Code, place, law…and Minecraft

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the everyday interaction of norms, laws and the physicality of the built environment that taken together create ‘places’. In one of my papers last year (Bennett 2011) I tried to map out the processes involved in creating and managing local territory at a pub. I found David Delaney’s (2010) The Spatial, the Legal and the Pragmatics of World Making: Nomospheric Investigations particularly helpful in my analysis. Delaney foregrounds pragmatic active production of local spatial order by social actors. He does not reject a role for abstract external structures, but calls for research that focuses on the mediation (or in actor network theory terms (Latour, 2007), the ‘translation’) of abstractions such as commands of law, into the lived, material world.

I’ve also been tracing those normative structures beyond the strict confines of bodies of formal law. This has led me to surveillance studies’ concern with the world-ordering power of technology and its data flows and coding of social and material life (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011). I’ve also been influenced by Lawrence Lessig’s (2006) ‘code is law’ dictum – that we should analyse the normative role of software (and hardware) in the ‘regulation’ of use of, and behaviour in, online worlds.

So, with those thoughts swirling around my head I’ve found myself this weekend watching my kids and the ways in which they create and interact within their own online worlds in Minecraft. Minecraft is a program that enables players to create, explore, lay claim to, build and govern their own virtual worlds. And most significantly, each player can – by setting up a server and posting its IP address upon online forums – invite other players into the unique world that they have created. Thus, privately created and nurtured worlds can be made ‘open access’ to whoever wishes to come and visit them.

Minecraft’s software architecture is deeply rooted in a hacker ethos. Whilst the basic (so-called by players) ‘vanilla’ version of the Minecraft program has to be purchased from the Swedish developers, Mojang (five million downloads to date), everything else that you might wish to do to modify (mod) the program and to enhance or distort the playing experience is available as free peer-produced shareware via enthusiast forums.

Watching my kids ‘travel’ to someone else’s Minecraft world, enter and explore it, make friends (or enemies), pick up the tone of that world and decide whether to stay or to hop onward to somewhere else is fascinating. Fascinating as a ‘natural experiment’ in my search to witness the step by step ways in which normative worlds are formed through a combination of the active, pragmatic choice by social actors (after Delaney), the practice structuring power of software architecture (after Lessig)   and – importantly – something that bridges the ‘structural’ and the ‘pragmatic’: the  selection and deployment of elements of that code-architecture through world-makers’ active choices about what they want for their world AND what they want their visitors’ experience to be.

Many of the available mods focus upon issues of access and behavioural control of visitors to the hosts’ worlds. Vanilla minecraft software provides little in the way of (what minecrafters call) ‘anti-grief’ protection. Running a world on a vanilla minecraft server program will leave that world (and the buildings, artefacts and host’s creatures within it) exposed to cyber-vandalism, or ‘griefing’ as it is known. Not all roaming minecrafters will respect the property of those whose worlds they visit – much like Viking raiders.

Listening to my kids’ anxieties about the potential  griefing of their putative worlds brings to my mind the anxiety of a monk, shuddering as he looks back at the  terror of an earlier Viking raid upon Lindisfarne, as reported in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:

“…dire portents appeared over Northumbria…immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed and a little after that, on the 8th of June [793 AD], the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne…” (quoted in Schama 2000, 54).

Minecraft worlds are vulnerable to those who get their kicks from destruction (though this fraternity do seem a minority). Thus the player forums bristle with home brewed mods aimed at giving the world-creator ‘better than vanilla’ protection over their world.

Whilst Minecraft is in many ways the epitome of peer produced, collaborative creation – a testimony to what Raymond (1999) has characterised as a ‘bazaar’ rather than ‘cathedral’ model of software development –  the demand for these mods suggests a certain lack of faith in utopian rule-less ‘commons’ in the realm of play. Most world makers seem to regard their worlds as theirs, to be used by the community in accordance with the way they, as world author, intended. Worlds thrive (or at least survive) because they have an owner looking out for them and actively controlling the normative environment through their moderation of behaviour of the denizens of that world.  It should be noted that some Minecraft worlds (or portions of worlds) are specifically designed to be destructive battlegrounds between warring factions – but the point here is that the warring (and its normative order, rules of combat and destruction etc) are preordained by the world maker, they arise because they are permitted.

Here we see world-controlling behaviour that echoes Hardin’s (1968) ‘tragedy of the commons’ thesis. Thus mods are used to designate ‘safezones’ (or to designate disorder to assigned ‘outlands’) rendering the assets within them unchangeable by visitors and in effect creating and protecting them as ‘private’ property. Other adjustments remove particular world-changing abilities from visitors (perhaps until they have earned the world-owner’s trust and greater ‘physical’ privileges can then be bestowed). My kids spend ages (or rather, as long as we will let them) trying to court the trust of the world owners they visit, and thereby be awarded these privileges.

The mod that has drawn my attention most this weekend has been a jail plug-in. The world owner can build a jailhouse and program his world so that he can teleport visitors there who do not behave in the way that he wants for his world. Once there the prisoners cannot get out until they have served their jail term – and the world owner can set a tariff for a list of infractions. The software jailer then automatically administers the punishment. The inmate either sits-out his punishment, incapable of game participation in that world until released, or chooses self-exile by leaving the world and triggering an automatic ban from returning.

This is all heady stuff – pre-teens creating and calibrating a criminal justice system with the press of a few keys. Such rule making in play is nothing new, and lies at the core of many playground and board games. But what is perhaps different is the extent to which this control is both dynamic (in the sense of being manipulated over-time in response to experience and user-interactions: directly ruling rather than just legislating) and ‘open’ in the sense that the permutations of control configurations are limitless, there are no overriding conventions on what level of creative/destructive or other civil liberties a visitor should expect upon arrival in any particular world. In short, each world is the personal fiefdom of its creator, and the physical arrangement of each world’s built environment is also unique, possibly even Heterotopian (Foucault, 1967).

The ‘open-source’ nature of Minecraft, and its core mission of world building and world exploring, poses some pretty complex decision making for kids. To make and own a world gives a sense of pride. To see kids pick up the pieces after a ‘griefing’ attack is to see them grappling – albeit in virtual life – with a pretty thorny set of issues around ownership, trust and cooperation.

Through Minecraft and its online worldmaking we are reminded that exploration, homesteading, norm-setting, sanction imposing, negotiation, manipulating codes and architecture (of both software and built environment) are all heady issues for humans whether in virtual or real world environments.

Bennett, L. (2011) ‘A pub, a field and some signs – a case study on the pragmatics of proprietorship and legal cognition’ a paper presented at COBRA 2011 – Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Research Conference, Manchester, UK, 12-13 September 2011. Available at:

Delaney, D. (2010) The spatial, the legal and the pragmatics of world making: nomospheric investigations, Routledge, London.

Foucault, M. (1967) ‘Of other spaces: utopias and heterotopias’ in, Lynch, N. (ed) (1997) Rethinking architecture, Routledge, London.

Hardin, G. (1968) ‘The tragedy of the commons’, Science, 162 (3859): 1243–1248.

Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M. (2011) Code/space: software and everyday life, MIT Press, London

Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the social – an introduction to actor-network-theory, OUP, Oxford.

Lessig, L. (2006) Code: version 2.0, Basic Books, New York.

Raymond, E.S. (2001) The Cathedral & the bazaar, musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary, O’Reilly Books, Sebastopol, CA

Schama, S. (2000) A history of Britain, 3000BC – AD1603, BBC Books, London.

Minecraft sites – Mojang’s minecraft site – offical Mojang forum – peer forum and mod sources  – peer produced Minecraft server mods


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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