Minecraft vs. the Primer

Minecraft is an Enabling environment: lots of people can make enormous 3D structures in it, and they wouldn’t be able to do that otherwise. Most games aren’t enabling environments, so it’s instructive to compare Minecraft to The Diamond Age’s Primer, which also aspires to enable through a game-like environment. Can we learn anything from one which could improve the other?

Minecraft > Primer

Minecraft expands players’ capacity for 3D modeling through novel representation design (voxel editing) and social learning (endless Youtube videos, multiplayer). The Primer enables through Cognitive scaffolding and Enacted experience.

An expert 3D modeler using Minecraft might actually find that the voxel representation gives them useful new perspectives, while The Primer doesn’t make experts better at anything.

Minecraft’s activities have intrinsically meaningful purpose for lots of people: creative expression, aesthetic experience, etc. Meanwhile, The Primer’s activities are only intrinsically meaningful to Nell because her life is impoverished.

Minecraft has no hidden agenda; its authors are interested in play and world-building. There’s nothing cynical or patronizing about it. The Primer’s indoctrinary agenda sometimes makes its activities feel condescending. Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations

Minecraft’s not trying to “teach.” Its design is about “Find the fun”. The Primer is fundamentally an educational game, and Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments.

Primer > Minecraft

Because Minecraft’s world is procedurally generated and involves little narrative, it’s not really a medium of communication. The Primer’s carefully-designed enacted experiences are a case study in how Enacted experiences amplify the power of narrative.

Minecraft expands players’ capacity for 3D modeling, but its tools aren’t meant for complex real-world modeling tasks. It’s not interested in helping players transition to some other, more powerful environment; it doesn’t really have a serious external aspiration in mind. By contrast, the Primer has very serious aspirations, and The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life.

See also


Stephenson, N. (2003). The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (Reprint edition). Spectra.

Last updated 2023-07-13.