Minecraft and Philosophy
Kierkegaard Would Play Hardcore Mode
by Ian Schnee
Diamonds Aren’t Forever
Minecraft is a building game: you place blocks, pistons, stairs, and electric wire to construct anything imaginable, from Gothic fortresses to carnival rollercoasters. In creative mode you have unlimited access to building materials, but in survival mode the player has to earn them. Survival mode is a bit like life: you have to balance the goals of staying alive and entertaining yourself. You farm and hunt for food, build a shelter to survive the night (when the hostile mobs come out), and mine for resources to make tools, weapons, and everything else. That’s the staying alive part. What you do with the rest of the time is up to you: tame wolves, explore caves, map distant lands, build a tree fort in the jungle, or quest to defeat the Ender Dragon.
Like in most video games, if you die in survival mode you can spawn another life and continue the game with most of your possessions intact. But there’s an exception: Hardcore. Hardcore mode is maximally treacherous—it generates the maximal number of hostile mobs and allows no respawning. When you die it’s “game over man [or woman].”
Hardcore mode therefore raises a basic question: why would anyone devote hours of diamond mining, rollercoaster building, and monster battling to have it all disappear with one bad run in with a band of arrow-flinging skeletons? Hardcore mode asks players to willfully make all their hours of work fleeting, perilous, and meaningless.
Insurance companies know that teenagers are less risk averse than adults. So is Hardcore mode just Mojang’s answer to an insufficiently developed prefrontal cortex? An indulgence for thrill seekers lacking in prudential rationality?
No is the answer. And Kierkegaard can tell us why.
And You Can Call Me Crazy, But I Like to Roll the Dice
The good life can take many forms: all sorts of jobs and pastimes are compatible with a meaningful and excellent life. But Kierkegaard asks us to consider what sort of life would be ultimately fulfilling and meaningful. Despite the enjoyment we take in our quotidian existence, for example, contrast that with the kind of life lived by Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela. Those great individuals might experience less simple pleasure than we do, but they also experience something we probably don’t: unconditional commitment to something historically, perhaps even globally, significant, something greater than themselves that affects their entire existence.
Those great figures have some of the marks of the deepest kind of meaningfulness, on Kierkegaard’s understanding (see, for example, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death). For one thing, they have a commitment to a cause that transcends social, legal, and perhaps even ethical norms. Additionally, the object of the commitment is not otherworldly and eternal; rather, it is an immanent, temporal object with no guarantee of survival or success—which is, funnily enough, a bit like one’s bid to defeat the Ender Dragon in Hardcore mode.
The force of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on one’s “defining commitment” can be appreciated by contrasting it with a view on which salvation in an afterlife provides the fundamental meaning to one’s life. In that case life’s meaningfulness is insulated from any of the dangerous uncertainties of day-to-day living. No matter what happens—even in the face of death itself—one’s significance is eternally assured.
For Kierkegaard, however, that kind of assurance and infinite security are simply a denial of the immanent, temporal nature of our lives. It misses out on what is fundamentally important about our humanity. It negates the whole basis of our caring about things in life.
Now think about playing Minecraft in regular survival mode. First, you can change the difficulty level to easy any time events get threatening. But even if you die, what is really lost? Even if you can’t get from your spawn point back to the scene of your demise in time, all you lose perhaps is a prized enchanted sword and some experience points. The real weight of your investment and time are insulated from loss. You can live another day, craft another sword, venture to the Nether again. Death doesn’t really matter.
Contrast the pain of loss in Hardcore mode when you die in the End before defeating the Ender Dragon. Everything you have achieved and invested time in is gone in an instant, irrecoverably. That is why it’s a horrid violation of the spirit of Hardcore mode to hack it with the save file. If you’re not willing to play with a commitment to your finitude, then don’t play Hardcore mode. Kierkegaard would call that kind of hypocrisy infinite resignation.
There is something bizarre or paradoxical about making your life so precarious, but Kierkegaard embraces that paradox: embracing the temporality of our existence is hard to do and hard to sustain, and on a certain level even hard to make sense of. But that’s what makes life worth living.
The Way to Dusty Death
I am not claiming that playing Minecraft in Hardcore mode measures up to the sort of life lived by Susan B. Anthony and MLK. Indeed, playing any video game might seem like an escapist indulgence fundamentally at odds with an authentic life. Rather, I am claiming that we can understand the allure and significance of Hardcore mode by reflecting on Kierkegaard’s analysis of lives like theirs, a significance which recovers a bit of authenticity within the virtual realm.
At first glance Hardcore mode seems crazy, consigning your efforts to meaninglessness. It looks like a willful disregard for your own interests or a way to challenge yourself with no deeper import. Kierkegaard’s twist is this: Hardcore mode doesn’t make your efforts meaningless—it is the only way they can be truly meaningful. If Minecraft could somehow pop up in 1840s Copenhagen, there’s no doubt Kierkegaard would play Hardcore mode.
Just consider your emotional reaction to the game. In Hardcore mode you sweat it out when you’re in real danger, battling a dozen mobs. You tread carefully around cliffs and lava pools. You feel the despair of getting lost, since you can’t just die to respawn on familiar ground.
Hardcore mode confronts players with the risk and temporality of existence, and it scares off the half hearted who want a safe escape from the sound and the fury of daily life.
So yes, it is a thrill to play Hardcore mode, with all one’s chips on the table, but the thrill is just the superficial exhaust created by a meaningful commitment. The cure for Macbeth’s lament of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day” isn’t escapism; it’s a commitment that affirms our humanity.
(Many thanks to Kristina Gehrman and Professor Farnsworth.)
Ian Schnee is an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University. You can find his work in Film and Philosophy, Episteme, and Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy.
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