The Minecraft Renaissance: How Mojang’s Sleeping Giant Woke Up

Recently, people have been falling in love with a certain game about logging, digging, and cubes all over again.

Minecraft’s tenth anniversary came and went in April of this year, and it was a fairly canny decision on their part to put out a major update right before then. All those thinking ‘hey, I loved that back in the day’ and give it another go for nostalgia’s sake will have been dazzled at all the new features in a game they remember being based around punching trees. But even in their wildest dreams, Mojang probably never expected the immense uptick in popularity the game’s been enjoying since.

A sizable part of this is down to many big-name streamers getting back into it – and this is why it’s me, the TV editor, writing on this instead of any of our serious gaming reporters. The dividing line between being a decently popular YouTuber and host of your own network TV show is, at this point, a philosophical one. Practically speaking, the main difference is that you don’t have to keep to a consistent episode length.

The leader of this vanguard is, of course, PewDiePie, the Kim Kardashian of game vlogging. While it may not have been him who kicked off the revival, it was after he leapt on board that the floodgates opened. Such is the size of his fanbase that in a very real sense, he’s been playing it by committee – enough of them give a suggestion, and he’ll see it and follow it. This is a recurring thing among those streaming it who are returning to it after many years – they’ve invariably forgotten many of the ins and outs, and often have their chatbox screaming at them ‘No! Don’t dig straight down! For the love of God!’

(Vinesauce’s Joel had quite a sweet one of these moments: he’d last played Minecraft before they introduced different biomes, and worried that the grass was the wrong colour.)

Another oft-mentioned candidate for sparking the revival is RTGame. He himself modestly denies this, but credit where credit’s due, he was keeping the flame alive in the interim. The days of every child with a decent gaming rig streaming to YouTube were long dead, but RT was still running semi-regular streams in which he’d turn his fanbase loose on a server with some vague goal in mind, like building a big McDonalds.

The sheer versatility of Minecraft’s completely modular world is an obvious reason to point to its not having grown stale over the years – building a big McDonalds is just scratching the surface. There’s a more recent crossover series where a little English boy and a sarky American (Wilbur Soot and Jschlatt, both streamers in their own right) are trapped in a world which is steadily filling up with lava, a la armageddon mode in that old favourite Worms. But this brings another aspect of it, and that’s the interpersonal one.

A world filling with lava is one thing, but if it’s not people you can identify with trapped in there, who cares? Seeing tempers fray as our hosts fight to survive and eventually turn on one another is worthy of any post-apocalyptic drama. Likewise, PewDiePie’s die-hard fanbase aren’t strictly there for the Minecraft, that’s just dressing, they’re there – and God knows why – for him.

But oftentimes, it’s not just for the streamer themselves. What really seems to capture people’s hearts on these streams is the pets – be they PewDiePie’s Sven the dog, Vinny Vinesauce’s Nether pig, or Milo the fish, who became the main focus of the Wilbursoot’s ‘random block every 30 seconds‘ series. This last saw our host steadily losing it a bit in his lightless room, marshalling all his limited resources to give Milo the fish the loving home and creature comforts he seemed to be denying himself.

Now, if there’s one thing the internet’s proved, it’s that people love watching videos of dear little animals. And if there’s one thing the Tamagotchi proved, it’s that the animals don’t have to exist in a non-electronic form. Given that, people latching onto these streamers’ pets should come as no surprise. This is a common enough thing in film and TV, too – traditionally, if a protagonist seems a bit bland, a bit unlikable, and not really protagonist-y enough, the writers will give them a dog. Conversely, if someone’s mean to a dog, you can be pretty certain they’re the villain.

But in the broader sense, this is about humanity’s almost reflexive tendency to see faces in things (cf. the ‘man in the moon’), and from there to identify with them. Milo, after all, isn’t a fish and never was a fish, it’s a virtual reality cuboid with fins stuck on it. But my God, you look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t feel warm inside when Wilbur spruced up Milo’s tank with that coral.

PewDiePie’s sheer reach and popularity, it must be said, made it seem slightly like everyone else who was conspicuously featuring a pet was hopping on the bandwagon. Particularly if they named them, and especially if they flamboyantly mourned their untimely deaths. (For instance, Vinny’s Nether pig had survived where his cat Ziggy, very sadly, bit the big one.) Whatever your opinion of Pewds, he knows how to rack up the clicks, so obviously his fellow streamers would respond in kind.

But Milo gives the lie to this. We don’t just instinctively identify with anything that looks the least bit face-like, we also read stories into them. Over the course of Wilbur’s adventures in the void, building a little platform a block at a time, he found himself on many occasions beseeching the ‘sky gods’ – that is to say, Minecraft’s square sun and moon – to give him some decent blocks for a change. Yes, it’s textbook magical thinking, but it’s the same idea that underpins most of the world’s organised religions, hoping that some force out there has your back, that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. And whether you’re a believer or not, either way it’s very clearly mapping a story onto what’s ultimately random chaos. It allows us to at least try and understand things.

Despite Wilbur’s baby-smooth face, comedian-turned-streamer Limmy, who’s greying and has a child of his own, takes this childish joy even further. His Minecraft streams, most of which are ultimately intended to torture the villagers, see him acting like a boy with a toy, pretending to be getting out of a limo and walking down a red carpet before activating his latest death machine. It’s like a kid waving a toy plane around and splutteringly mimicking the sound of its engine, but if you could actually see it going on a bombing run. Yes, it’s what unfunny newspaper comics have been warning us about for all these years, people sticking to childish behaviours long into adulthood, but, as with giving a fake fish some fake coral, you can’t tell me it’s not oddly endearing.

Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis had a memorable quote about childish things, the upshot of which was “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Like I said at the start, whether you’re a streamers or an average player, this is a matter of rediscovering an old favourite, thinking ‘hey, I loved that when I was a kid’ – and finding, to your delight, that you love it still.

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