The Empowering Experience of Minecraft

How a low-fi experience can still be immersive, educational, memorable and inclusive

Image credit: Microsoft/Mojang

Like many parents around the world who have been thrust into close quarters with their family 24 hours a day due to the pandemic, I too have been desperately trying to adapt to homeschooling, juggling both mine and my husbands working day, and even more difficult: entertaining a small child in between. And sometimes at the same time as all the other stuff. It’s not easy, and it’s amazing how quickly young kids tire of something and need something new and interesting to hold their attention…

Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Grass_Block

…Enter Minecraft

At the same time the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off, my kid was getting interested in Minecraft in a big way. He loves to build and problem solve, so it’s perfect for his inquisitive 6 year old mind. As i’ve been watching him explore and play, i’ve noticed a few interesting things about the experience you get when you play in Minecraft, and i’ve been awed by the simplicity of it all. As an experience designer myself, I couldnt help but note down all the amazing ways minecraft creates an immersive, memorable, educational, inclusive and above all, fun experience for it’s audience.

Wait, what the hell is Minecraft?

Now I can only talk about what i’ve seen my son play, and that’s not everything as he is only 6 and is limited in the parts that are appropriate for him to play. Minecraft can be described as a “sandbox” game, where as a character you explore a blocky, computer generated world.

Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com

There are many types of biome that mirror those found on earth, such as mountainous landscapes, savannahs and so on, and there are also many types of things you can mine (gold, diamonds, coal etc).

Image credit: https://www.planetminecraft.com/mod/mining-overhaul-forge-188-10-a002-/

You can build houses, create lakes, brew beer and make cakes. You can farm animals and grow crops. Whatever you can do in real life, you can also do it — and more — in minecraft. As i’ve watched my young son roam around and get used to the game, there have been a multitude of things that struck me as interesting from an experience designers point of view.

Minecraft from a UX Designers perspective

There is no onboarding

As someone who knew nothing about Minecraft on day 1, in a few short days he was soon building working elevators, complex locks, and able to rattle off the “recipes” for various items you can craft and smelt from collecting raw materials in the game. In the game, if you create a lake and put fish in, but you accidentally let the water drain out, the fish die.

Take care of those pufferfish! Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Pufferfish

As it’s a sandbox style game, you learn by doing so there is no need for a tutorial. If you lose your fish you can spawn new ones and try again. Minecraft has been criticised in the past for not having any proper tutorial or onboarding, and we’re really quick as designers to include something like this in our products. But i’m not so sure I agree with this criticism. Let me explain why.

These days every app I download, no matter how simple, seems to have a 5 step onboarding screen, and most of the time I find it add’s nothing. It’s debatable that if you need a tutorial or onboarding, then possibly your UI is too complex anyway. What’s that pithy quote about explaining your UI, ah yes, that’s it:

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good”. — Martin Leblanc

Of course there are always exceptions, but I feel a lot of designers don’t stop to ask themselves “does a product really need this?” before adding in the feature or following the popular pattern.

Everyone with a mental model of Earth can be an expert

The speed at which my son has been learning the above, and can create complex structures and understand how to operate the game is incredibly empowering. As someone who is a relative novice to the game, it has the magical effect of making you feel like you’re an expert.

Everyone knows how to make a cake, right?! Image credit: https://www.digminecraft.com/food_recipes/make_cake.php

I believe this is because the concept is actually pretty straight forward, as it’s based on the mental models we are already equiped with as humans to understand the earth around us. There are raw materials, and every object we own comes from combining and manipulating those materials into something else. That’s it. Obviously there are more complex interactions and concepts that the game contains as you advance through, but the core concept, and for a player exploring the most basic areas, they can get up and running straight away.

Variable reward

As you dig around in Minecraft, you might just spend 30 minutes digging through boring old soil, rock and gravel. You dilligently place torches to light the way of your burgeoning mine, and patienly scan around the walls for anything exciting to emerge from the ground. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with something glinting in the torchlight — most likely this will be the common ore’s like coal or iron which you can use to craft new tools, make heat and so on. But for those that endeavour further, there is the promise of diamonds, gold, emeralds, red stone (which i’ll come to later) and many other exciting finds. And it’s not just below-ground that this surprise element of the game occurs, above ground you might be happily walking through a field, only for a panda to run up to you, or a chicken to pop a little egg out at your feet. It’s not only delightful, it’s variable.

Chasing that elusive emerald ore. Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Emerald_Ore

What Minecraft does is tap into our love of variability as humans. We love a variable reward, that is, a reward we know is coming at some point, but we don’t know when. It gives our brains a small jolt of excitement each time we get that surprise reward. Think about fruit machines, infite scrolling or refreshing your instagram feed, or checking your emails. We might be delivered nothing, or we might be rewarded with an interesting nugget of information. Every time my son is digging and is starting to get a bit bored, suddenly another bit of coal, or gold will uncover and all the digging through rock is forgotten. Not only that, the thing you found can be turned into a range of new things, eg: iron into ingots, pickaxes, swords, armour and so on. So there is even variability in the variability!

Note: If you’re interested to know how this behavioural mechanism of variable reward works and where the research came from, (and how it’s the thin end of the wedge that leads into addiction) you can read more about variable reward here.

