While playing Minecraft with two friends recently, I finally got what it means to live in this age of human made climate change. What happened in the game was fairly simple as I'll describe. What’s more perplexing is how this deeper understanding came from a decade old video game and not through all the other climate content I've consumed in the last year. And so what follows is an attempt to get to the root of why playing Minecraft might be more profound than most of the other ways we think about climate.
For those not familiar, Minecraft is a sort of digital Lego game. You start out empty handed in an infinitely large world with various biomes. There’s no explicit goals but the main things to do are build and explore during the day while surviving each night when creatures that can harm you come alive. You “mine” blocks to collect resources and then “craft” objects like axes, shovels, or furnaces. In the beginning, wood from the trees is all you need to create rudimentary tools to survive. Over time with different resources such as coal, iron, and gold you create better tools to make in-game life a little easier. Given that there is no real objective to the game, you mostly just end up building fantastical houses or setting out to find new environments and resources. If it’s still confusing then check out this video. Understanding the game is key to making sense of how it all relates back to climate change.
So what happened? My friends and I had found a new biome which could best be described as a savanna. This is worth noting because in the previous three times we’d played together we’d been unable to find any new landscapes and were eager for a change of scenery. Within this savanna was also a new type of tree called an Acacia tree. Most trees in Minecraft when cut down and placed as blocks are some shade of brown, but these trees formed blocks that were almost orange. For a game of limited graphical quality, a more orange color of wood was a big event! Also worth noting is that in coming to the savanna, we’d left our previously constructed home behind. We needed a new place not only to protect ourselves in the night, but also to mark our arrival in the new land. It’s probably obvious what happened next. It’s the story of the Anthropocene told in the span of a few hours.
We constructed our new home from the Acacia trees but nearly cleared all of them in the process. Real humans have done this across every continent throughout history. This turned out to be no different for us. Two things stuck out as we built our Acacia wood home. The first was how over time we had to keep walking further and further to find more trees to chop up. When you’re playing a game for only two or three hours, walking an extra thirty seconds over and over again becomes a noticeable inconvenience. The second was that the landscape simply looked more barren. What was once an area filled with trees became open plains right before our eyes. One of my friends even tried to plant tree saplings, but they never managed to take root. It was all virtual but came with a surprising sense of loss.
That loss was counterweighted by the motivation to complete constructing our wooden house before calling it quits for the night. And ultimately the desire to finish the project overpowered any frustration about walking further to find the remaining trees or how the surrounding area might look afterwards. Despite being in a video game, this age old tale of deforestation felt markedly real. It was a microcosm for actual human development. We were at once the loggers, the builders, and the concerned environmentalists. The desire to leave the new biome untouched and the eagerness to have a house made of orangish wood strained against each other. We joked about this realization in the moment but in my head the thought lingered: Why was this video game so much better at conveying something I thought I already knew?
The answer comes down to scale and individual agency. Minecraft is a place where you can change an entire landscape in a few hours. It’s also a place where you're in charge of making everything you need to “survive” from scratch. In the real world, the scale of human activities pressing upon the Earth is not comprehensible to any single human. Our modern lives also entirely remove us from the processes by which raw nature is transformed into the manufactured goods we know. We live in a time where any human activity has to be measured in the billions or trillions. Yet each of us individually knows almost nothing about where the food on our plates or the wood in our homes come from. We’ve lost the ability to single handedly affect the world around us, but collectively cannot stop ourselves from tearing the Earth apart. What does it mean to cut down 15 billion trees annually? I'm not sure. I can barely understand 1 billion. How can you turn a tree into a 2 x 4? Not by hand. But maybe with this $10,000 portable saw mill. Minecraft is different. You can see the scale of your actions and also have to perform every step of turning a landscape into a built environment yourself. It’s the pairing of having outsized impact but not having efficiency that makes Minecraft insightful. The real world doesn’t work that way. You can’t have scale without efficiency. So the system becomes effectively infinite while your perception stays decidedly finite. The result is incomprehension.
I’ve learned a lot about humanity’s effects on the Earth through so many different sources. I know in my head that we’re on a pace to deplete many of the Earth’s resources. But I didn’t fully get it until I nearly deforested a virtual landscape. It’s the difference between learning from the mistakes of others and having to make the mistake yourself in order to learn a lesson. Our everyday lives have no avenues to do the latter. We can’t clear cut a forest on our own and even if we could the planet can’t afford each of us doing that just to learn a lesson. To make the point a different way, consider David Attenborough and his recent documentary on Netflix. He gets it because he’s spent over 60 years watching the world he knew disappear with his own eyes. I watched the documentary yet it still didn’t click because I didn’t live it the way he did. What makes the Minecraft experience resonate is that it finds a way to compact decades into hours. Where you not only watch the landscape change, but also partake in the processes that force the landscape to change.
Actual experience beats outside observation. Minecraft provides a unique way to experience the collective effect of humanity on the Earth. So while we should all read The Unhabitable Earth, watch David Attenborough’s documentary, and go sit in a forest, we might only find real understanding once we start chopping down trees in the realms of Minecraft.