How playing Minecraft kicked off my design career.
A time might come when you feel the inner need to look back on your life. Might happen before taking a new leap forward. I assume it is vital to take some time to analyse the path taken, draw valuable lessons. Or at least try to. I’ve reached one of these points, as the end of my studies gets closer day after day. Thinking about it, I guess I can pick up some interesting key points that shaped me into the man I am today. Some have influenced my personality, ultimately leading to a serious career shift.
Voxels and mashed pixels.
One of the most important moment in my recent life might be the day I launched Minecraft for the first time.
Don’t know what Minecraft is yet ? Since the game has been out for almost 7 years and become a true phenomenon, I won’t be introducing it here. However, there’s a whole bunch of articles throughout the web dealing with the subject. I suggest you take a look before heading back here to fully understand this article.
Anyway, on this night of February 2011, I took the firsts steps of a long and rewarding journey. One that would slowly, yet thoroughly, change my perception of life.
That’s deep. Let me explain.
The whole point of this game is that it has no straightforward goal beyond survival. Your first concern is your virtual life, in perpetual danger. From starvation, to death by monsters, the game provides many ways to die (*pshhhh* *bum*, you know what I mean). To be frank, that’s not the core gameplay at all.
If staying alive should be your first concern, this goal should be reached in minutes. After a short while, you only care about death when you carry valuable items. Cause, you know, dying means dropping your stuff in the wild (or the void, should you be near some lava). Not cool. But also quite meaningless the rest of the time.
What happens next depends on your needs of creation and social interactions.
Let’s say you play alone (offline). You might loose yourself to building fantastic houses and worlds for hours. To my mind, Minecraft is the richest game in term of creative possibilities. Allow your mind to wander in these green plains in search of your own Eden to build your dream house. This could be the best way to express your arty part and arouse vocations.
Yet, as soon as you go online, you’re likely to take the step further. In this case you might spend years enjoying the game much more than expected. Like in regular “real” life, joining a community changes the parameters. Then your goal might switch from building stuff to laying the foundations of a society.
You feel that I blow things out of proportion ? Well, let me talk of my personal experience.
Brave new world !
Minecraft wasn’t my first online game. My curriculum began around 2004, at the age of 11. That’s when my parents brought high-speed bandwidth home. Exit the (shitty) 2 hours a month internet contract, goodbye restrictions.
I had the chance to experience various MMORPG’s (online role-playing games) and browser games over those early years. From Dofus to World of Warcraft, from OGame to Trajan, I wasn’t a neophyte in persistent worlds. Even though my time on the family computer was limited, I spent quite some days on those games.
To be honest, none of these experiences support the comparison with Minecraft. It has brought me much deeper in term of involvement and social interactions than any other games. It allowed me not only to dive into my imagination, but to “bring to life” its concepts. Unlike regular online games, Minecraft was one of the firsts to let players shape 100% of the world.
I mean, there were some attempts before that, like Neverwinter nights, but it was much harder to get results. You had to go through libraries of existing objects, painful 3D modelling tools, scripting interfaces …
But with Minecraft, it was simple and easy.
Everything leans on the simple, yet efficient, “Lego like” gameplay. A basic interaction of collecting and dropping blocks is more than enough to empower players.
People at Blizzard Entertainment (well-known video game studio) have a strong motto. To describe their game mechanics, they usually say : “Easy to learn, hard to master”. Meaning their games are very simple to understand, taking first steps is easy. These gameplays are yet deep and with a complex learning curve. Mastering them takes time and commitment. I find this motto also relevant for Minecraft, even tough it has nothing to do with Blizzard. Starting a wooden hut is easy, building a Renaissance castle is another kettle of fish.
The world around you generates on a cubic grid. It plays the role of a comforting frame for most players, as many spent their childhood with Legos. Block by block construction is a familiar concept. It results in a sandbox game without rules and infinite immediate possibilities. A brand new world craving for construction. This was the fertile ground on which my thirst for creation would blossom.
I soon realised that the full potential of this gameplay lied in multiplayer. I joined one of the first big-scale French server with a couple school friends. We founded a small village at the edge of the world, and were soon joined by many people from various horizons.
Community in motion : management 101.
The first few weeks were fast paced, and our small community was growing very fast. As the number of houses started to increase, roads were built. We were searching for better ways to organise our little society. As in the real world, we aimed to develop the best political system. I remember being quite surprised that everyone was so receptive to such role-playing. It went smoothly, and our mini democracy (soon to become an elective monarchy) worked well enough to sustain our growth.
I did learn a great deal on social interactions and collective emulation in this first few weeks. I quietly stepped into the role of leader. People seemed to like my propositions and be inclined to follow my directives. Truth is, to put a collective like that in motion (as small as it is), you come to consider a certain sense of common good. Yeah, I know. I’m still talking about a video game here.
Truthfully, you’d be surprised how far it can get if you go along with the crowd.
Our village became a city. Our territory became too small to build infrastructures and provide us in resources. Sure thing, our city became a kingdom. Borders were pushed back. Forests were cut down (and replanted). Stone was mined. Ore was refined and turned into tools and weapons. The City Hall became a Royal Palace, and we had all the buildings we needed. Our little fictional society was working quite well.
And then we began to interact with other communities. Role-play did its job and we enjoyed some nice diplomatic encounters. We also had a couple wars for fun (you know, human nature). This joyful environment kept the business running.
I developed a very proactive mind at that time, and took my first steps on the way of community organising. In a small community, I assume you tend to develop a consensual approach to “politics”. This felt like the best way to avoid frustrations while ensuring collective progress.
