A Virtual Commune

Welcome to Minecraft Beta, a multi-player web browser video game that lets you join with friends and family from anywhere on the globe to build your virtual collective world. My brother bought me a gift code to the game for Christmas, which gives me access to his and his friends’ server.

He walks me through their kingdom-of-sorts. It all starts with harvesting trees and mining cobblestone, and a special thing called a crafting chest, which allows you to mix basic materials in specific patterns to create more complex tools or materials. From theses first resources available for use, my brother has somehow created an elaborate glass house with large pieces of framed artwork and an indoor vegetable garden. The more you create, the more you can harvest and the more you harvest, the more you can create. Basic materials combine and form tools and tools help you harvest previously un-harvestable items. You can also harvest fire and use heat as the catalyst for creation.

My brother leads me through an adjoining room, where he has built a museum to showcase the items one can make in the game (the display wall seems infinitely long). On the opposite wall he has painted a rainbow. His friend Mario, who built a castle, is his closest neighbor and together they constructed a long, narrow stone bridge that joins their two homes. Of course, no game would be complete without a dark element to provide a little danger. Chris, who has just joined the tour, reminds me to beware of the zombie monsters that come out at nightfall.

Minecraft sets a framework where social organization must be choreographed, regardless of the level of intention. I asked my brother a series of questions to find out how his world actualizes that organization:

Are there any distinctly community structures?

We built a “safe house” that people can stay in when they first come to life. It provides shelter from the monsters at night and has a stash of basic living supplies. A path of torches leads you from the spot where you first generate to the door of the house. I also built a giant roller coaster that stretches from the top of a mountain and winds around the land. Anyone can ride it if they have a friend to give them a push at the start.

Do you ever build projects at the same time?

Everyone’s schedule is different, so it’s difficult to be in the world at the same time. Usually, you’ll just log on and see what others have done in your absence. Consequently, there aren’t many structures that we build collectively, although Chris and I recently started building a collection of skyscrapers together. Maybe verbal communication would help, but it’s hard to communicate with only text chatting. Not everyone agrees on details and aesthetics either, so people usually avoid a potentially hairy situation.

Does your group have a forum?

We send text messages before we are about to play to see if the other person can meet us in the world. We also leave short notes in each other’s homes.

Do you share resources? Do you have a collective resource storage area?

We initially had public chests of resources, but it was hard to remember to fill it, so they often ended up empty. We built them so people who weren’t prepared could have basic living supplies in emergency situations. That fell by the wayside, but it’s an understood rule that everyone’s personal stash in their home is open to anyone. For rare items it’s courtesy to ask or to leave an “IOU” note by the chest().

Is there a decision-by-consensus approach to new structures?

Right now Chris and I are collaborating on building a collection of skyscrapers, which took some planning, but usually no, and it’s caused problems in the past. One time, my friend built a giant monster-harvesting machine in the sky(), but he unknowingly built it over Mario’s house, which caused a deep shadow to fall on the property. Monsters materialized in this darkness and roamed the property, and trees couldn’t grow. Both individuals refused to destroy their creations, and for a while Mario stubbornly lived in perpetual danger. He eventually left and started building a castle, but it caused some drama for a bit.

Monsters and roller coasters aside, this virtual world resembles the idealistic musings my friends and I have about forming an intentional community. I have always been fascinated by all things civic, the dynamic that occurs when individual minds come together to create something beyond any one person’s potential and the social organization that must take place. This game offers many of these possibilities for collective investment in a shared community ideal, for creating through combined efforts by like-minded individuals. Minecraft accesses a deeply buried and very real desire we all share about communal living.

I play because I get to participate in this vision, and because I can spend time with my brother, who lives 2,000 miles away, and the friends we grew up with that are scattered across the nation. Although there is nothing tactile about our interactions, my mind fills in the gaps from past memories: he might have cat hair on his clothes or smell like grilling meats. These projected memories are satisfactory and there are enough outlets in the game for individual idiosyncrasies to be expressed. All in all, I can run around this virtual world with a semblance of a brother. His friends’ personalities are likewise accurately portrayed by their creations in this game that offers limitless creative potential.