Nerd + Communism etc

Minecraft is a computer game.  This is a post I made on a forum for a particular Minecraft server, which hosts the game in multiplayer.  If you’re unaware of what’s going on in the MC community (or, perhaps, even of its existence), some of this will be very confusing to you, but the major points for lay people are:

1.  Minecraft has been a success because of modding – that is, volunteers reworking or modifying code to create variants on the game.

2.  Minecraft’s (now former) owners, Swedish developer Mojang, have recently begun legal processes to enforce their property rights over a community which has flourished in the grey area between proprietary and open-source software.

3.  Mojang has very recently announced the sale of Minecraft to Microsoft.

Hope you noobs can follow along.

Notch is a billionaire. That blows my mind.

A few things. First, on evil companies. Wauter, I can see some of your points regarding Apple, but as Steve Jobs never sent troops to retain his control of Palo Alto, I wouldn’t quite put him in the same league as Putin. That being said, Apple’s factories in China are pretty horrendous, so I wouldn’t call them a bunch of saints either. As it happens, I think a lot of the accusations of ethical shortcomings against Google also came about because of their business practices in China; specifically, they agreed to the government’s demands to filter out politically unacceptable content, like the Tiananmen square demonstrations and the response. Plus they gather a lot of data on people, which gives them a lot of power, which should be cause for concern if only because no one voted these guys into this powerful position (at least the NSA, as a government agency, is THEORETICALLY accountable to someone… alright, bad example). I would generally agree that microsoft is inherently no more or less evil than any other major capitalist firm. Bill Gates is pretty infamous for unsavoury business practices, but as you point out that’s more a difference of publicity rather than actual actions between Microsoft and Apple.

That being said, the real question here isn’t whether Microsoft is better or worse than Apple or Google, it’s whether it’s better or worse than Mojang. Here, I’m not convinced this buyout is a major game-changer (in the meta sense; sorry to everyone I’m losing with this post). In recent months, Mojang has been operating as you would expect any company which profits from its intellectual property rights to act. In a way, selling out to Microsoft is just confirming the status quo. We’re left with the same set of problems now as we had a week ago.

The fact is communism and capitalism make poor bedfellows (again, see China). Notch, from what I gather, comes from a background in open source. Open source, the cooperative design and sharing of articles of software, is what’s made Minecraft amazing for us all: it’s what’s allowed bukkit and all the neat mods and minigames that make the game about much more than breaking blocks and putting them on top of other blocks. At the moment, the future of the bukkit project (and, by extension, a lot of minecraft modding projects), along with countless Minecraft servers, is in question due to the decision that Mojang, not Microsoft, has recently made to enforce it’s EULA. I can imagine this has caused a lot of anxiety on Notch’s part: these aren’t his ethics. But capital has its own rules, and the bigger a project gets the less optional they become. I don’t remember whether it was Emerson or Fight Club that said that “The things you own end up owning you.”

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will find a way to steer the Minecraft project through this current border dispute with the community. Maybe I’m a little less hopeful than I was when Mojang was in charge, because Microsoft has never attempted to disguise its hostility to open source, and has a track record of being extremely aggressive on issues of copyright, but I reckon that’s where Mojang has been heading anyway. That being said, any owner of Minecraft has a definite commercial interest in working with the community and encouraging modding; that’s what makes the property valuable, because it’s what keeps us all engaged. The question is whether they’re capable of doing so.

It’s dangerous to make predictions (c.f. Karl Marx, 1848), but we can at least evaluate some possible scenarios. Scenario one is that Microsoft figures out some position that satisfies their property rights while allowing the community a big enough slice of the pie to stay engaged. In that case, things will continue more or less as before, though we’ll all probably have to update our servers to whatever mod ends up representing the compromise solution, and certain business models are probably defunct (I think the dreams of servers producing a livelihood for members of the community are going down the drain; I’ve been observing the fate of several major servers which are in crisis at the moment over this EULA business). Again, this scenario relies on Microsoft finding some sort of compromise between its interests and those of independent server operators and programmers. Stranger things have happened.

The second scenario is that Microsoft tries to implement a compromise which is either too one-sided or even too slow (a lot of people are already searching for greener pastures) to keep the community on board. As this thread shows, they’ve got a lot of work to do against their own reputation, and they’re not entering the fray during a stable time. So yeah, we could see the end of Minecraft as the massive social phenomenon it has become in the last decade. A lot of servers would shut down, development of mods and plugins would slow to a trickle. Minecraft would end its days as a decent game on the X-box and not much more. But this would be a process, taking months, not days. You’re not going to wake up one morning and discover all of your favourite hangouts are gone.

I would really like to see scenario one come around, because I’m still having fun with this whole thing, but I feel prepared for scenario two. Again, it’s important to remember what makes Minecraft valuable* is the community, because, let’s be honest, in and of itself it’s a rather limited game with graphics for which “retro” is probably being too kind. Community is a slippery concept to define, so much so that I usually avoid using the term altogether, but in this case I’m talking about a network of relationships and a shared set of cultural concepts, and those aren’t going to go away even if this particular game stops being so fun and interesting. Minecraft was only ever a tool for us to find each other and have conversations and adventures together. There will be other tools and other adventures, no matter what happens. It’s hard to imagine something that could do what Minecraft has done. But then, no one, not even Notch, ever predicted that Minecraft would do what Minecraft has done. Minecraft has developed the concept of virtual social space in amazing ways that we don’t just unlearn when we log out. The most important lessons of Minecraft aren’t confined to its universe of creepers and zombies. No one’s got property rights on your friendships or confidence or creativity, even if you can’t hold on to every material thing you involve in those processes.

* I kind of want to get into the distinction here between a thing’s commercial value, called its exchange value, and its inherent beneficial properties, a.k.a. its use value, but I think I’d feel too silly.  [note: my in-game name is also usevalue]

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