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.