Note that this works well as long as you don’t find some great divergence points, or most likely create some. In our case it went fine, but I guess we didn’t have to deal with true ideological matters.
Working on a project (furthermore as a “project manager”) led me to get some valuable soft skills. Most of them are daily tested in my professional life. I’m talking about teamwork, leadership, organisation or tenacity. Skills I did not discover at the time but trained a lot while playing online.
There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it ?
All of this is great. Yep. But what does it have to do with design ? Well, everything. I’ve teased you about some serious career switch, remember ? Time to deliver.
When first set foot in Minecraft I was 17 and in my final year of Lycée (French equivalent to high school, kinda). I was launched at full speed on the “railways” of the educative system. I had never taken the time to pause and think about my future. Still, I was quite good with scientific matters. So I assumed I should pursue in the conventional way.
Of what would happen next, I started to wonder at the beginning of 2011. Engineering school, most likely IT, it was the railway. Things I was interested in, but the more I thought about it the more I knew it wasn’t the best fit for me. I then thought about medical studies. Taking care of people, curing them, that sounded like a noble way. Yet another classic railway.
I graduated, went to faculty of medicine. 3 days and a course on thermodynamic, that’s all I needed to figure I wouldn’t be a doctor. FYI (and before you get a heart attack) in France universities are public and mostly free. I wasn’t loosing thousands of euros by stopping that early.
Then began my great introspective phase that led me to realize what were my true passions. I could make a career out of it. I left the railway. For some people, leaving the railway might be forced by a derailment. In my case, I’m glad it wasn’t.
Minecraft played a key role. It cultivated my creativity and stimulated my imagination during this crucial year. It triggered my passion for civic involvement and “design” even if I didn’t know it went under that name at the time.
That’s how, from scientific studies to arty ones, I found my way in the wild world of studies. To be fair, once you study design, you end up knowing that some fields are closely tied with sciences. I might have found the perfect combination of creative expression and concrete applications.
This switch did not begin with Minecraft but it provided the kick-off at the right moment in my life. I had this appetite for creation inside of me since childhood. It was just kinda buried after some long drilling years of school.
Design is all Around.
Design is one of those things you think you know before you do.
But you don’t.
Fancy expensive chair ? Luxurious car ? Architectural masterpiece ? That’s usually what people think first when you say the word “design”. Yeah that’s the upper layer, alright.
But design is so much more !
Design is everywhere around us. Every product, space, poster, digital service, has been designed, to some extent, to solve problems and serve a purpose. Coming to realise that was some kind of awakening for me.
Entering design school I was taught about user-centered design. It immediately felt right and logical to me, no questions asked. Without putting a label on it, it was in fact what I’ve been doing since I began Minecraft online. Playing with strangers and work toward a common goal leads to getting to know them and their needs.
Basic user research, that’s what it was. The perpetual quest for improvement.
As soon as you take this path, you need to be ready to receive critics. Might be hard at first but it’s a question of understanding that every point of view matters. Thus, getting the best from each. To effectively solve a problem you have to analyse it, understand it. You need every insight available, and most importantly you need to focus on the user’s needs. By not doing so, you might end with a solution that solves only a part of that problem, or none.
During my design courses I learned how to transpose this theory into results, and that’s what I needed. That was some actual problem solving methods. It takes time, energy. Yet, when it’s done in the proper way, it can change the world.
Maybe just a tiny bit of world, and on a very specific subject. But yet, that’s some noble achievement, right ?
In Minecraft multiplayer I’ve been introduced to user testing and UX design. As my studies went by, I used this training field to practice and progress. I enjoyed working on Minecraft projects as they allowed to prototype quickly and collaborate in real time. I was making the best out of the iterative process.
Building bridges and subway lines to solve transportation problems, residential buildings, stadiums, … With role-play, occasions to create were legion.
In this community, teamwork and knowledge sharing enabled some great collective development. We all had different backgrounds, and sometimes radically different ones. Engineering crackheads, amateur graphic designers, medical or law school students … Being in daily contact with them enriched me and cultivated my open mindedness.
My whole superior studies were influenced, among other things, by my gaming experience. I ended up studying a wide range of design fields. My school was really great for broadening horizons.
I focused on interaction, service and digital design. I got a BA, then headed for a MA in virtual reality and UX. In the end, I guess my profile has something original that reflects my personality, and I like that.
Playing is learning, and always will be.
So here I am today, on the threshold of graduation.
This will most likely be my final diploma before entering working life for good. Writing this article has been a good way for me to take a look back at these training years.
Most people don’t give much instructive credit to their gaming experiences. I believe it to be a mistake. I’ve been talking a lot about Minecraft here, but other games also shaped me. It doesn’t matter if you prefer strategy, sport, action or tycoons.
Playing is learning, and always will be. Your age doesn’t matter. As long as you put yourself in a receptive state of mind when playing, you are open to learning through it.
After playing on this server for 6 and a half years (time flies), I’m comforted in my thinking that the game is a pretext. What you build with blocks, what remains as lines of code in the game ends up being worthless. It is the community and the story you build together that matters the most.
I made some excellent friends through these years. A bunch of them became very close friends. These online adventures allowed me to meet wonderful people from various horizons. I would not be who I am today without them for they shaped me, for good. I feel lucky to now have friends all around France, and beyond that in Quebec, Belgium or Switzerland.
As a conclusion, I’d like to pull some kind of personal tip out of this. There’s nothing to loose in trying online gaming, but so much to gain. You wouldn’t know till you try !
Thanks for reading folks !
Special thanks to my friend Victor Millory for helping me gather these old screenshots.
Should you have any question about this article or just want to keep in touch, feel free to drop me a line through lucaspion.com ;)