Minecraft hacks as art and the joy of working within constraints

Constraint really is the key component of art. Taking the constraint as a given and then trying to push the limits of it to express an idea is where all the interesting things are at. The artist may work on a canvas and their frustration at being “boxed in” may make them wish the canvas away. But take it away and they are left adrift on an ocean where the noise of the world swallows up all the potential meaning, expression, and communication. But struggle IN the box, and you can produce great and even utterly amazing things. There’s a quote laying around somewhere from Brian Eno talking about pushing the limits of early digital audio that captures some of this well. Ah, here it is:

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

My 9-year-old son is doing this right now with Minecraft. I just think of him having fun building stuff, just like someone might have fun building with Legos and there is that, but there is also much more. He was extremely excited today to show me something he had just built. What was it? A bookshelf with some books on it. Very simple. A couple of them were laying sideways and were different colors. That is all. So why all the enthusiasm? He had pushed the boundaries of the constraints. He had found instructions on how to hack a command block to nudge objects only one pixel in space. In Minecraft, the 16x16x16 textured blocks are a primitive given. But with the hack, you can make small objects and with a lot of patience, produce relatively smooth curves where none should be possible. Any normal 3D modelling software could have produced that bookshelf in a couple minutes with a few simple points and clicks. Woopee. But to produce it in a world bade of clunky huge blocks, to suddenly make something impossibly small and intricate according to the “normal” rules of physics in that world, that was something exciting.

It’s like being given a box of Legos after living in a room full of jumbo Duplos. No, actually that’s a poor analogy. That wouldn’t be nearly as fun. This is like melting down some of your Duplos with matches and remolding the pieces in a hand-carved cast to produce a precious handful of Legos. It is the delight of the child builder to put their mind and hands to this. It is the delight of the painter to get that tree, that face, to fit on the canvas and look, somehow, even more real that it was in the flesh.