Minecraft & The Uncanny, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on Minecraft.  Up until now you could only read it if you bought my book, but I am posting it here to give you a sense of what the book is like.  You can buy it here.  More importantly, I’m hoping you will find the topic interesting enough to vote for my presentation proposal on Minecraft & Mindfulness for SXSW this year.  You can do that here.

In 1919 Freud wrote and published an article on “The Uncanny.”  In it he described the concept of the uncanny as a specific type of fear something both strange and familiar.  It is worth noting that the article begins with an investigation into aesthetics, something that was not usually done in the medical literature of Freud’s time.  But Freud realized that there was something particularly aesthetic about the uncanny.  It is an anxiety that both draws on the aesthetic, and from a distance also acquires an aesthetic quality itself.  In fact, it could be argued that a whole genre of fiction, such as Lovecraft, embodies the aesthetic of the uncanny.

In German, the uncanny is unheimlich, which translates literally to the “unhomely” or “unhomelike.”  Here homely has a double meaning.  First homely is the quality of domesticity, the warm hearth of the house, down comforters, a cheery cottage coziness, etc.  Second, heimlich refers to concealment, contained within the house’s domestic sphere, hidden from the public eyes of outside society.

Seen in this light, the uncanny or unheimlich is both alien and a revelation or an exposure.  Freud quotes Schelling as saying that ‘“Unheimlich” is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light..’” Is it any wonder that Freud took up exploration of this concept, with all of its allusions to the unconscious, anxiety, and societal repression?

Freud also talks about the element of repetition in the uncanny, such as arriving at certain places we’ve been to before, or noticing the number 62 appearing throughout the day in a variety of places.  This element of repetition gives rise to the sense that there is a pattern that we may not be aware of, which in turn makes the world suddenly seem both stranger and more imbued with meaning.

Freud goes on to discuss something gamers will be very familiar with, mana, although he discusses it from outside the framework of fantasy as a form of magical thinking that attributes powers to the neurotic overvaluation of their thought processes and their impact on reality.  But the game world is within the realm of fantasy.  Within that world, what Freud refers to as “the Apparent death and the re-animation of the dead” are fairly commonplace.  The game world returns us in many ways to the animistic state of being, characterized by “the prompt fulfilment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead.”

The uncanny also figures largely in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and is connected to the idea of man’s “throwness” into the world.  Human beings want to feel at home in the world, but when they encounter the uncanny they experience themselves as thrown into it and apart from it.  For Heidegger the unheimlich eradicates our sense of Being-at-home-in-the-World, but as it does so it reveals something about the World to us.

For Heidegger the World is also revealed to us (and we are revealed as well) by that which is ready-to-hand, something that has a meaning that connects us to the world.  An example is a hammer, which we experience as imbued with meaning and value and inextricably linked to human being.  We don’t think about the hammer, in fact the only time we are really conscious of it is when it isn’t working.  A similar example is your car, if you reflect on it you will probably notice that you only really pay attention to your car as a concept when it isn’t working.

As opposed to ready-to-hand, present-at-hand refers to an uninvested, detached way of looking at something, one that takes us out of any sort of meaningful relationship.  Its meaning may be unclear and unconnected with human being at all.  If I ask you what you’d like to do with that round green and red thing, you’ll be confused.  But if you see it as an apple, things will become much clearer.  It probably isn’t a coincidence, by the way, that most depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden show the fruit as an apple.  Before the Fall, everything is ready-to-hand and imbued with meaning.  Afterwards, in our thrown state, things become less clear, and more uncanny.  Paradise has been lost.

Ninety years after Freud wrote “The Uncanny,” Markus “Notch” Persson created the game Minecraft.   Minecraft is a sandbox type of video game, meaning that the world generated can be permanently changed by the player.  Creativity and survival is the goal, and there is no way to “win” the game.  The premise of the game is that your character is thrown into a vast world designed with 8-bit graphics (think early Nintendo) with only your bare hands.  The game has a day and night cycle, and at night zombies, skeletons, and other monsters come out and will attack you if you are exposed.

Everything in the game world can be destroyed and broken down into elements that can be crafted if you have the right ingredients.  At first you have fewer options, because destroying a tree with your hands takes more time than if you had an axe.  But slowly you gather materials so that you can build things that in turn allow you to build more things, so that you can hopefully build a shelter before night falls.

The landscape of the world is randomly generated by the game, and remains saved if you are killed.  Dig a hole in the ground and it will be there when you return from the dead and to the game.  The graphics are not realistic, with the blocky edges of 8-bit design, which underscores the uncanny element of the world.  The world is vast, and looks like the real world, and also doesn’t.  Minecraft is not trying to trick you into thinking it looks like real life, in fact that is one of the things that makes it so immersive.

Part 2, next week.

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