If I open my eyes and find myself in paradise, my reaction is always disappointment. Lush grasslands teeming with livestock, glades bright with wildflowers, rivers winding past tidy villages to a tranquil sea — the heart sinks. But what’s that on the horizon? A sawtooth line of forbidding mountains, shrouded in mist? The edge of a treeless desert, or a trackless waste of snow and ice? That’s more like it. But still not ideal. In the computer game in which these environs are conjured, the gentle idyll always hovers, threatening to restore cheer and serenity. Better simply to quit and start over, hoping for worse luck.
What I am playing is Minecraft, the deceptively simple game of exploration, excavation, and creation that has become a global phenomenon since its appearance in 2009. I often turn to Minecraft when I am avoiding a task, or in the grip of boredom. In such moments, I like to do some mindless building — doodling, really, using Minecraft’s crude but open-ended mechanisms to make castles and hidden lairs, or to play with the possibilities of its simulated terrain by building bridges and pyramids and undersea sanctuaries.
Recently I was struck by a startling realization. In my professional life I write about architecture. I look at buildings and explore the ideas that went into them, the uses people make of them, what they reveal about the culture that produced them. I’ve chosen thinking about architecture as my career; it’s what I’ve loved to do since early childhood. And what was I doing to switch off, to relax? Designing and building structures. Yet somehow I didn’t connect this to architecture; after all, the point of Minecraft is to escape — to not think about what I’m doing. But what if I did think about it? What if I took the spaces I made seriously, and viewed them as an architecture critic? What would they reveal?
Arguably, these virtual places are now as significant as the real environments of the outer world, and they are attracting increasing critical attention as both art and narrative.
The question is not simply personal. As the landscapes found within computer games have become more elaborate, they have become more important, and so has the time we spend within them. Arguably, these virtual places have become as significant as the real environments of the outer world, and they are attracting increasing critical attention as both art and narrative; for instance, in the new magazine Heterotopias, which looks at the “spaces and architecture of virtual worlds,” and does so in unabashedly intellectual terms. 1 But technological sophistication is clearly not the only factor driving attention. In a moment when computer game graphics can handily contend with cinematic spectacle, Minecraft is defiantly low fidelity. Almost its entire world is composed of outsized cubes. Its terrain has a distinctively “pixelated” appearance, reminiscent of the video games of the ’90s. The palette — saturated blues and greens, muddy tans and browns — is appealingly cartoonish. In fact the overwhelming first impression of Minecraft is its sheer childishness. And kids do love it.
But if Minecraft lacks sharp definition and high style, it’s got more than enough depth and versatility. Almost every single block on your screen can be broken, or “mined,” to yield a particular resource, provided you have the right tools; creating those tools, and other things like furniture and specialized equipment, is “crafting.” Mining and crafting, that’s it, like the name says. Beyond these fundamentals, there are various goals you can pursue. You can set out on a “quest” that will take you hunting for rare objects, journeying to different dimensions, and ultimately slaying a dragon. Or you can use it in multiplayer mode, which turns Minecraft into a social space. But I’ve never done any of this; for me, it’s a construction toy.
However you play, all your actions are rooted in the landscape, and focused on using the landscape to achieve whatever it is you want to do. And the game offers a great deal of landscape to use. Minecraft’s environments are “procedurally generated,” which is to say created randomly according to governing rules. They are also extremely large: a Minecraft world is so expansive as to feel unlimited; it provides more than any single person could possibly explore or exploit in any single game. A world includes a mixture of “biomes,” each with varying terrain and assorted flora and fauna; there are now 20 biomes, including ocean and desert, savanna and jungle, grassland and tundra. (And there are more all the time; like many games, Minecraft is continually being updated, adding new features and quirks, and refining the procedural generation.) These worlds are not only extensive but also three-dimensional. The distance from sea level down to an impenetrable “floor” of black bedrock is about sixty blocks, and the highest mountains rise about sixty to seventy blocks above the sea, penetrating a layer of slow-moving rectangular “clouds.” From there you will need to climb more than a hundred blocks before you reach an impregnable “ceiling.” So there’s no shortage of space and basic materials.
