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Democracy & Minecraft
Teaching your eight-year-old what's what.
Remember "kids' voting" in elementary school, or whatever they called it? Your parents would take you along to your household's designated polling place on Election Day and you'd fill out a mock ballot and drop it in a different box from the grown-ups, and this was somehow supposed to make you a better citizen?
Yeah, it doesn't strike me as a very effective way to teach civics to young Americans, either. In a healthy system, the most impact an election should have on elementary-age youth is how grumpy or cheery their parents are the next day. You should not be thinking about domestic or foreign policy when you can't even get a learner's permit. That's not how to give future voters a proper sense of how it feels to participate in democracy.
Fortunately, there's a better way to teach kids what voting is all about, and it comes from our friends in Sweden.
Mojang is the developer of Minecraft. Despite looking like a first-person LEGO game run on the original Doom engine, Minecraft has sold more copies than any other video game on the planet (with the possible exception of Tetris... but only because Tetris had a two-decade head start). They have their own tradition of democracy. Starting in 2017, fans were invited to vote on a new "mob" to be added to the game. (A "mob" is a "living" entity the player might encounter in the game, whether passive wildlife such as pigs and cattle, or hostile monsters such as zombies, skeleton archers, and the infamous Creeper.) They were given four choices in that inaugural year; three in subsequent years.
In that first vote, the "Monster of the Night Skies", (aka the Phantom), emerged victorious. Since then, it has become an annual tradition. In 2018 and 2019, the vote was on biome updates. (The winners were taiga and mountains, respectively.) in 2020 and 2021, the "Glow Squid" and "Allay" mobs were elected as new mobs. This year's vote is today! This year's candidates: the dinosaur-like "Sniffer," the goblinesque "Rascal," and the diminuitive "Tuff Golem."
These votes are an excellent way to introduce your Minecraft-loving child to what it's really like to participate in a democracy. Here's why:
1. What You See Is Not What You Get
The first vote remains contentious among Minecraft fans to this day. All the voters had to go on were some static black-and-white sketches and a brief verbal description of how each mob would behave in the game.
Based on only this, players were asked to choose which of the four would be coded and programmed into the game, while the other three concepts would be "gone forever."
The winner of the 2017 poll was the "Phantom," a semi-skeletal flying manta-ray-like monster that harasses players who dare to go without sleeping for several (in-game) days in a row. Many players found the Phantom more of an annoyance than an enhancement to the game. In hindsight, it felt less like they had "won" than that they had merely Chosen the Form of the Destructor.
Mojang improved in subsequent years, for example, by using animated videos to provide a better visual representation of what each candidate concept represented. Yet the fact remains that what the voter expects sometimes differs significantly from what the winner delivers. Welcome to democracy, eight-year-olds!
2. The Majority Will Be Unhappy
"Majority rule" is a phrase closely linked with democracy, but it rarely feels like it. By the time the general election rolls around, odds are your favorite primary candidate got eliminated in the Iowa caucus six months ago, then gave all their delegates to the stuffed shirt who's been in Congress for decades but hasn't accomplished squat.
Mojang uses runoff voting to soften the sting of defeat. In each round of voting, the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated, and then voters re-vote on the survivors. This is close to how Georgia's fall Senate election will work, or how Alaska's at-large House district will vote. (The difference in Alaska is that voters rank all choices at once, so the runoff round is "instant".) This is surely better than simply having one poll between three options, where one candidate could win with only 34% of the vote (leaving 66% of the electorate out in the cold).
Yet, even with a runoff system that forces some kind of majority verdict, the fact remains that you probably won't get your first choice. In the final vote, you'll just have to settle for the option you hate least and hope for the best.
3. It's Better To Vote For The Lesser Evil Than The Greater Good
The 2020 mob vote stood out from the others because all of its candidates had appeared in Minecraft spinoff games: the "Moobloom," a passive cow-like creature from Minecraft Earth (but yellow and sprouting tulips from its back for some reason); the "Iceologer," an evil ice wizard from Minecraft Dungeons; and the eventual winner, the "Glow Squid," also from Minecraft Earth, a... well, a glowing squid. (It's turquoise!).
