One of my pastimes is playing Minecraft.
For those unacquainted with the phenomenon, it’s a computer game that starts with the player awakening at dawn, empty-handed, in a wilderness. There isn’t really a goal, but it’s advisable to spend some time and effort acquiring materials, making tools, and building some kind of shelter before nightfall. Because that’s when the monsters spawn: creepers, who come up hissing behind you and then explode; skeleton archers; giant spiders; zombies. It’s also a good idea to acquire some food, because if you’re hungry you don’t heal from injury, and when you’re really hungry you lose health.
Beyond those basic goals, it’s a game about living in an uninhabited world1. People do different things with it: some build magnificent edifices; some delve deep and collect treasures; some make electronic devices with redstone, the in-game magical equivalent of electricity. YouTube is full of videos of the things they create, including many variations on Rule 352.
My pattern of play is to start a new world and spend a bunch of time building up food security3 while living in makeshift accommodation. Then I build a pleasant-looking house. Then I do something spectacular: hollow out an entire island, build a replica sailing ship (which the game mechanics don’t allow to move), or cut a vast arch all the way through a mountain. And then I grow bored, among my chests of wood and diamonds and multicolored wool, and start all over again on another world.
But this most recent time, when things got dull, I decided to become a nomad. Minecraft creates the world as you travel through it, so it’s as infinite as your hard drive can handle. There are wonders to see: vast falls of water and lava, mountains and deserts, forests and grasslands. There are surprises, like the sandstone water temples that appear to be generated alongside the natural features. I have come upon perfectly circular rooms6 deep underground, and watched shoals of squid swim at sunset far out to sea.
But I’m finding this mode of play surprisingly difficult. Not because I’m struggling to feed or defend myself, but because it requires a completely different attitude toward things. The game has an encumbrance model, meaning that I can only carry so much. Everything I keep, necessity or luxury, reduces what else I can pick up. I have had to reconsider my entire way of interacting with possessions in the game.
It turns out to be really hard for me to walk by a seam of coal or iron and not mine it, though I have more of each than I’m going to need for some time to come. When I cut down a tree to get the apples its foliage turn into, it’s not easy to leave the wood on the ground. This impulse to thrift comes from both early in-game shortage and real-life training. And playing in a world of abundance (which Minecraft is) makes the problem worse in many ways: there are so many opportunities to acquire. There is so much to hoard.
Also, accumulation is a hard goal to replace. The joys of travel pall after a while: the quest for novelty itself grows old. On a solitary world, there aren’t the other riches we seek in real life, the friendships, love, knowledge, and wisdom that aren’t accounted for in the inventory popup.
One outlet has been to return to Christo-like gestures: an entire hill covered in torches; a fountain taller than the trees around it. But even that activity is transformed: not only do I have fewer resources to make things with, but when I’m done with them I walk on and leave them behind7. I am collecting the experience of having made them and the memory of the sight of them receding into the unrendered mist behind me. In a finite world, I think I’d disassemble them.
The challenge of playing this way makes me think of the conversations we were all having a couple of years ago when the bubbles started to burst, about moving to a post-growth economic model. As we pass peak oil (and peak plastic, and maybe peak cod, and possibly peak dirt), it’s increasingly believable that leaning forward and running to keep up is an unsustainable way to live in the ecological equivalent of a brick-walled house. Perpetual growth is impossible; eventually we run out of atoms.8 We need a new model, something closer to a steady-state universe than a big-bang one.
But living in a new paradigm, coming from the old, is even more difficult in meatspace than it is in a virtual world.
Substituting non-acquisitive goals for acquisitive ones is difficult but not impossible. Our society already does that, whether people are collecting photos of themselves in exotic locations or status in whatever communities matter to them most. Measuring wealth in whuffies makes deep sense. After all, aside from fetishists like Scrooge McDuck, who really wants to swim in gold coins and light cigars with $100 bills for the pure aesthetic pleasure of it? People do these things to be seen to be doing them. Beyond a certain level of necessity9, money is mostly a counter of monkey-status.
More difficult is the other engine of growth and acquisition I’ve been running into: security. It’s difficult to pass up usable resources, even if I already have a good store of them, because I know I will run out eventually. But it’s easier to walk by this vein of coal if I can trust that I’ll be able to find another one to dig out when I need it. Minecraft’s abundance is consistent and reliable. Sadly, though, the real world contains unfed hunger and unmet need. There is always competition for resources, and real penalties for failure. There are visible losers in the race for everything necessary and useful to human life, from clean air up.
Growth is the promise of future plenty, and thus a mental escape hatch from zero-sum thinking. Make the pie bigger is the standard communitarian, non-competitive advice to someone trying to take a bigger slice of a limited resource. I don’t encounter competition for resources on my solitary server, but shared servers address the matter the way that the United States did in the 1800’s: geographic expansion. Players range further from the spawn point to find unexploited territory. Again, they tap into the unlimited abundance of the virtual world.
Here in the real world, we seek growth partly because that’s our headroom for surplus. And surplus is our present peace and our security against future need.
There’s an ongoing conversation in the SF and futurist communities about “post-scarcity” societies. I first encountered them in the Culture books by Iain M Banks, but there are plenty more examples in the literature. It’s more than a little unclear how such a society could come about. But absent its advent, I’m struggling to see how we could move to a post-growth economy.