Minecraft Play: Phantasmagoria, Paracosm and Subversion

‘Children’s play fantasies are not meant only to replicate the world, nor to be only its therapy; they are meant to fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’ – Sutton-Smith, 2001

Sutton-Smith (2001) argues that rhetoric around play that positions ‘play as progress’ serves to undermine other more useful understandings of children’s play. One area he focuses on is that of child phantasmagoria, noting that in pretend play ‘there is often ludicrous distortion, exaggeration, and extravagance at times bordering on the bizarre.’ (Sutton-Smith, 2001)

There have been a large number of in-game incidents, events or episodes throughout the club’s duration that could be labelled as such: the horse funeral, throwing meat from a mountain, riding pigs, mass animal spawning, mass animal destruction… all examples that spring quickly to mind – play that Sutton-Smith refers to as ‘irrational, wild, dark, or deep play’.

Through this play, the children aren’t recreating their own lives as much as they are working to ‘fabricate another world that lives alongside the first one and carries on its own kind of life, a life often much more emotionally vivid than mundane reality.’ So whilst elements of the children’s Minecraft play sometimes seems to reflect the ‘real’ world,  it is not ‘based primarily on a representation of everyday real events….so much as it is based on a fantasy of emotional events.’ This focus on ’emotion’ feels important… 

Acknowledging the influence of affect on play, Sutton-Smith notes that ‘play is motivated primarily by feelings and not just by images of reality, and that children’s fantastic exaggerations are their storied interpretations of the world’. So the play is not just a result of the resources (material, virtual, immaterial) taken up by the children, but it also stems directly from the children’s feelings.

Sutton-Smith (2001) further suggests that solitary pursuit of video games can ‘lead to the standardisation of fantasy’ but can also ‘permit the promotion of internal (and therefore unpredictable) solitary fantasy’. Of course, in this context, the play in rarely solitary as it is carried out alongside others – meaning that the potentially internal solitary fantasy is made collective – a collective paracosm, made visible on screen – externalised – (and therefore standardised?) through Minecraft’s 8-bit aesthetics.

Sutton Smith also talks of ‘subversive play’, where the players ‘subvert the rhetorics of the adults by creating their own play as pragmatic rhetoric against those adults.’ Certainly, the children’s play in Minecraft includes a number of instances that could be considered subversive in a school context, and even in the more relaxed context of the club’s ‘create a community’ objective – the extent to which stealing each other’s horses or using TNT to destroy part of a hill actually contributes to a sense of community is up for debate.


Sutton-Smith, Brian (2001) ‘The Ambiguity of Play’, Harvard, London

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