Really, no shortage: almost everything in the game environment is useful for something, and that usefulness affects how we see the in-game landscape. But this extreme and pervasive utility does not mean that Minecraft is evenly hospitable. The grassland biomes are naturally more abundant than the rugged peaks and icy wastes, as they offer readily accessible food and livestock; you’re also more likely to encounter villages, and villages feature shelter and farmland, solving two of the early game’s most vital concerns. But every game landscape is fundamentally a vast heap of raw materials, waiting to be reshaped as the player desires. (Even the monsters are useful: when killed, they drop hard-to-find materials such as silk and gunpowder. As the player becomes better equipped and less vulnerable, some monsters become a welcome sight.) And beyond the temperate grasslands, the more challenging and extreme landscapes have their own perverse appeal, as always viewed through the lens of how we might deploy them.
Minecraft can be understood as a kind of proxy for the changing ways in which we regard real landscapes.
Minecraft can be understood as a kind of proxy for the changing ways in which we regard real landscapes. As Robert Macfarlane argues, in Mountains of the Mind, landscapes are “for the most part, culturally devised. That is to say, when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there. … We read landscapes … in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory.” 2 Landscapes do not have fixed meanings. From the medieval era and into the Renaissance, it was orderly and productive landscapes which were considered beautiful. Not only were mountains and heaths reviled as horrid; they were culturally invisible. This perspective was wholly formed by a landscape’s utility (or lack thereof). To the trained eye, the ideal environments of the 14th century were tame and fruitful: the symmetrical city and the walled garden. In contrast, to the untrained eye, there was little to appreciate anywhere, in any landscape. The art historian Kenneth Clark, in his 1949 book Landscape into Art, put it plainly: “The average layman would not have thought it wrong to enjoy nature; he would simply have said that nature was not enjoyable.” He continues:
The fields meant nothing but hard work (today agricultural laborers are almost the only class of the community who are not enthusiastic about natural beauty); the sea coast meant storm and piracy. And beyond these more or less profitable parts of the earth’s surface stretched an interminable area of forest and swamp. Mr. Aldous Huxley once observed that if Wordsworth had been familiar with tropical forests he would have taken a less favorable view of his Goddess. There is, as he says, something in the character of great forests which is foreign, appalling, and utterly inimical to intruding life. 3
The shift away from this worldview — that untamed nature was place of horrors — is intrinsically connected to the rise of modernity, or at least the idea of modernity. And although it happened over centuries, there is a founding incident. In 1336 the humanist scholar Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux, the highest peak in Provence, with his brother and two servants. He had no purpose other than to reach the summit and take in the view. Centuries later, in the Victorian era, this excursion was seized upon by art writers and critics as a symbolic inauguration of the Renaissance: the first modern deed by the first modern man. Clark, with charming trust, writes that “everyone knows” this story, a claim which was surely dubious even decades ago. But Petrarch’s appreciation of the rugged mountain was certainly unusual, and would remain so for centuries during which mountains were abhorred above all other types of terrain. “Mountains, nature’s roughest productions,” writes Macfarlane, “were not only agriculturally intractable, they were also aesthetically repellent: it was felt that their irregular and gargantuan outlines upset the natural spirit-level of the mind.” 4
Peter H. Hansen begins his extraordinary cultural history of mountaineering, The Summits of Modern Man, with Petrarch on Ventoux (although his aim is to gently unpack and debunk the whole cultural paradigm of the establishing “first” 5). Hansen then explores how mountains and glaciers began to exert a fascination upon educated Europeans. In the 18th century, these landscapes were not yet perceived as beautiful — visitors described them as “terrible” and “frightful.” But they were compelling — and in fact it was precisely those sensations of terror and fright that visitors were seeking. And for those unable to experience these in person, literature offered a vicarious adventure. In the last half of the century, several dozen books about travel in Switzerland and the Alps were published; what appealed to the public was the very “awfulness” of this scenery, which, as T.H. White describes in his history of the period, “made them shudder” in pleasurable fashion. 6
The sensation being sought by these Enlightenment punters is what the philosopher Edmund Burke has so famously described as “the sublime.” In his 1759 treatise on “the sublime and beautiful,” Burke suggested that sublimity was a stronger and more valuable feeling than mere aesthetic pleasure, owing to the presence, among the peaks and crevasses, of potential danger and awesome difficulty. 7 Burke was writing in a period that saw a boom not only in alpine mountaineering but also in cave tourism — another gratifyingly arduous activity that aroused sensations of controlled fright in amateur explorers as they confronted the vastness and indifference of nature. The feeling of control is indeed crucial to the experience. In her influential Notes on the Underground, from 1990 — on real and imagined subterranean worlds, including caves and mines — the historian Rosalind Williams argues that Burke’s theory of the sublime depends upon a “delicate psychological equilibrium.”
