I am on holiday, and yesterday traveled to the land of Minecraft for a number of hours. (Approximately the number where the marginal joy of playing Minecraft is equal to the marginal suffering of wondering if I should stop playing Minecraft.)
In case you haven’t played Minecraft, it goes like this: you appear in the middle of a vast natural landscape largely made of blocks of different substances, as well as some (distinctly blocky) non-block entities, such as pigs or levers. Each block is about half as big as you. As you walk, more world forms indefinitely at the horizon, in a variety of ‘biomes’—swooping mountains, flowered meadows, desert lakes, forested hills, apparently oceanic islands covered with giant mushrooms—each full of characteristic landforms and objects and plants and animals. You can ‘break’ stuff from the landscape and pick up the resulting object, keeping it in one of your thirty-six pockets, or something. You can transform stuff into a vast array of other stuff, by combining it in recipes or cooking it, for instance.
You might start a game by breaking the wood blocks from a tree with your hands, then you might transform some of it into a ‘crafting table’, allowing you to then transform more wood into a pickaxe. You might use that pickaxe to break rocks, which you can combine with some wood to make a better pickaxe. (You might also in the process be attacked by a hostile skeleton archer, and end up destroying him and picking up a bone and a couple of arrows). If there is a predefined point to the game, I am not aware of it (now that I think about it, I’m not sure how the makers could make something be the point by declaring it so, but I’ve also never seen how God could do that with the universe, and I will admit that someone appears to have at least convinced everyone that they have done it in chess).
Minecraft often seems to me to capture the essence of problems in my real life more than other games do. I have all these objects and space and I have to figure out how to usefully organize the objects in the space. I constantly think of things I should do and don’t know which ones to do first, or how to remember what they all are, and always feel like I should have a better mental schema for even knowing what the possible things are that I should maybe do. In the process of doing one thing, I am reminded of several other ones that I should imminently do. It is bed time way too often. I constantly forget to eat. If I’m doing a thing and its night time or I’m dying of starvation or something else to do comes up, it’s never clear if I should actually stop immediately. (When will I finish the thing? How will I remember?) Less importantly or intensely in real life than in Minecraft, I often suspect that I’ve been in this exact place many times before, and yet I can’t tell it from similar places. And I forget which direction is which every time I turn a corner.
Basically, I think Minecraft gets at something about organizing the information required to be an agent, given limited memory. As you walk around, you see a lot of things, and have a lot of options, such that at any given point, the relevant options are not just a set of salient paths ahead, as in a sophisticated choose your own adventure book. Most of the best courses of action are not physically represented in front of you, and can only be seen at all because of structures in your own mind constructed to keep them available.
For instance, standing in a meadow, the obvious options might be to walk toward a hill, or gather a mushroom, or eat a potato that I have, or to pick a flower. Or I might see a horse and want to ride it, but I can’t without a saddle, so it might be salient that I should try to get a saddle. (Though if this option only remains salient while I’m looking at the horse, shortly after I set off to find a saddle, I will probably get sidetracked).
Going further afield, I might also be remembering things I was recently sad that I didn’t have, so another salient option might be to get some wood by cutting down a tree, or to make myself a new shovel with the materials I have.
More complicatedly, I might be keeping a running list of all these kinds of things that I have seen, so that for instance if there was the option to dig coal from the cliff faces when I was near some cliffs, the option is now salient to search for cliffs and then dig coal, or if sometimes I want a boat, the option of building a boat is now salient.
More complicatedly still, I might have decided on some short term ‘goals’– I might have set my sights on finding a desert temple, and have already come this way looking, and may continue, somehow organizing my actions to gather eggs and wheat and dig ore and hide from monsters such as to support my higher goal. Maybe in my mental field of view, ‘find the desert pyramid’ is always the most salient option, and when something seems to impede it–e.g. getting chased by a giant spider, or lacking food–then averting the obstacle is added as another one.
I might also have some really large scale goals, or a comprehensive evaluation of all outcomes. For instance, maybe I’m ultimately trying to build a thriving and self-sustaining megacity, or trying to maximize the number of happy lives (of animals and Minecraft humans, who wander around little outcrops of houses making human noises at each other), in which case I might have a large set of subgoals, or if I was incomparably better at thinking than I am, an evaluation of every possible action—gather a mushroom, find a saddle, walk up the hill—in terms of its contribution to reaching the desired end state. As a non-superhuman, I might approximate this by doing one of the first things—just noticing things in front of me, noticing things I wanted recently, remembering some goals—and choosing between salient options based on my guess in the moment about the value of that thing to my final goal.
