Why selling out is fandom’s most dangerous game

In hindsight, it seemed all but inevitable that Mojang, creator of the wildly popular game Minecraft, would eventually sell itself to a larger company. Mojang is a relatively small gaming studio with few other flagship products, and Minecraft is a titan of culture expanding itself well beyond its indie roots into a merchandising empire and even a coming Hollywood blockbuster.

It makes even more sense for Microsoft to swoop in for the purchase as the software company has worked closely with Mojang since an Xbox version of Minecraft was released back in 2012. While Microsoft has often been seen as a step behind the inner gaming sanctum, it has an ever-growing infrastructure to promote Minecraft both as a product and as a community.

But nevertheless, fans of the sandbox game have expressed concern that their new corporate overlords may damage their baby, unalterably ruining all the fun they’ve been having under the laissez faire governance of creator Markus “Notch” Persson. This might sound familiar: Microsoft’s purchase mirrors similar moves by Amazon and Facebook to buy streaming site Twitch and VR headset manufacturer Oculus, respectively.

Fanboys should rejoice in the fact that their obsessions are so attractive to larger companies. In fact, it’s time for gamers to realize the value they bring to these ventures. They’ve helped to create something more than a game, something bigger social media companies can only hope for: An engaging, interactive experience that is equal parts consumption and creation.

Minecraft, Twitch, and Oculus are known less for their technology and more so for the communities which have grown around them. Twitch grew rather organically out of the chaos of Justin.tv, fostering a sense of community second to none amongst online streamers. This year’s Twitch Plays Pokemon—which engaged with over 1.8 million users—is nearly the perfect metaphor for the sort of user involvement tech companies drool over.

The Oculus Rift headset may be the most popular console not yet on the market, with fans and engineers alike crafting immersive experience after immersive experience for a product still largely in beta. Through cheaply available modeling engines like Outera, Oculus’ distribution of over 85,000 developer’s kits, and a devoted fanbase, Oculus is allowing users themselves to craft what the product can be.

Amazon, Facebook, and now Microsoft know these factors and have all promised to offer the same liberty that has allowed these communities to expand. “We are going to maintain Minecraft and its community in all the ways people love today,” said Xbox head Phil Spencer in an official statement, “with a commitment to nurture and grow it long into the future.” Amazon and Facebook have offered similar visions for their respective acquisitions.

However, fans will still shudder at the mention of Silicon Valley’s giants tinkering with their toys, afraid they may be stripped of the libertine state they’ve grown to love.

While Minecraft, Twitch, and Oculus are very different from one another, they share a sensibility that approaches itself as less a money-making venture and more of a collective. All three urge their communities to be more creative than consumptive. Twitch enables any user to broadcast and share their gaming exploits, Oculus has largely been an open-source project for studios and armchair programmers alike, and Minecraft sports possibly the largest, most interconnected community in gaming today, with its 100 million downloads and a massive ecosphere of YouTubers, livestreamers, and modders.

Whether the members of these communities like it or not, their devoted participation creates value. And unlike a social media site like Facebook or Twitter, splitting the difference between users and engagement is unnecessary with such gaming communities.

Much of the energy spent by a social media company is attempting to get users to actively participate with user content (known as “engagement”). This is why Twitter has been experimenting with News Feed-esque curated feeds. So when a small, profitable company like Twitch says its biggest issue is its user base is too engaged for them to sustain a profit, it’s no wonder they’d be the topic of a bidding war between two giants like Amazon and Google.

It’s this eagerness to engage that has raised communities like Minecraft’s from simple video game forums into a massive online architecture. Very few online entities are merely looking for their users to consume; they need them to actively participate in their business model. For Minecraft and Twitch especially, active participation is not only par for the course—it’s the entire draw.

This interactivity between product and consumer lends these fanbases immense power. If Microsoft finds a way to ruin Minecraft (with in-game purchases, for example) and fans become less eager to engage with the product, they’ve functionally ruined it. Because the fans and the community they foster is a functional part of the product, they hold significantly more sway than more casual, fickle gaming communities such as those surrounding Call of Duty.

And it is this devotion that, under the wings of their new corporate owners, will keep such communities safe. Microsoft and Amazon can only dream of having the same levels of user engagement earned by their new purchases, but Facebook is the exception that proves the rule.

Whereas Amazon and Microsoft want to bring their infrastructure to the growing communities of Twitch and Minecraft, Facebook wants to bring the technology of VR into their own construct, possibly endangering the future of Oculus for the community that has nurtured it (as I’ve written before). Oculus, like Twitch and Minecraft, is a gamer-born product and could easily fail if forced into the mainstream before it’s allowed to gestate amongst its original fans, as Mark Zuckerberg has indicated he may do. Unlike Amazon or Microsoft attempting to lend the community the space it needs to grow, Facebook has seemingly captured Oculus for its own purposes.

Indeed, infrastructure is what has driven Oculus, Minecraft, and Twitch to pursue bigger partnerships. While niche communities such as these are easy to manage in the early stages, growing concerns about traffic, security, and licensing issues means many programmer-led firms might find themselves outpaced by their own creations.

That difficult load can be made even more difficult when your community has a distinct cult of personality, as Notch wrote on his personal website this week. “I’ve become a symbol,” he writes. “I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.”

Minecraft is a cultural force, as iconic as any Nintendo intellectual property, and has become so in a short four years. That speaks well for the community that helped it grow, but that same community must realize when a bigger, more experienced hand is necessary. Minecraft doesn’t need a new business model, a new marketing campaign, or really any distinct design changes at all. Microsoft knows this or they wouldn’t have bought the game in the first place.

When your nerdy obsession is bought by a giant of industry—a company your aunt could name—it can often feel alienating. Some online communities are so fulfilling because they seem small, subversive, and unencumbered by the trappings of popularity. But when that community begins to attract others who want exactly what you want, it’s because of your devotion and your affection.

Communities like Minecraft are made great by their users, which is why they might become so alluring to a company like Microsoft. They aren’t just buying copyrights and merchandising deals. They’re buying your attention, your focus, and your love.

Photo via kenming_wang/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.