Material Allegories and Minecraft: Research Objectives

Drawing on conceptual and methodological resources from game studies, media studies and cultural studies, “Material Allegories and Minecraft” investigates avenues for the reflexive critical play of mainstream video games. Despite the affordances of both the video game industry and game design practices for deep and engaging immersive and interactive experiences, there is a persistent critique that video games offer less in terms of critical interpretive potential than other media, even transmedia franchises like Star Wars or Harry Potter. One of the reasons for this is that unlike cinema and literature, video games are thought to interpellate subjects more thoroughly and completely because of their interactive and immersive qualities (see esp. Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter). From such a perspective, the agency of the player in a video game appears as a kind of false consciousness because the procedural rhetoric of a game typically offers pseudo-choices in a pre-structured environment. Ironically then, according to this logic, playing an “open-ended” video game offers less interpretive flexibility than even the most linear novel. For this reason, video games are compelling media for education and moral training, but their status as the most hegemonic of media forms remains largely unquestioned.

We think we can approach this problem from another angle. Rather than claiming that, as another major critical approach contends, video games make procedural arguments (Bogost) – whether in support or critique of the status quo – we argue that players can encounter a video game allegorically. Just as we understand that video games are designed, and that design choices matter in terms of how a game may be experienced, we argue that the play of video games can also be designed. That is, games themselves are not allegories, but one can play a game allegorically. Minecraft is an ideal game for testing this proposition, so we refer to forms of allegorical play in Minecraft as “the allegorical build.”

As the most successful video game of all time with a user base of over 200 million, Minecraft is the ideal object for our investigation. Developed by Mojang in 2009 and now owned by Microsoft, the relatively simple graphics and user interface for this sandbox game about single and multiplayer exploration and creation in an endless game world is often dismissed as a mere children’s game. Yet with an average player age of 24, Minecraft is a game people have grown up with rather than out of. The game industry has taken its cues from Minecraft; the most viewed YouTube content is based on Minecraft; and Microsoft has slowly turned the game into a transmedia franchise that rivals any Disney property. Yet unlike Disney’s well-documented efforts to control fan activity, Microsoft has more or less left the original java code base of the game intact, maintaining the existence of the largest game- modding community in the world in the process. Hundreds of amateur and professional Minecraft modders produce thousands of mods, which transform the base game in innumerable ways for millions of players. In short, working with Minecraft means working with game culture at a more massive scale than most game studies generally tackle, with all the potential research impact that might follow.

This project has four overall objectives:

  1. To develop the use of allegorical play theory in the context of digital games like Minecraft that will expand our understanding of the complex agencies of players in video games and their critical potential.
  2. To provide illustrative case studies of the critical potential of allegorical play developed by both the research team and undergraduate students in a university course.
  3. To consider and elucidate the cultures of game modding as a player-centric design practice allowing for the scaffolding of forms of allegorical play, and to establish a methodological foundation for academic game modding as design.
  4. >To disseminate our findings through the innovation of publicly accessible tools (mods, maps, and modpacks) and accompanying educational materials (audio podcast lectures, videos, digital and print publications) that enable playing Minecraft allegorically, through partnerships with Minecraft Education, members of the Minecraft modding community and university students and researchers.

Over four years, we will explore and elucidate the idea of allegorical play through three interrelated in- depth case studies of Minecraft play. Each year, one undergraduate section of our Video Games and/as Theory course will participate in our annual research theme, with previous undergraduates acting as RAs. We have sought and obtained Ethics clearance from the Concordia Office of Research for working with undergraduate students, and we follow all necessary protocols. We clearly separate research participation from course work, and students are free to opt out at any time (Wershler and Simon, 2021).

The first study investigates the similarities between Minecraft and the post-WWII imagination of the future of leisure in Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s unfinished 1964 attempt to build a technocultural community centre called the Fun Palace. The second study examines how Minecraft frames processes of accumulation and consumption as a form of play while drawing on allegorical play to subvert this framing to facilitate forms of counter-play or critical play. The third study considers the application of the allegorical build in the context of imagining Indigenous futures. This case study draws on the excellent work of the Indigenous Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) research group in Second Life by extending their work to Minecraft to reframe the core neocolonial procedural rhetoric of the game. In combination, these case studies will demonstrate the potential of allegorical play as a mode of critique and analysis of video games, advancing our methodological understanding of the value of methods for critical play no less than extant methods for critical reading of texts or viewing of films. In effect, we are challenging the common assumption that video games are texts to be read hermeneutically, providing a theory instead of play and creation.

