Minecraft Challenge: Farm and Barn, Part 1

A guide for parents to what’s so great about Minecraft, as told through a series of building challenges within the game

So yes, I promise, more essays about actual coding topics will be coming here soon, especially after the new year when I embark seriously for the first time on a solid eight hours a day of coding in my life, whether or not I have a paying job by then. But this happens to be at least somewhat tangentially related, so I thought I’d post these reports here instead of my personal website where I had first been planning.

One of the areas of the tech industry I’m thinking about getting involved in is videogame development, and in fact right now I’m going through the 200-part online Udemy class on the Unity game-making software and C# programming (recently on super-sale at Boing Boing for only $30, down from its usual $300); which is ironic in my case, because I’ve never been much of a console fan (I’m not much into realistically violent games, and those 12-button controllers confuse the hell out of me), so I actually haven’t actively played videogames on a regular basis ever since I was a teenager in the early 1980s, and my daily habit consisted of things like Galaga and Zaxxon and Tempest. I’ve missed an entire generation of videogame development and all the advances that have been made, all the way from Doom to Grand Theft Auto; and so part of my onus these days is to not just learn programming software but also get a little more ingratiated into the community itself, and to understand what hardcore gamers really want, what kinds of capabilities there actually are, etc.

Not by coincidence, this has coincided with my relatively recent experiences with befriending a couple of pre-teen twin brothers in Chicago, who are the sons of a single-mother longtime friend of mine; I’ve actually been hanging out with them since 2008, but it’s only in the last several years that their mom has started letting them play videogames, so I’ve been getting my fill of both console games (Mario Kart, Lego Lord of the Rings, Super Smash Brothers, etc), laptop games (FIFA Soccer, etc), and the little mobile games they’re so addicted to and that drive me absolutely batty (things like Angry Birds, Crossy Road, Plants vs. Zombies, Temple Run, Subway Surf, White Tiles — ugh, the list just goes on and on, and I’m of course obliged to keep room on my iPhone for them all, so they can play them anytime we’re hanging out).

The big one, though, that all three of us have been obsessively playing for about a year and a half now, is the juggernaut Minecraft, because it’s just so fascinating — from the procedurally generated universes to the ingenious crafting and smelting process, the undefined gameplay and all the rest. In fact, on top of the persistent online “realm” that the boys and I have been maintaining nonstop for 18 months now, I’ve gotten into the habit of playing little local single-player games as a way of winding down at the end of the day, instead of my hour of The Simpsons after dinner or whatever little things I used to do like that in the past; and recently I’ve been giving myself little construction mini-challenges for each new short-term game I play, where the goal is not necessarily some high kill ratio but to build something very specific within the universe, before moving on to another blank world and a different little thing to build.

I thought that screenshots of this process would give me an excuse to talk about Minecraft in depth, not from a geek-tech standpoint but rather a middle-aged sociological one, to sort of give a sense to other middle-agers around kids out there why this is such a remarkable and family-friendly game that you should be playing if you’re not already. There’s a lot that goes into explaining how Minecraft works, which is one of the fun things about the game, that it’s a surprisingly complex thing that’s not easily explained to others, so I’ll just be tackling a little about the game at a time as I post these reports over the next coming months.

First challenge — build a traditional farm and a red barn to go with it, out on a plains biome with interesting views, traditionally one of the first things that many Minecraft players create since it sets up a self-sustaining system for feeding yourself and generating the kinds of raw resources you need for more complex things (like chicken feathers for arrows, leather for books, etc). And a rule for myself, that I would just stick at first with whatever random location Minecraft throws me into when I first “spawn,” build a little temporary shelter, then go hiking around for awhile and deliberately pick a good location to build my permanent settlement.

As you can see, my spawn turned out to be quite unusual — not only was I “born” on a treeless island, rare in this game, but I spawned right next to an automatically generated village, a huge advantage that typically you can only find after several weeks of concentrated scouting and mapping. (And in fact it was even rarer than this — I spawned next to a mini-village consisting of only one building and one farm plot, which you almost never see.) This is easily the biggest and most mind-blowing reason to even play Minecraft, is the flawless “procedurally generated universes” that the game creates; for those who don’t know, it’s a completely different three-billion-block-long universe that is generated each and every single time someone plays a new game, determined by a series of algorithms and mathematical rules that were devised by the game’s creator, Markus Persson, who is now a multi-billionare after selling the game to Microsoft earlier this year. In fact, for the entire first year that Minecraft existed, there was no gameplay at all, existing solely as a workshop showcase for Persson’s work in procedural generation, a huge early high point in this tech’s development which you’re just now seeing the second generation of expansion of, through such mind-boggling games as No Man’s Sky and others. It’s something for game developers to really contemplate, the fact that Persson spent an entire year doing nothing but building the environment for his game, long before thinking of anything to actually do within it, and it continues to be the singlemost fascinating thing about Minecraft from an adult’s mindset.