Sublime terror is aroused by anticipated, not actual, pain or danger. … The experience of sublimity therefore depends on the delicate equipoise of conflicting emotions. It is connected with pain and fear, but not too closely; it is defined by nervous tension, but not too much; it depends on danger, but only theoretical danger. Sublimity celebrates ambivalence. 8
This “delicate equipoise” is captured in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, in which a heroic-seeming German gentleman looks out over a mountainous landscape from the seemingly secure perch of a rocky crag. Wielding a cane and wearing a frock coat, the hatless wanderer appears comfortably aloof from the wild scene he surveys.
Which brings us back to Minecraft, in which Friedrich’s Wanderer makes a heavily pixelated cameo appearance: the painting is among those you can use to decorate the walls of your game-world. This is no coincidence. Minecraft palpably draws on the idea of the sublime, tilting its mountainous and arctic landscapes towards awe and spectacle rather than naturalism and geological authenticity. The game’s inner procedures are remarkably adept at turning out extreme environments: fanged mountain ranges, sheer cliffs, vertiginous waterfalls, impenetrable forests, yawning caves, terrifying rifts. Much of the game involves digging and tunneling, so the subterranean world is almost as enthralling, filled with abandoned mines, vast lava-lit chasms, grim dungeons, and caves upon caves upon caves. One of the player’s frequent sensations is the frisson that comes when you break into a hitherto hidden cavern, which in turn can lead to a far-reaching network of monster-infested pits. That sensation is sublimity.
Minecraft palpably draws on the idea of the sublime, tilting its mountainous and arctic landscapes towards awe and spectacle rather than naturalism and geological authenticity.
Let’s not overstate the case. It’s not the real thing; far from it. Standing on a crag in Minecraft and observing the gorges and summits is not like being in the Alps; it’s not even similar. The scale is comparatively puny. The color palette is ridiculous, somehow both lurid and drab. The effort to procedurally generate dramatic landscapes routinely stumbles into kitsch — Carmina Burana played on kazoo. Danger, the very foundation of the sublime, is present only in watered-down form — no matter the monsters and miscellaneous hazards, game-death is largely an inconvenience. 9 In her book, Williams compiled a list of what Burke considered sublime: “power, deprivation, vacuity, solitude, silence, great dimensions (particularly vastness in depth), infinity, magnificence, and finally obscurity (because mystery and uncertainty arouse awe and dread). … the open ocean, the starry heavens, inarticulate cries of man or beast. Above all, darkness, the greatest of the ‘privations,’ is sublime; ‘Night increases our terror perhaps more than anything else.’” 10 Many of these qualities and entities are present in Minecraft, but reduced to the level of a cartoon. The stars in Minecraft skies are pixels, the sallies towards vastness and magnificence are only gestural, and while the night is dangerous, the darkness is never absolute. And, it cannot be over-emphasized, you are playing a game, pressing buttons while sitting on what is likely a comfortable chair in your living room. A game, moreover, pitched at children.
But again, the punters seeking the sublime in the 18th century were only seeking an impression. They didn’t want deadly danger; they wanted a homeopathic distillation of danger, an experience not saturated but merely tinged with terror. And as soon as the sublime was identified, it was packaged, first as those proliferating travel guides — readily consumable from the comfy chair, no departure required — then as a simulation that could be enjoyed at home. In Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, from 1816, the landscape designer Humphry Repton presents engravings of two houses, one Grecian (we would say classical), one Gothic. The houses themselves are generic, one symmetrical and colonnaded, the other irregular and crenellated. What matters are the settings. The landscape around the Grecian house is pastoral. Cattle graze on a sloping lawn and drink from a shallow, willow-shaded pool. In the foreground, sheep are enclosed by a fence; on a far hill there stands a monumental column. It’s a contained and productive landscape, an aristocratic vision of prosperity and order.
In contrast, the Gothic setting is wilder. The house is surrounded not by woods but rather by a thick forest; instead of cattle there are deer. The distant hills are mountainous. A rock-edged pool is fed by a foaming cascade. It’s a version of sublimity, available from a catalogue and ready to be installed. The aristocracy even had an approximation of Minecraft in the form of the decorative grotto that was then fashionable, consisting usually of an artificial cave, perhaps studded with seashells, which you could pop into whenever you felt the urge to feel minuscule amid the grandeur of Nature.