Of these three, only one of them, the Iceologer, was a hostile mob. The others were just passive wildlife. It's been speculated that the Glow Squid won because voters felt burned by the Phantom. They may have decided not to take a risk on something that might significantly affect the game, and voted instead for an out-of-the-way sea creature they weren't likely to even encounter frequently. In short, collective fear led to another victory for the status quo.
4. One Cult Of Personality Can Ruin Everything
There's a popular Minecraft YouTuber named "Dream" who claimed to "rig" the 2020 vote by encouraging all his followers to vote for the Glow Squid. Many in the fandom blame him for the fact that the Glow Squid did indeed win the vote.
Now, are Dream and his subscribers solely responsible? Unclear. We don't have a FiveThirtyEight for Minecraft. But it's a good way to explain to your kids how President Donald Trump was able to change the face of American politics by somehow winning the Republican nomination and then the White House. Did we need the candidate who was so freaking obnoxious? No. Literally any GOP candidate with a pulse could have defeated Hillary Clinton. but the obnoxious businessman had the loudest followers (and the loudest detractors), so he got the most publicity.
(Also, the GOP primary system doesn't use runoffs nearly enough, so an unpopular candidate—like Donald Trump—can win with a minority of the vote against a divided field.)
5. The System Should Be Changed… But It Won't
All this sounds like a pretty raw deal for the players. Why does Mojang even bother?
The answer, of course, is publicity. Unlike Congress, Mojang is under no obligation to listen to any feedback from their players whatsoever. The mob vote is just a courtesy that they use to get a finger on the pulse of the fandom... and get lots and lots of free marketing, as people debate which mob they think should win. Whoever wins the vote, the real winner is Mojang, so why would they feel obligated to provide better options?
If you're starting to feel uneasy, let me make clear I'm not segueing into one of those "democracy is a sham" rants. It's not a sham; it's simply imperfect. Like Churchill said: "Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Every government has its flaws, even Mojang’s. In America's case, we have a two-party system reinforced by our first-past-the-post elections. We could modify our laws (or even our Constitution) to establish voting systems that are less impervious to third parties,1 but getting the Republicans and Democrats to support revisions that would weaken their own positions in government? That's a long, slow slog.
The system is flawed, but, for the people in charge, it often works just fine, and they'll do whatever they can to avoid improving it Fortunately, we don't have to let it bother us:
6. Reject Vanilla Statism, Embrace Modding Libertarianism!
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: you can add whatever you want to Minecraft and the only thing stopping you is your own imagination.
Well, that and your programming skills. I am, of course, talking about the Minecraft modding community. Minecraft is one of the easiest games in the world to modify at home, and that's one of the secrets to its success. Want giraffes? Tameable dragons? Firearms? Nuclear reactors? Higher-res graphics? It probably (definitely) exists somewhere on the Internet as a mod. Of course, I'm not suggesting you turn your child loose on the Internet, but I'm sure if you ask what he or she would like to see in their copy of Minecraft, together you can find it and install it with a third-party modding API (such as Forge).
This last lesson is what I think is the most important of all: don't wait on the people in charge to fix everything for you. Mojang may have no interest in adding a "Sky Dimension," but the "Aether" mod has been doing that for years.
In the same way, don't wait on the government to solve poverty. Give to non-government charities like your local church or, better yet, organize your own charity! The government isn't all-powerful (and thank God for that!) so we have the power to be the change we want to see, either in our Minecraft worlds or the real world.
I believe that is how you raise your child to be a better citizen, not simply telling them to vote every other November.
(And don't forget to vote Sniffer! Quick! There's still time!)
Luke LoPresto’s new novel, Between Charon and Pana, is available from Amazon. I read it, and it’s good clean sci-fi fun.