Minecraft is a gigantic playground. Around 150 million users worldwide have bought the game. At first glance, Minecraft looks like virtual Lego, but it can do much more. It is an open system that players can help shape, develop, or misuse. They can create servers on which they operate their own version autonomously. Virtual life takes place on more than 400,000 such servers. The players, whose average age is estimated to be under 15, run shops, fight each other with swords, and blow up houses of their competitors with dynamite. But they also design impressive buildings and develop solutions to complex problems at high speed with like-minded people.
All this happens location-independent in the virtual Minecraft worlds on different Minecraft servers. Unlike in most companies, a networked collaboration between teams is already part of everyday life there. Therefore, classical organizations can learn from the system, which also makes sense because the “Minecraft generation” (»New York Times«) will enter the world of work in about ten years. If you now understand how Minecraft works, you may get an idea of how to organize the future.
Because: “In a complex, uncertain, and ever-changing world, it is better to playfully look for solutions to questions that allow more than one answer,” writes designer and author Bruce Nussbaum in his book “Creative Intelligence”.
If you enter the colorful world of the construction game, you will find mainly cuboids. These embody different raw materials, such as wood, stone, iron, or glass, and are patterned accordingly. Of particular importance is the so-called Redstone block, which can emit signals and makes automated work possible. If you want to construct something, you have to dismantle cuboids and process them according to defined rules. That’s at least true for the survival mode that most people use. At this level, it’s all about survival. A certain action is not predetermined, the players have to set their own goals.
Users are even freer in creative mode: they cannot be harmed in this game variant and have an infinite number of resources available to become creative. Everyone decides for themselves what they want to do. There are no obligations, there are only possibilities.
What do the players make of it? How does their self-organization work? And what can companies learn from this?
1. Don’t be yourself
Minecraft isn’t about being authentic, it’s about playing a role. Players give themselves fantasy names and are represented by an avatar whose external appearance they can influence, but which will never look like them due to its pixelation alone. Minecraft is about staging. Many players are constantly changing roles depending on where they are.
One of the first to point out the value of this competence was the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman with his classic “We all play theater”. Those who can take on different roles are more versatile than someone who only rigidly fills a single position. In today’s day-to-day work, it can be helpful to be able to act as an intern in one team, as an expert in another, and as a manager in a third. More agile employees enable more agile organizations.
In Minecraft, another interesting phenomenon can be observed: Players use their respective avatars as protection. That’s probably why they’re willing to try things out. If something doesn’t work, it’s not them who fail, but their representative. They fill the role they are playing, no more and no less. In this way, they can experiment and take risks without having to fear immediate consequences. Such a self-image promotes creativity.
2. Let your environment do your job
Today, not only do people communicate with people, people also communicate with computers and computers with computers. This is an important factor in Minecraft: smart items intervene in the action, and players have to take them into account and can use them for their purposes. For example, there are autonomous avatars that give tips and assistance. The Minecraft environment can monitor players’ interaction with each other and with the blocks, and block destructive users who break rules. This is how intelligent things take over management tasks.
This is also increasingly happening in the real world. Bots are already connecting employees from different departments in virtual work environments. With the Internet of Things, our environment as a whole is becoming smarter. In ten years’ time, future career starters may increasingly become arrangers in an increasingly automated working environment. Then they benefit from what they learned in Minecraft.
3. Interpret the work on the game around
In Minecraft, people create something without having to, probably even without even realizing it. Anyone who looks at the goings-on from the outside wonders why, for example, they construct complex factories or rehearse strange practices. However, those who participate themselves no longer ask themselves this question: The game is enough for itself. Experimenting together ideally leads to a flow that makes you forget everything else.
The philosopher and journalist Florian Rötzer distinguishes in his book “Is Life a Game?” First-order games and second-order games. First-order games are recognized as such at all times, second-order games are not. In this way, what happens every day in companies and other organizations can also be read as a game.
In an ideal economic world, work would be a playful, light-footed process where no one thinks about why they do what they do. In reality, organizations are still arenas of unproductive power games. The easiest way to change this is in small autonomous teams that can test playful principles in a secure environment.
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4. Form voltage pairs
Companies and their employees are confronted with contradictory requirements: the new should be compatible with the old, products should appear individual on the one hand, but on the other hand should be produced in a standardized way. In a computer game, such paradoxes can be avoided – interestingly, Minecraft deliberately works with them. Many groups play in survival mode, where resources are limited and players are mortal. For example, if you want to erect a building, you first have to laboriously collect and process materials. This would also be easier: In creative mode, players can access raw materials indefinitely and have no other restrictions.
Instead of opting for one mode, the servers often offer different worlds. Players can choose between abundance and scarcity, cooperation and competition, routine and variety
Classical organizations often try not to address or ignore contradictions as far as possible – but of course, this does not eliminate them. An alternative is an open approach to such tensions so that productive friction arises.
5. Leave spaces
Minecraft is successful because it is unfinished. Users can redesign and misuse the game almost at will. Hacking is desired, anyone can acquire the game and try to push the boundaries of the system. This also attracts vandals, who are called “griefers” in the scene because they destroy the buildings of their fellow players or otherwise terrorize them – against which they in turn defend themselves.
Minecraft, however, thrives on constructive appropriation. When a new version is released, it almost always has programming errors at the beginning. There are groups of players who specialize in finding these bugs and using them for their own purposes. For example, the so-called iron golem farm was created, which produces iron bars fully automatically. Iron golems are basically friendly, somewhat silty creatures with long arms that patrol villages to protect the inhabitants from monsters. Usually, players first have to kill such a golem in order for it to throw off the iron. This is very time-consuming, the iron golem farm works much more efficiently. Without the flaw in the program – and players who used it constructively – such a farm would not have been possible.
Applied to the reality of the company, this would mean leaving gaps in order to release the creative potential of the employees and thus come up with something unpredictable. In uncertain times, organizations need the courage to just let things happen.
6. Manage the present
In Minecraft there are no goals, the servers do not work with visions, guardrails, or the Polarstern. They only offer a large playground on which new things can be created. While leaders are almost always eager to set a common direction, Minecraft shows the management of opportunities.
This works because the servers are embedded in a larger ecosystem of players, administrators, developers, and video producers. Almost every publicly operated server has a wiki where the rules are written, in external forums, players exchange new features, and in Youtube videos, players show exciting battles, introduce new designs and develop unprecedented formats. There is now also a novel about the adventures of the Youtuber Paluten in Minecraft.
So the point of Minecraft is to belong to a larger group of interests and to be part of the exciting culture. The sociologist Dirk Baecker writes in his “Studies on the Next Society” that motivation in this society consists in “becoming and remaining a member of a network”.
Minecraft allows its users to make valuable connections with others. That should be the goal of modern management.