Anyway, somehow it is nicer to think about how to be an agent in Minecraft, and reassuring to me that these problems arise in such a simple world too, so probably aren’t related to deep and ineffable facts about my highly contingent circumstances (except ones regarding my brain, which is present in both my life and Minecraft).
Yesterday a thing that was salient to me was how you the continuing player in Minecraft have your life broken up into parts with much lost between them. If you get killed somehow, then you ‘respawn’ somewhere else, and all of your belongings are left where you died. But also, if you go away for months in the real world and then come back to your game, then while you have all of your possessions, you don’t have the memory of what you had done or what you were doing. (You don’t know that you had these four places you had set up huts with your belongings, or how to get to them or recognize them, and that you built towers to navigate with, and how to interpret them. You don’t remember that you left the stash of iron in the desert hut.) So you are often like a new person, inheriting the possessions of someone who died, or like a knowingly reincarnated person, losing your possessions and location but knowing the world you came from.
I started a new game two days ago, and early on in it I gathered up all sorts of good things. I found chests already full of iron and gold and magic swords and hoes and things I didn’t understand—any of which would take a long time to gather or build on my own. Naturally, I picked up everything I could carry. I took the best things from everywhere I went, sometimes leaving behind rocks or chunks of dirt I had no space for.
Then I died and lost everything. And born again where I first began, the chests were now empty, or offered chunks of dirt and the like. But I walked on further away and again collected more precious goods. But at last I was again killed, and again lost everything.
And when I came back, I started to think that I shouldn’t be taking everything out of these chests. What I took was not mine for long, whereas what I left behind I might still have.
I think the same might go for information organization. What I build up in my head is lost when I go away for too long, whereas what is represented in the world is there for me. So perhaps I should prepare for my future self as I would prepare for a guest I cared for—with good labels and signposts and with self-explanatory organization, not by coming up with a bunch of thoughts I hope they will memorize.
While naively, my own mind and backpack are the borders of what is ‘mine’, and everything is better ‘mine’ than not (from my point of view), in fact those things in my head and my backpack are the first to be lost, while riches in the world are there to be picked up by me next time around.
So perhaps the thing to do is build up the richness of the place itself, so that whoever is born there is in good hands. Not just to refrain from completely emptying chests, but to put out more chests with valuables I made in them. To play as the world, not as a tiny creature in a vast otherness. (To relinquish the notion that what I ‘have’ is what is in my pockets and my buildings, and to take up the whole world as part of my extended self—the best loot!)
Then it also seemed right to treat my not-far-future self prior to any kind of death in a similar way. To provide for her by making the place better, and leaving her good objects, good salient ideas, good signposting, rather than leaving stuff for her in my head. Because one thing that is annoying about playing Minecraft, and also about life, is that I have some complicated set of unwritten ideas about what is going on that I have to keep alive in my mind, and it effortful and aversive to maintain much of that. You wake up on some implausible mountain summit, and instead of being awed by the view and excited for the possibilities, you are encumberedly trying to remember what sequence of things you had decided to do yesterday. (This holidaying thing has been a nice break from this in real life, but it does mean more playing of Minecraft.)
This might all sound like pretty weird advice to pay attention to for the real world, where you aren’t forced to constantly die just when you are getting somewhere in life, and start again with nothing. But in a sense that is exactly what the real world is like, except that we choose to identify with and care about a single span between deaths. Which is admittedly more natural because the forgetting type deaths occur at the same time as the physical deaths, and because the forgetting deaths are more total (babies don’t have any knowledge of previous lives lived in the world, whereas I vaguely remember lots of things about playing Minecraft before, since the same real-world brain travels between Minecraft lives) and because some aspects of real-life death and birth of humans basically don’t happen in Minecraft (e.g. where you no longer know how to use your legs). But I think playing Minecraft more as the world spirit is helpful for a concrete sense of different ideas of personal identity and progress in the real world.
(Don’t take this as educated Minecraft strategy advice: I play to win at Minecraft like I play to win at taking a long walk, and I’m at about the level of ‘try to tame a horse’, whereas it seems pretty usual in the game to build electronic contraptions and to travel by portal to other dimensions. I also don’t kill animals unless they are attacking me, which is encumbering to many plans one could have. I am also purposely playing as an untethered wanderer rather than building a giant home complex, which would naturally involve improving the world outside yourself, though only the bit in your complex.)