Minecraft, "Open-Source Culture," & Networked Game Development
by Alex Leavitt — Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California
August 17, 2011 – 00:00
Minecraft, the indie-game-cum-global-phenomenon, epitomizes the simple dream of independent game developers: build, spread, profit. Markus Persson (aka. notch) worked on Minecraft alone; two years later, Minecraft boasts over 3 million copies sold and more than 10 million registered players.
But the game is not finished; it's still in beta.
Minecraft interests me because of its "viral" popularity from a strong community of gamers on social media platforms like YouTube and Reddit (popularity that emerged from sharing in-game media, like the videos to the left and below).
The fact that Minecraft is still being developed with so much support from its players intrigues me. Well, "support" varies, given that an "angry mob" of players DDoS-ed Minecraft.net because notch was developing too slowly.
The balance between development and play is critical to Minecraft's cultural salience. Players hinge on news regarding the game's evolution, for which notch and his dev team at Mojang provide updates via Tumblr (http://notch.tumblr.com) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/notch). But some players are not mere consumers; they also participate in editing the game, as notch uses the million-player network as "playtesters" for creative feedback and debugging.
Playtesting is not alien to "professional" game development (see Nina Huntemann's IMR article), but Minecraft players' labor becomes a conspicuous (rather than hidden) element of game construction. Even beyond Minecraft's "official" development, tech-savvy fans unobfuscate the code, fork the development, and create mods, which have been viewed and downloaded millions of times. notch plans to integrate mod support into Minecraft, but players continue to craft the game to their own needs in opposition to notch's hierarchical creative decisions.
I've written before about "open-source culture" for In Media Res (see my post on the Japanese user-generated music franchise, Vocaloid), and Minecraft represents another example of the creative industries evolving to purposefully allow user-generated contributions. However, as an incomplete game, Minecraft traverses novel practical and ethical concerns regarding networked production, both in terms of Minecraft's legitimate creation and fans' similarly-creative alternatives -- or even the question of legitimacy itself. Beta has profound implications for culture (Neff 2003 [PDF]).
This fall, I'm delving deeper into the Minecraft community. Follow my survey, interviews, and the full project here: http://tinyurl.com/minecraftphd