Context: On Allegorical Play

The major contribution of this project is our theoretical framework, accompanied by the pedagogical and training practices that emerge from it. We refer to our theoretical approach as “the allegorical build.” Allegory is a powerful interpretive tool that has a long history in philosophical and critical thinking, from classical antiquity to contemporary materialist investigations of digital media and culture. It uses assemblages of events, actions, and objects as an occasion to think through complex ideas. Late modern thinkers like Walter Benjamin (Cowan, 1981) retrieved allegory from a state of relative underuse as part of their attempts to address the material messiness and jarring uncertainties of their world. Postmodern (De Man, 1997; Jameson, 2002) and 21st century (Galloway, 2006; Wark, 2007) theorists extended this work, using allegory as a device to interrogate first modern culture and then digital phenomena, notably video games. As such, allegory provides an appropriate framework for our proposed project.

Fredric Jameson (2002) writes extensively about allegory. For Jameson, allegory does not evoke something transcendent, or even a static object; it is a process that takes place in time, and necessarily involves “unavoidable and indispensable” moments of initial misrecognition of the objects we are studying (2002, 113). Allegory is the process of critical thinking itself, in which our assumptions about the literal meanings of some object or phenomena prove to be too convenient, and we find that we have to put them into tension with more reflexive and provisional ideas (Jameson, 2002, 113), because “no single thought or theory encompasses any of them” (Jameson, 1991, 168). Using allegorical methodology, we might begin with the idea that Minecraft is a “frozen allegory” (Jameson, 2002, 125) of modernity as a whole. That initial assumption would then be troubled or even dispelled by a second realization (that Minecraft is a fully digital object and has far more to do with present attitudes about history than with the lived past), even as we begin to realize that the larger allegorical process concerns learning how to think critically, by putting these ideas in relation to each other.

Alexander Galloway takes up allegorical methodology as a way of thinking about video games. Galloway’s search for appropriate techniques of analysis (2006, 87) begins with Jameson’s description of “allegorical interpretation as a kind of scanning” (Jameson, 1991, 168), arguing that this description opens the path for a “digitization” of an allegorical approach that would neither add to the endless stack of hermeneutic interpretations and readings, nor make claims to demystify the work by revealing some ostensible hidden meaning (Galloway, 2006, 86-87). Galloway describes video games as “control allegories,” arguing that video games don’t hide their systems of control; if anything, they flaunt them, meaning that there is no need for demystification (2006, 91). Think for a moment about the grid that surrounds and positions everything in Minecraft, making it findable, legible, and useful (Simon and Wershler, 2018). The grid is one of the master control techniques of modernity, but digital culture perfected it in the form of the database. We learn to play the game, literally, by aligning ourselves with the grid and synchronizing our behaviour with the game’s control systems.

The form of the control system of any piece of software is an algorithm: a specific set of instructions for solving a particular type of problem. To do well at a game requires making inferences about what its algorithms specify and then meeting those specifications as best you can. Learning to play a game like Minecraft involves becoming “close to the code” (Simon, 2015), meaning that you are developing a sense of the results that various algorithms produce in the game itself. This doesn’t mean that you understand the code or would recognize it if it suddenly appeared in front of you on the screen. What it means is that you are effectively building allegories of the game’s algorithms. Galloway and his contemporary and occasional collaborator Mackenzie Wark call this process an “allegorithm” (Galloway, 2006, 91; Wark, 2007, 31-32).

While playing video games, we construct allegorithms by conducting experiments. There’s a long tradition of video game players engaging in “theorycrafting”: semi-empirical experiments in particular game worlds in order to answer questions about the algorithmic procedures of the game (Paul, 2011). Nicholas Watson (2017) coined the term “procedural elaboration” as a description for such activities in Minecraft, where the production of descriptive procedural knowledge through experimentation is a form of gameplay rather than a means toward the development of instrumentally effective strategies. This, typically, is where a video game studies approach would stop. What we want to think about with this project goes one step further, considering the relationship of the allegorithm to critical texts of various sorts, both in our own writing and in our teaching. This relationship is what we refer to as “the allegorical build”: the moment when scholars, university students and everyday players of games use the allegorithm – their material experience while playing Minecraft – to think about a range of other things, even while those things are simultaneously informing their experience of the game.