These shots are from after I had already done a little mining, which we’ll look at in detail in another challenge; as you can see, I have enough iron by this point to craft me some shears, which when I use on a sheep (by right-clicking on it while I hold the shears in my hand), produces from one to three blocks of wool that I can put in my inventory, and later use to build a bed, or dye using crushed flowers and include in decorative construction. Again, we’ll get into all of this in another essay, but the fundamental thing that lies beneath all gameplay in Minecraft is that every single element you see is something you can interact with, by digging up, breaking, melting or placing, and that all these resources can be combined in multiple ways and patterns within the “crafting table” that every player has, to make everything from the weapons you use to the food you eat, the construction material for your house, the steel for your railroad, and a lot more.

So, after building up enough items to safely do a little “Lewis & Clarking” (my expression for one of my favorite things to do in Minecraft, simply walk around for days at a time looking at interesting things), it was time to go find my permanent home; and here’s what I ended up choosing, a nice piece of land with a large pasture area (and even naturally spawning horses to boot, a fairly rare occurrence), that unusually is right on a “four corners” type boundary with a swamp, a mountain range, and a desert.

And once I picked a spot, the first thing I did was build a little lighted obelisk about the height of my eventual barn, so that I could go wandering around in my area and see what the view of it will eventually look like from various boundary-defining edges. (For what it’s worth, the site of the barn is on the easternmost edge of an extra-large prairie area, just in case I eventually feel like expanding my estate into a large horse ranch; that’s what you’re seeing in this last photo above, is the westernmost edge of the pasture and what the far-away obelisk looks like from there.) This gets into what I mentioned before, which is very easily the second most important thing about Minecraft, is that there is no pre-defined “way to play the game” there, no goals or story arcs or narrative at all, no quests or treasures or kidnapped princesses to save. There is simply the land, your hands, and the magical patterns that go into crafting items; and if you’re eleven years old like my young friends and want to spend most of your time in a first-person shooter war with the land’s various monsters (such as zombies, spiders, “creepers” and more), this is exactly what you can do, while if you’re their 45-year-old parent and instead want to spend your time building the perfect, most efficient farm ever made, this is exactly what you can do. This is what’s made the game so insanely popular with families, because it’s truly a family-friendly game, where each member of that family can concentrate on a different type of gameplay yet all your efforts compliment and help the others. (The boys bring me back zombie bones, which I can grind up into magical fertilizer for my crops; then I can give them cooked dishes so they can get back to fighting even faster.)

Okay, spot chosen; so now what? Well, now I need to start putting the resources together to make the large construction project I have in mind. The skeleton and floors of my barn will be made of wood, for example, so I need a grove of trees that I can keep planting and cutting down, planting and cutting down; and the red walls of the barn can only be made by dying some wool using crushed red flowers, so I need a stable of sheep too. Oh, but I want to eventually build super-strong enchanted weapons to make this process easier; so I need to build an enchantment room, which among other things means I need lots of bookshelves, and I need three books to craft each block of shelving I make, and I need a piece of leather for each book, which means I need a stable full of cows too. But the only way to breed sheep and cows is to feed them wheat, so I need a field full of wheat seeds growing as well; and then I need a fence around that field so that wandering animals don’t eat all my crops, which means I need even more wood; and of course books need pages, and you make paper from sugar canes, and sugar canes will only grow right next to a water source, so you need a planting of that as well. And of course for all of these things (and the tools I use to harvest them) I need such underground resources as stone, coal, iron, gold, diamonds and more; so I need to start a mine, and I need an enclosure around that mine so that monsters don’t wander in and kill me, which nicely serves as a temporary home for me during construction as well. (And I could go on and on even more if I wanted; note, for example, that my temporary home has glass windows, which means I need sand to smelt and a furnace in which to smelt it. We’ll be getting to all these details over the coming weeks.)

Worth noting: In other builds you will see me construct much more intricate stables for the livestock, which is something about Minecraft I really enjoy, resource management and creative ways to make that process more and more efficient. But since my goal here is to be building as quickly as possible, in this case I simply built a fence around a low spot and lured a bunch of animals down the hillsides using wheat I held in my hands (the way in Minecraft to get animals to follow you, whether that’s wheat and cows, carrots and pigs, fish and ocelots, etc). They can all live in that big pen together with no problems, and I can just go in there every few days and breed and slaughter, breed and slaughter; but there are tidier and more creative ways to do this, which you’ll be seeing in future builds.

And then finally for now, a tree grove, not strictly necessary at all (if there’s one thing Minecraft has an abundance of, that’s trees, trees, everywhere you look), but that I do anyway because it’s easier to chop them down when they’re all in a nice straight line like that, plus I in particular like the idea of preserving the natural state of the landscape surrounding me, especially since a sapling will grow into a full tree in just a real-time period of about an hour (or about three “days” and “nights” within Minecraft; each last ten minutes of real time, with night being the only time that monsters can appear aboveground). In this case I’m also taking advantage of one of Minecraft’s procedural rules, which expert players will come to learn and love as they become more and more regular players; namely, all natural items will grow about twice as fast if there’s a strong light source next to them, which is why I’ve whipped up a bunch of torches (by crafting together coal and sticks) and have planted one in front of each tree sapling.

Tomorrow, the second half of this challenge, where I build the actual barn. (UPDATE: That’s now live, which you can read through this above link.) Thanks for your indulgence with these at my so-called “coding” blog, and I’ll talk with you again then.