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Minecraft is more than fun for me, it’s healthy

Sometimes, the simplest things are best

Minecraft - an interior shot of a stone lair. Image: Xbox Game Studios / Microsoft via Polygon
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

I deal with mental health issues, the lifelong kind that never really go away and flare up regardless of treatment. I also really like to play video games. Those two things tend to interact with one another.

That’s usually been a terrible correlation. In high school, I’d skip class to go home and search Felwood for herbs in World of Warcraft. More recently, I’ve learned to quiet the static in my brain by playing match-3 games on my phone, or burning time with a repetitive gameplay loop.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized I can use games to bolster my faltering mental health, not ignore it. Enter Minecraft. I spent several days creating a massive environment with its own detailed lore, waiting for my friends to stumble upon the nefarious hell secrets I had carved into the earth.

Minecraft - a player-made sign that warns intruders. “An area with torches  is a dangerous place.” Xbox Game Studios / Microsoft via Polygon

New kid on the block

I played Minecraft for a couple of weeks when I was a teenager. I joined a server my friend Matt was on, and started a humble mine. Eventually, I found enough valuable materials that Matt convinced me to make the multi-day journey to his home in the server’s capital city.

I made the trek. I rowed a boat up a flooded stone tunnel until the water dried up. Then, I took a series of dirt path roads, moving past abandoned mansions and fields of grain. Finally, after a couple of hours of real-world time and days of Minecraft time, I made it to the gleaming white walls of the server’s massive city. I found Matt’s house, dropped the materials off, turned around, and ... came face to face with a hissing Creeper. He saw me, exploded, and took out half of Matt’s house.

I respawned back in the far wilderness of my tiny stone house, logged off, and uninstalled the game. I had completed a full hero’s journey, as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t touch the game for nearly another decade.

But at the tail end of 2019, my mental health was in the toilet and idle hands were my enemy. If I wasn’t actively engaged in something, white noise enveloped my brain. I’m medicated and see professionals regularly; I’m functional, but left with anhedonia. Once the work day ends and my direction is gone, I shut off.

I felt incapable of doing something elaborate or involved during my fun hours. So, I decided to give the new, updated version of Minecraft a shot. I rented a realm, sent invites out to the gang, and spawned onto the shores of a new world.

As I looked at the blocky red and purple sunset and began my work of punching trees, I felt a sense of satisfaction. This was something I could handle.

Going underground

As the day ticked away, my crew of friends began to log on. We all built our own little starter homes out of wood and stone. We would hang out on Discord and chat; most of us focused on building our starter homes to be larger, more of an estate or a manor. Meanwhile, I kept digging.

I realized that my imagination had seized me, and I was playing Minecraft the way it was meant to be played: I was pursuing a goal to build something absolutely stupid but completely awesome. I had a vision in my mind of an empire beneath human civilization, a maze of stone and fire. I put lore-heavy signs on the wall, implying that they came from some kind of progenitor species to our blocky crew of civilians.

This was a story about an earth-digging people who eventually used the power of lava to fuel their civilization, ran out of lava, and then turned to hell energy. It’s Doom. I accidentally just rewrote Doom (2016), in Minecraft.

Minecraft - an interior shot of a player’s lair, full of furnaces and chests
It’s important to create a friendly front before getting real weird.
Xbox Game Studios / Microsoft via Polygon

Weirdly enough, the entire process was downright therapeutic. I was certainly spending a lot of time on Minecraft, but it was time in which I was present in my own body. I was appropriately social with my friends during a time where I could hardly reach out. At one point, during one of my rare trips to the surface, I was gathering food from my paltry garden. My buddy Jake walked by, along with his five-year-old son. We all said hello, congratulated each other’s outfits, and then moved on cheerfully. It was the perfect level of social interaction that I needed at the time. I have never felt more like an Animal Crossing villager in my life.

That low-level joy of creation and socialization ended up carrying forward. I found the energy to book and attend a weekly group therapy session. I picked up my tablet and started to doodle.

Whatever happened to the massive story I built via Minecraft level? It turned out that no one had discovered it. The rest of the group had tired of our initial starting point, built a highway over the ocean, and founded an entirely new capital city. The truth is, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need someone to read my story to validate it; the simple act of creation had been the catalyst I needed.

It was a wholesome, healing experience, and I’ve found myself increasingly enamored with the idea of a “get well” game — a game that nurtures the saddest parts of me. Minecraft is that game for me, and it’s had a surprisingly large part in turning my year around.

Also, I’ve found several stacks of iron, diamond, and coal, and I know my friends in their faraway city will need those crucial resources sooner rather than later. So, like a dragon, I crouch over my hoard and chuckle, “That’s what you get for abandoning me. You’ll have to return sooner or later.”

The next level of puzzles.

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