Minecraft and Social Constructs

I’ve been meaning to discuss the idea and applications of social constructs of Minecraft for a while now. When the game comes up in conversation I’m very used to friends and colleagues not only telling me a bit about what they have achieved through Minecraft, but also that they find there are social constructs and a sense of community at play in addition. Kids reaaaally seem to like it.

This post will untangle the idea of social constructs within the game by looking at qualitative and social analysis from research groups that are aiming to define how and why participants regard the game as providing an affinity of space. It’ll also discuss some ideas about how traditional social constructs are now being translated through servers.

A basic theory within the idea of social constructs is that of affinity of space. This speculates that certain spaces, whether they are physical – for example within a city – or virtual, can offer certain traits. These range from the positive such as welcoming and nurturing of social connections, to exclusive and elitist.

There are a number of studies that have published strong evidence for Minecraft being a positive medium for affinity of space, and also in education, creativity and other desirable applications. The interesting aspect is why the game has advanced in virtual social constructs where others have not.

Certainly in MMO’s and RPG’s there will always be some kind of social order – after all we are still individual human beings controlling what happens in a virtual environment. In social orders participation is the first key, as there must be participation to develop a functioning social structure. Further aspects required include:

– Personal contribution

– The sharing of information

– Social support and guidance

– Discussion with other members

– Individual assignment and completion of tasks to fulfil larger planned goals

An excellent representation of social structures within Minecraft can be illustrated by Pellicone and Ahne (2014) who applied qualitative analysis on forum threads to generate visualisations of structures that may also be present within the game. An example is shown below in Figure 1.

Source: Pellicone and Ahne (2014)
Source: Pellicone and Ahne (2014)

Additional theories of online structures, most notably Butler (2000), argue that structures similar to figure 1 are applicable to larger volumes of games. He argues that the presence and usage of servers are most likely to have a defining role in this as they allow for greater levels of communication and delegation of resources, therefore resulting in more complex social structures.

This ties in neatly with the affinity of space theory, connoting that servers are constructive and encourage positive space and social interactions. Dedicated players are usually content in their constructs. Dave is happy to farm, Brian enjoys doing magic, Larry likes to build. No-one is sure where Colin went. They work together for a common cause, and usually because a social connection has been formed between them in the physical world.

However, in addition to the immediately visible contours of the affinity space, there also exists a broader community of people who identify as Minecraft players, with some further identifying with the elite level of producer found within the larger Minecraft meta-game (Maccallum-Stewart, 2013)

Minecraft unfortunately is not exempt from the way that a perceived gamer culture often results in unwelcoming attitudes towards those who fall outside of that culture (Pellicone and Ahne, 2014). The difficulty is identification of gamer culture norm’s in comparison with Minecraft norm’s. Norm’s in themselves are defined by the actions and interactions translated into the virtual environment, which provide a level of anonymity for players.

A critical aspect of the social structures within Minecraft is whether the game or indeed any social orders within it can overcome physical social inequalities (for example race, gender, income, upbringing) of players. This is pretty difficult thing to analyse on a scale that is representative of the whole Minecraft gaming community, but it’s certainly a focal point for social-based research in the future.

Assessment whether there is a connection between the overcoming of social inequalities and the production of positive space within Minecraft can certainly be inferred. The game features very few negative aspects that would impact the development and sustainability of social networks, which in turn lend to the continual production of affinity of space.

creeper

Minecraft and boobs.

Minecraft is a multiplayer sandbox video game based in a virtual world, which is modelled on the real world. Players are able to build and craft everyday items using blocks. The cubic geometry of Minecraft lends itself to the teaching of various academic subjects, and is immensely popular in the gaming world.

Minecraft also has a functioning ecology, with chemistry and physics aspects interwoven within the game that can be used to develop the scientific literacy of players. Not only does it function in many core aspects of the environment (though cubey), it represents an excellent case study in human geography via gender divides in a community.

One of the most common social representations of video games is the imbalance in the gender divide. Most people assume that a significant proportion of players are male. In 2012, 47% of the gaming community were actually female. The applications of minecraft in teaching and learning environments has been argued to have been a considerable boost to this figure in years to come.

Obviously the balance of genders in video games is a result of a plethora of positive advances in the gaming industry. However, getting all genders to understand the real-life application of games at a young age has proved to contribute to greater cognitive development at an early age, more respect for women in the gaming industry, a reduction in prejudices against female gamers, and an increase in the number of women taking further studies in a game-based course.

To understand why the gender divide came about in the first place one must understand one of the biggest factors associated with the gaming industry: the fact that one of the biggest drivers of the gender disparity is the dearth of women involved in making games. Once a designer has reached an age where they are able to develop or design games, quite often strong opinions on the industry have already been formed, and subsequently cannot be changed easily.

Unfortunately, this usually leads to games which only address a male perspectives and expectations. Often this is to the detriment of the female perspective and expectations, for example rarely having a strong female lead. Even less likely to have a female lead that is not basically naked.

Boobs. So many boobs.

Minecraft, is one of the building blocks for the balancing of equal opportunities for the next generation (see what I did there?). In situations where its used in learning environments, no previous assumptions or prejudices are discussed, and this creates a positive atmosphere to all kids, whether they have or haven’t been exposed to game-learning before.

Game analysts and educational staff for the first time have been able to predict figures of the likelihood that a person will experience or develop their gaming knowledge at a later date, after they have been introduced to learning through minecraft. This is only based on a handful of individual cases in the US at the moment, but certainly has the potential to expand in the teaching curriculum over the next few years.

Their preliminary results show these main points;

– The kids exposed to minecraft showed a reduction in gender stereotypes when exposed to gender specific testing.

– The kids exposed to minecraft were able to problem solve at a higher level to those who had not.

– The kids who were exposed to minecraft we statistically significantly more likely to continue gaming and problem solving in later life (thus more likely to bring more female game developers on to the scene).

Although there are many other learning-based games specifically targeted at children, minecraft is set apart from the pack as it is used by a range of age groups with no modifications dependent on age. As a result when kids develop a bond with a game that they enjoy as they are growing up, minecraft offers the ability for someone to keep playing without feeling that they have outgrown it.

Despite it’s cubey nature, minecraft has some pretty cool geographical crossovers, and also social prediction algorithms that further establish it as a medium for human expression in a virtual environment, rather than simply a game to pass the time. It is regarded as being engaging to all ages, genders, and across many levels of gaming expertise. More importantly, it can be all of these things at once. 

(This was actually a social experiment to see whether the use of ‘boobs’ in the title would generate more post views. We shall get back to this subject, and hopefully you’ll have more human geographical knowledge as a result).

What other aspects of minecraft do you think apply to geography, or vice versa? Do you think there are other social phenomena that occur in the minecraft world?