Repton’s Grecian and Gothic scenes also suggest a kind of axis upon which we can plot different types of landscape, in which the classical/useful/beautiful would be set against the gothic/wild/sublime. In this scheme, it might seem that wildness and usefulness are somehow essentially opposed. And yet in Minecraft the landscapes are not only wild and sublime but also utterly utilitarian. Like everything in the game, they are thoroughly useful: every block can be turned into something else or otherwise put to work. Here Minecraft recalls interpretations of Burke’s theory that have sought to reconcile the utilitarian with the wild — to understand the fascination with wild and challenging landscapes as a reaction to humanity’s increasing domination of those landscapes. To put it another way: this was less an appreciation of the useless than a recognition that it has its uses. As the critic J. Hillis Miller writes, in Poets of Reality:
Science and technology, like romanticism, take all things as objects for man’s representation. This may appear in theoretical form. … Or it may appear in a physical form, the humanization of nature, as earths and ores are turned into automobiles, refrigerators, skyscrapers, and rockets, so that no corner of the earth or sky has not been conquered by man and made over in his image. 11
Friedrich’s Wanderer isn’t an image of humility, but of conquest.
In Praise of Shadows
For the solitary eccentric it is another matter, he can ignore the blessings of civilization and retreat to some forsaken corner of the countryside …
— Jun’ichiro Tanizaki 12
But what of my own motivations? What uses was I making of the landscapes of Minecraft? To return to my earlier question: What if I viewed my game creations as an architecture critic? Certainly I was not turning out the well-behaved modernism I favor in real life. Which would have been easy: being strictly orthogonal, Minecraft would lend itself well to the Bauhaus. But my game-worlds were altogether different. My mountaintop keeps are gloomy, labyrinthine places that are threatening from a distance and oppressive within. The architecture is usually strongly defensive, with thick gray stone walls and small, high windows. My interiors specialized in winding corridors, vaulted ceilings, twisting stairs, hidden passages and trapdoors. All are equipped with deep dungeons and spindly towers. Even when spacious, they are bleak.
The game does do a lot to steer the player in a Gothic direction. The most abundant building material is stone, in various shades of gray. The cartoonish scale of the decoration of the blocks lends an impression of cyclopean masonry. Much of the inventory is evocative of castles and crypts, from braced doors to trapdoors. Wall-mounted torches are the easiest light source to make, and they flicker, suggesting shadows and drafts. But it would be entirely possible to design with cheerful color and bright light, with glass walls and pale wood, and to gravitate to the busy and sunny meadows. I was doing nothing to offset the game’s Gothic tendencies and everything to exaggerate and exploit them.
This kind of building needs dramatic locations. Indeed, if you play Minecraft as a building game, then construction potential completely informs the way you see the landscape. Certain terrains necessitate certain structures; and vice versa. A canyon calls for a bridge, a mesa suggests a fortress, jungles need treehouses, lonely hills yearn for solitary towers. Players’ attitudes towards the landscape are defined by their goals. Are you pursuing defense, riches, magic, beauty? Your intentions will mold your relationship with the terrain, what you find pleasing or not.
Sometimes I regret that nothing weathers or collapses in Minecraft, so I can’t abandon my creations and then rediscover them as ruins.
So I search out difficult and dangerous landscapes; in Minecraft I seek to be amid the mountains, ideally at the impossible summit. Overhangs are desirable, but they shouldn’t be so overblown as to appear gravity-defying. Sheer cliffs are a must. Think of the clichéd representation of Dracula’s castle, clinging precariously to its precipice over the sunless Transylvanian forest: that’s pretty much what I go for. Once the right locale has been found and a foothold been established with secure shelter and access to food, there comes (for me) the most satisfying portion of the game: laying out my fortress, designing freehand to fit the challenging terrain, figuring out exactly where everything will go and how to make it satisfyingly lonely and brooding. Sometimes I regret that nothing weathers or collapses in Minecraft, so I can’t abandon my creations and then rediscover them as ruins.
After his ascent of Mont Ventoux, Petrarch wrote: “Thus having seen enough of the mountain, I turned my inner eyes towards myself.” With Minecraft thus positioned as an improbable mirror, I came to realize I was not creating places that made me happy. Instead I was creating shadowy and forbidding places expressive of the depression that’s dogged me since adolescence. It was an alarming thought: that I was confronting a dark state of mind given architectural outlet. But this was not so simple; it was not just that dark thoughts, in times of creative blockage or emotional stress, had led to dark places. I was in fact pursuing the “delicate equipoise of conflicting emotions,” the ambivalence that Williams describes as characteristic of the sublime.