The allegorical build isn’t speedy. It begins with hesitations and the realization of misperceptions, then negotiates its way through a series of in-game activities and critical readings toward a third thing. That third thing isn’t simply a theoretically informed understanding of the game (which would be the goal in game studies); nor is it a better understanding of the critical material (a media-historical or cultural studies approach), but an ongoing, intensive form of learning in which the theoretical and philosophical potential of the readings is doubled by the experimental and technical milieu of procedural elaboration in the game, transforming both components in the process (Parikka, 2010, 96). In order to describe how the allegorical build takes place, we need to think about the role of material experience, and how our specific ideas about designing the play environment create the conditions under which learning occurs.

Methodology: The Modded Playthrough

In their work on community and affinity, James Paul Gee and Elizabeth Hayes emphasize the importance of “well-designed spaces” that constitute the learning system around a particular cultural practice for learners of all types (2012). We pay an enormous amount of attention to the design and infrastructure of that space. Once we have settled on a particular subject, our method has several distinct phases: modpack design; deployment and reflexive play; analysis; and research communication. Mod development occurs in parallel throughout these phases. A discussion of each phase is followed by a consideration of the three linked subjects we have chosen for this grant.

“Modding” (modification) is the practice of altering or making additions to existing video game software; “modders” are the people who perform this practice and “mods” are the result of it. For every subject that we wish to consider from the perspective of the allegorical build, we design and assemble a custom pack of related Minecraft mods, which affect the game in many ways, from the augmentation of the player interface to the addition of new areas, creatures and objects in the game world to the instantiation of procedures not found in the standard (“vanilla”) game. Part of our argument is that this is also how many players play. That is, playing video games is never about pure consumption. Quite often, encountering a game affords the possibility of altering it – transforming the very system in which one acts. Players do this anyway by making new rules, goals and narratives for the games they play, but mods by and for players can also materialize this proposition.

Mods and modpacks (a curated and configured collection of mods) may scaffold allegorical play by making ideas, concepts and reflections material and shareable in the game world. The process is always imperfect, with frustrating glitches and bugs, but this imperfection is also an allegorical prompt, perpetually opening seams in a game designed for mass commercial consumption. We call this important unstable aspect of digital play “infrastructural reflexivity;” it is a form of play that always points to the material conditions that make that play possible. Modded Minecraft disrupts mainstream video game consumption for this reason alone.

Alongside the mods and glitches, we offer critical texts for reflection and integrated channels (using voice and text chat mods to connect Minecraft to the Discord platform) for communication, allowing players to articulate, share and iterate their allegorical builds. A complete allegorical build juxtaposes in- game objects and experiences, exterior images and texts, and voice and textual discourse.

Our deployment and reflexive play happens on dedicated servers maintained by hosting companies specializing in Minecraft; a modded version of the game is resource-intensive and requires regular maintenance and alteration, which, again, is part of the point. The idea is not to literally represent or simulate a real-world context (one reason we always play in Survival rather than Creative mode).

Instilling infrastructural reflexivity is a way of pointing out that there are always gaps between models and their historical referents. We want to create the cognitive and imaginary space to consider differences as well as the similarities, to research chosen objects on their own and formulate interpretations tied to the texts we use as a starting place for thought, and the practical experience of trying to accomplish something in the game despite the challenges it presents.

Research Plan

Year 1: Technocultural Leisure: The first year of the grant, on technocultural leisure and play, will take Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s 1964 Fun Palace project as its object. As Molly Wright Steenson has argued, Price was an architect who foregrounded the coming cybernetic revolution and saw technology as a means for generating new forms of social interaction in and with the built environment (Steenson 2017). “The point of architecture,” he argued, “should not be to lock people down, but rather to open them up: to ease up the choice, to free the opportunities of the individual user as to what they would do next” (qtd. in Steenson 2017, 127). We will argue that Minecraft is the kind of architectural technology Price was envisioning.

Using the Create mod (which allows us to emulate many of the conceptual ideas of Price and his colleagues) as the core element in our modpack, this project plays with post-WWII modernist ideologies of the relation between leisure and technology, from the late 1950s to our contemporary moment. The Fun Palace is itself an allegory for technocultural leisure and play – modernity’s promise to the masses of less work and more leisure as well as the neoliberal ideology of individualized pleasures and creative capacity. The Fun Palace was meant to be a “sandbox” in which the cultural desires of the moment could be adapted and configured in the space via film, live performance, art, and so on. In this sense, the totally immersive, totally interactive Fun Palace is an allegory for Minecraft and sandbox video game culture more broadly. We propose to allegorically build a version of the Fun Palace in modded Minecraft as a means of materializing an argument that we will otherwise put on paper. At the same time, the concerted practice of executing the build in Survival mode will help us to think about and experience the affordances and constraints of this most popular and contemporary form of technocultural leisure.

