Recently my 7 year old son discovered MineCraft, a relatively benign video game that involves building worlds, kingdoms, domains, palaces, whatever you wants, out of blocks and chunks of pixelated nothing.
CBC recently ran a piece on MineCraft and education. Some teachers are embracing the game as a teaching tool. They interviewed a class or school club that was all about it. They talked about how it works, how it engages young people, the skills it delivers, and resources available for parents to help their children get started. The students described a tower or temple they had built in the club. They were clearly proud and excited about it and reported that it had taken either two hours or two months to build (different kids said different things–cute.) At the end, the teacher said that the point was that here, in MineCraft, these students can experience something they can’t in real life- the experience of creating something.
Whether or not MineCraft, or video games in general, have any virtue, educational or otherwise is not what this provoked for me. It was the underlying feeling of the last statement that left an impression.
In real life you can’t create a tower.
There is a tangle here that needs to be unravelled with careful bravery. When we feel that the momentum of society will play itself out, and that the general direction is toward entropy and defeat of humanity, there is a feeling that we can’t really do anything. We can’t really build anything, or at least we can’t build anything worthy. Even if we could create something, the things society has built have proven corrupt and destructive. Empire building has brought about massive human destruction, business building has brought rampant environmental destruction. The effigies of ego wrought by acts of creation are no longer appropriate.
With that feeling in the background, the way forward seems to be either passive or critical. The passive approach is to assume there is nothing to do but survive in this world. We must gather the skills and conditions we need to get by and hopefully have some fun. Life is experienced mostly as a screen- something to watch and respond to, but not to fundamentally shape, unless we are literally in screen world, playing MineCraft. We don’t feel like full participants in the co-creation of society.
The critical approach is about taking things apart and revealing their weaknesses. This approach is sharper, more engaged, and highly intelligent. It is being wary of assumptions, and examining complexity. It is seeing through the surface stories and appearances of things, unveiling the hidden stories in Disney movies, smelling the starvation in a cup of Starbucks. Higher education is especially geared toward this approach, but its ethos is not limited to academia. It pervades our culture (we weren’t really surprised by Robb Stark’s demise were we? It was his fate for having the audacity to embark on a noble venture, and for being a character in a postmodern novel).
We need this active, swordlike intelligence. Without it we would be in the Middle Ages or the Tea Party. The problem is the way it intertwines with the passive, defeated mind frame and yields up a sense of nihilistic pointlessness. We feel that everything falls apart under analysis, revealing its underlying corruption. So the only safe place to build a tower is in a fake world.