying to kill you. You start the game with nothing but your avatar's bare hands to work with, and have to build a shelter to hide from the monsters, and tools to work with and defend yourself with. The only blocks you have to work with are the ones you collect or fashion yourself. If your world is missing a type of block — my current survival game doesn't seem to have any lapis lazuli, for example — then you simply can't build with it. If you want to work with metals like iron or gold, you have to find some ore, smelt it, and then craft with it. It doesn't rain the way it does in the full version of Minecraft, but days and nights are ten minutes long each. You learn to run somewhere safe at sunset.
I hadn't been playing long when I realised that Minecraft could be a great tool for writers (really!). It gets you thinking about:
  • how geography and one's environment can shape culture and values
  • the history of civilisation
  • the place of monsters both real and imagined in history and mythology
  • "who's the monster?": whether the real monster is you, the human player, and what that means
  • aesthetics and architecture
  • how to plan out things in enough detail so that they work as you imagined
I'm not a writer who's very big on note-taking or diagram-making. I could see using Minecraft as a kind of cheap AutoCAD, though, for planning out things like:
  • house floor plans
  • labyrinth designs
  • town layouts
  • secret passages and rooms
  • re-scaling (lots of the creative designs in Minecraft are at a giant scale; the avatars are mouse-sized in comparison)
In the next couple of Tuesday posts I'll be taking a look at these and evaluating how useful they could be in practical terms. In the meantime, here's a link to Mashable's list of 25 amazing creations in Minecraft. It was fun to notice a lot of them are inspired by books!

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