We have already begun discussions with Canadian Centre of Architecture (specifically Rafico Ruiz), where the Price archives are maintained. We hope to work with the CCA to produce a publicly playable modded Minecraft adventure map of our Fun Palace project, along with a video documentary that could be featured as part of a CCA program. This project builds on the previous experience of our team in reconstructing a Minecraft village in a modernist Bauhaus style as part of the Bauhaus Centenary events in 2019.

Year 2: Consuming Minecraft: In year 2, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s work on the ambiguities of consumption, we will tackle one of the core ideological themes of Minecraft: the idea of limitless accumulation. Minecraft presents a game world with endlessly available resources for creating any structure. The much-vaunted creative capacity of Minecraft rests on assumptions about the exercise of freedom and creativity and limitless accumulation and consumption typified by late capitalism. When playing in either Creative or Survival mode, we have already noted that the primary goal of gameplay in Minecraft is often accumulation for its own sake: that is, making more and more of any given resource far beyond any specific instrumental need (Simon and Wershler). Yet the game’s systems are open and malleable enough that we can turn these assumptions on their head and present players with the idea of limitless consumption as a question rather than an answer.

For this project we will work with our project partners at Minecraft Education, a Microsoft company that has developed a version of Minecraft for use in educational institutions ranging from primary and secondary schools all the way to university. Working with Minecraft EDU, we will develop a playable map that foregrounds the tension between resource scarcity and creativity. We might use Minecraft to not only raise awareness about global environmental issues around waste, pollution, energy scarcity and climate change, but also provide players with new ways to play ecologically through allegorical play.

Here we will look more closely at how the allegorical method might be used effectively in classrooms with the Minecraft Education platform. This builds on our team’s successful project in Winter and Fall 2021, when we designed a Minecraft modpack, curriculum and course materials to teach a flipped undergraduate class on theories of modernity (Wershler and Simon).

Year 3: Indigenizing Minecraft: As much as Minecraft is a game about limitless consumption, it is also always a game about colonial and neocolonial expansion. It motivates players to claim land and defeat the monsters that confront and challenge their colonizing impulse. As we have argued (Simon and Wershler), Minecraft’s design parses the play world as a series of combinatorial blocks in an endlessly extensible rational grid; this is fully consistent with modernist ideologies of colonial expansion. How then might we critique a game with such an already-encoded politics?

Working closely with Jason Lewis and the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) team in the Indigenous Futures Research Centre, we wish to test our thinking and skills on the difficult problem of decolonial critique and indigenizing Minecraft. Can we offer a modded Minecraft experience which directly confronts the game’s modernist colonial assumptions while simultaneously imagining a dynamic Indigenous future rather than recapitulating false tropes of a static past?

Lewis and his collaborators’ work on indigenizing Second Life is our primary inspiration. Through years 1 and 2 we will conduct a series of meetings with Lewis and his students about the best direction for this year 3 project. There are some promising experiments with Minecraft Education Edition, but they are focused on the past rather than possible futures (Manito Ahbee Aki, 2021). Our goal is to support Lewis and Indigenous students in the creation of a modpack and custom mods that might facilitate an allegorical approach, effectively recoding the ideology of the game. AbTeC’s existing narrative practice will inform our understanding of allegorical play from Indigenous perspectives.

We will work with AbTeC researchers and artists to plan year 3’s activities, in which we will undertake an Indigenous-led reassessment of the themes of the previous two years. Over the past decade, while we have been working on material allegories in Minecraft, AbTeC has been conducting similar work in Second Life, with a focus on Indigenous Future Imaginaries. With its enormous user base, Minecraft is ideally suited as a platform to bring the work of AbTeC to a much larger set of audiences, even as that work fundamentally challenges many aspects of Minecraft itself. This year’s project will investigate the possibility of decolonizing Minecraft through the articulation of the politics of playing otherwise, considering colonial resource extraction and domination, distribution of agency and allegories of control, anthropocenic systems and nature vs culture. How is playing at decolonization related to actual decolonization? Can we look at the problem of modernity’s desire for “excess” in this context? It is capital that drives excess production which drives one crisis after another. This is an ideal project for an educational context, even as it looks toward potential futures rather than representations of the past.

Year 4: Consolidation: the final year of the project, will allow us to tie up any remaining loose ends from the previous 3 years, and to work intensively on the project’s two major research outputs: a documentary film about the entire project by Gina Haraszti; and a co-authored book by Darren Wershler and Bart Simon.