In the mid-18th century the English author and statesman Horace Walpole — a contemporary well versed in Burke’s theories — built for himself an idiosyncratic estate at Strawberry Hill, which inspired the gothic revival in architecture. Walpole also coined the term “gloomth” to describe the effects he desired, a peculiar combination of gloom and warmth. He was conjuring the unexpected comfort to be found within crafted gothic, an atmosphere of “antiquarian make-believe”: the fire low in the grate, the shadows on the library walls, the moonlight filtered through stained glass and tracery. 13 Clearly gloomth is not where you encounter true danger: it is not where you are terrorized by ghosts, but where you tell ghost stories. Or where you conceive them: it was in the gloomth of Strawberry Hill that Walpole suffered the nightmare that would inspire his novel The Castle of Otranto, which inaugurated the genre of gothic literature.
Strawberry Hill and Otranto were both reactions to the limits of the everyday; both expressed Walpole’s frustrations with the ordinary. “The great resources of fancy have been dammed up by strict adherence to common life,” he wrote in his preface to the novel. Thus could architecture and literature infuse a much-needed sublime shudder, a sensation of foreboding, into an otherwise stable and comfortable existence. In the introduction to a recent edition of the novel, the literary scholar Frederick S. Frank expands upon this. “By the time [Walpole] came to write The Castle of Otranto,” Frank writes, “his Gothicizing was no longer ‘merely architecture’ but an attitude of discontent reflecting the subconscious fears and desires of an age grown too fond of reason and starting to question its own empirical assumptions.” 14 Amid the triumph of the Enlightenment come the nightmares of irrational collapse and supernatural chaos. It remained, however, a creation of make-believe, not genuine medieval austerity: the shudder was there to enhance comfort, not diminish it. Similarly my own creations had their cozy rooms, with fireplaces, books, and carpets, and windows to look out on the snow falling on the dark peaks.
Is it absurd to claim that the landscapes created in computer games merit the same cultural regard as those found in nature? Of course it is. Natural landscapes, which form the earthly biosphere that sustains us, have far greater objective importance than the phantasmal spaces experienced through the computer screen. But muddy-booted presence is not the only way we experience those landscapes — or even the most common way. Most landscapes are enjoyed second-hand. We appreciate the Lake District through romantic poetry, we encounter the ocean via The Blue Planet, the Antarctic via The Worst Journey in the World. Yet the authenticity of our appreciation is not diminished.
Muddy-booted presence is not the only way we experience real landscapes — or even the most common way. Most landscapes are enjoyed second-hand.
In contrast our experiences of computer game landscapes — their terrains, their narratives — is first-hand, personal and even intimate. Landscape is fundamental to what draws us to some games and not others, and the landscapes within games shape and steer our behavior in ways that reveal ourselves. By now billions of hours have been spent in the spaces of our screens, and our relationships with these game-worlds can be as deep and engaged as our relationships to the real-worlds of our neighborhood streets or a beloved rural retreat. Even when we turn to games for idle distraction and amusement, our paths of thought and association are far more sophisticated than we might expect. I hope that following one of my own paths through a particular game, and treating it with seriousness rather than disregard, has done something to prove that.
There is little that endures from computer games. But I’ve come to think this ephemerality, the very lightness of games, is part of their strength.
There is another important difference between real landscapes and those in games. There is little that endures from computer games. They are fleeting, played largely in private; not only the spaces but the experiences are seldom shared. But I’ve come to think that this ephemerality, the very lightness of games, is part of their strength. In the course of writing this essay I’ve realized how rarely I revisit old saved games or look back at past endeavors. I played them instinctively, and disposed of them quickly. My usual pattern is to invest a few score hours in a Minecraft world over a week or two, then lose momentum — called away to responsibilities, or other recreations —and start anew on another world the next time. I am supremely unsentimental about savegame files (I didn’t bother to transfer any old games when I upgraded my computer last year). The promise of Minecraft wasn’t that the landscapes were unchanging; it was that all could easily be made fresh and new. And the buildings I’ve made in Minecraft have one feature in common. They are universally unfinished. They are the creations of passing moods, fleeting moments. Looking back over the staircases to nowhere, and the roofless rooms, I could not help but feel pleased that at some point I had been able to leave the gothic fortress and return to life.