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Some Musings on the Psychology of Minecraft

Posted in Editorials on July 11th, 2013

I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately. It’s a fun game and it reminds me of The Legend of Zelda games I loved as a kid. Recently I started playing in multiplayer mode and something happened that made me think about they psychology of video games.

I know that one of the reasons video games are so pleasurable is that they give people rewards at quicker and more predictable rates thank other tasks. I can’t really say this is something that I think about consciously, but I do find myself having built a castle or mined some diamonds feeling like I have “accomplished something” when in reality, I haven’t. I just played a game. Leisure activities are necessary, but they aren’t a productive use of my time.

On Sunday I was exploring a cave in Minecraft and I was knocked into the very mineshaft I was looking for by some zombies. They jumped down and killed me. In Minecraft, if you aren’t playing in hardcore mode, you will “respawn” (restart) the game at a certain point, and all of the items/loot you were carrying with you will remain at the place you died for about five minutes. With literally nothing to lose, I sprinted back to the cave to find two zombies, one of which was wearing my armor! This is an often humorous aspect of the game. Zombies will pick up anything they find and try and use it against you. Previously I fought one off that was wielding a piece of rotting flesh that had been dropped by another zombie I had killed. On this occasion, I defeated them both with one of my shovels that they had not yet gotten to and retrieved my armor.

I paused for a moment, feeling kind of weird about re-equiping it. I felt grossed out because a zombie was just wearing it. Then I figured that it was now an extra special trophy of my victory over the zombies.

Then I thought about how this game has tapped into some pretty deep areas of my brain. Firstly I identify enough with my avatar that upon seeing an enemy NPC wearing “my armor” it I was startled, and amusedly indignant. There has been some research about why and how people identify with their video game avatars. It reminds me of the research about how the brain changes to think about a car one is driving. Some theorize that you start to perceive the car as a part of your body and that it changes your proprioception. There is evidence that people with bumper stickers on their car are more aggressive drivers. Similar to having a custom made avatar perhaps?

Second, I am so invested in this game that my innate mechanism for disgust was activated by the idea of my avatar wearing armor that a cartoonish zombie character was just “wearing.” I did have a brief feeling that I was the one putting on dirty clothes. Then I laughed at the idea of getting squicked out over pixels on a screen.

Our brains are more plastic than we may be comfortable admitting. And like Minecraft, almost infinitely moddable. Be careful what you do with yours.

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