It matches the users goals of how they want to play

The game can run in a variety of modes, and we’ve tried a few. As a UX Designer it is interesting to see how they have understood the different goals their users have and provided adequate modes for each. For example, “survival mode” means you start with nothing and have to craft everything yourself, and you can also be attacked by hostile “mobs” in the game such as zombies. Then there is also a “creative mode”, where there is no chance of being attacked by anything like a zombie, and you have access to all the items in Minecraft from the start. So far, so normal. Where it got interesting for us was the blend of the two modes called “peaceful mode”, where you still have the challenge of collecting items to craft and make new objects, but you can turn all the bad guys off, no zombies here!

Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Zombie

What the developers have done here is really interesting, they have obviously seen that some players lean towards wanting to just create, and some want to play it as a game, defeating bosses and bad guys along the way, and then again some want to pick and choose parts from the two modes. When you get this experience it’s obvious they have listened to their player community and understood their needs that is interesting for me as a researcher and UX designer.

Memorable ways of understanding real life concepts

As the pandemic took hold I noticed Minecraft being used in many other ways to mirror what people were missing out on in real life. A school in Japan featured in the news recently for recreating the kids graduation ceremony in Minecraft, enabling them to all have the closure and celebration virtually that they were missing out on.

Photo credit: @BACKYENNEW/TWITTER

And not only that, the limits to what you can use Minecraft for to augment traditional experiences is endless. My son has been exploring inside the ISS and also a giant human eyeball. As you have all the materials available in the real world, as he “mined” into the eyeball, water poured out —not only was it gross, but it was also educational and memorable. These are great immersive, educational experiences that are forging a new way for kids to learn and interact with the world in a safe way.

Users are demanding more of their experiences

Right now MinecraftEDU is being used in classrooms to allow teachers to virtually “walk” students around historical landmarks and check their progress and understanding as they do so. This is a new immersive way of learning that we can anticipate future students will come to expect of their educational institutions.

Image credit: https://education.minecraft.net/how-it-works/what-is-minecraft/

Improving inclusion and social spaces with an accessible tool

I think my favourite quote about MineCraft is that by Cody Sumter:

“Notch [the creator] hasn’t just built a game. He’s tricked 40 million people into learning to use a CAD program.” — Cody Sumter

Although this is not strictly true — it’s not a CAD program, I get what he means. And this is probably the area that gets me most excited. I’m an urban design geek. I love the idea that this is a tool that lowers the entry level to someone being able to design a shared public space, building or transport system. I love that the collaborative aspect of Minecraft allows everyone to do it, not just one person or city department, or someone with money. Amazingly there are already initiatives in progress to do this, most notabley the Block By Block project in cooperation with UN Habitat which allows participants to create real-world environments in Minecraft. This means residents can be included in the re-design of their environments — co-design at it’s most immersive and exciting!

Residents in Kalobeyei, Kenya use Minecraft to redesign a local environment that focuses on trees and walkability. Image credit: https://www.blockbyblock.org/projects/kalobeyei

The project allows young people who live in those environments to participate in designing the changes they would like to see. By using Minecraft, citizens can redesign areas that are in need of improvement in such a way that suits their needs as the end user. As a result, the end user has been made part of the process, and part of the research. This is a massive step forward from a UX perspective —being able to include end users in the design of an object, place or virtual event from the beginning is the first step on the ladder to designing the correct solution.

Watch out for the lava! Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Lava

Empowering and adaptable products

The best products throughout history are those that are given to the user, and the user has the freedom and flexibility to adapt them to their own requirements. Hashtags were never part of the Twitter offering until they realised this is how users were tracking topics of their interest. Netflix started out by mailing DVD’s out to people, before realising there was a use case for streaming their content as people didn’t have time to post back DVD’s. The experience of playing Minecraft is exactly the same; I can’t imagine it was built with the use case of solving urban design problems for deprived areas, but this is exactly what has happened. In all areas of the game you have the opportunity to adapt it to suit exactly what you want to do, especially if you get into the ways you can use different mods and so on. The autonomy you have to adapt the game is an incredibly empowering experience, especially if you’re new. Your user never wants your product to make them feel stupid.

Conclusion

As an experience, the game is one of a kind, and it’s a great case study of how the experiences we provide don’t need to be pixel perfect. The important thing for the end user is solving a problem they have, and empowering them to reach their goals to solve that problem — and Minecraft have this down to a fine - albeit pixelated - art. It might be being unable to see your friends, teach your students, or just being bored.

Although Minecraft isn’t a new game, the pandemic has seen people adapting and including it as a way to virtually learn, play and collaborate at a time when we can’t be physically together.

How do you think you could use Minecraft to solve a problem you have or augment your working style? Could you experiment with running virtual co-design workshops in a room you’ve built in the game? Could you create a 3D prototype to test how people interact with a product or interface? Can you test out experiences users might have in specific contexts and environments you can create? Let me know in the comments what you plan to use Minecraft for, i’m interested to find out — happy mining! (just watch out for the creepers).

Beware the creepers! Image credit: https://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Creeper

UX and tech geek. Observer of humans. Crisp connoisseur. Yarn fondler. Undercover Northerner.