Introduction to 'Minecraft', the Video Game Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Introduction to 'Minecraft', the Video Game

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The Minecraft Xbox 360 game in front of boxes

Minecraft is (as of 2022) the best-selling single video game of all time1 . It was invented by a Swedish person, Markus Persson, and developed by him and his company Mojang Studios. Later, Minecraft and Mojang were sold to Microsoft for billions2.

This introduction presents topics in a step-by-step fashion to show how Minecraft is different from other games, rather than telling you everything that is available in the game.

Minecraft is a 3D world simulation: the player controls a character who moves through the world. Unlike other games where the designers strive to make the world as realistic as possible, Minecraft makes the world look as if it was made of Lego: it is divided into one-metre cubes and most things are made from these cubes stuck together, giving everything a 'pixelated' look. For example, a typical tree will have a trunk made from four or more cubical blocks textured to look like bark, and a large number of blocks that contain leaves. A hillside may look curved from a distance but on close inspection will be found to be entirely made from cubical blocks. Even features with more detail are given a squared-off look - people, animals and monsters have cubical heads and rectangular bodies. The whole world is lit by a square sun.

Survival Mode

There are a few different versions and modes of Minecraft, but the fundamental one is called 'Survival Mode'. The player's character is in the Minecraft world and can interact with it by moving around, digging, building, chopping down trees, planting new ones and so on. But when night falls, monsters appear and try to kill the character. The player must prepare for nightfall by building a place to hide from the monsters. As the player gets more experience they accumulate objects which help them to survive, ranging from swords and armour to doors, glass windows and lights.

The player's character can also die by falling from a height or into a pool of lava, by not eating food3 or by drowning in deep water. When the character dies, they will 'respawn' (wake up) at the original place where they started the game, or in a bed if they have made one and used it. Any items they had with them will be left behind - if you go back to the place they were killed, the inventory items may still be there4.

There is no specific purpose in Minecraft other than to survive. Players set their own challenges such as planting a garden of flowers, building a replica of the Taj Mahal, exploring distant regions in a rowing boat or digging a giant pit full of monsters and watching them kill each other.

For players who are tired of being killed by zombies (the most common monster), there is also a 'Creative Mode' where the only purpose is to build - the player can view the world from any position or angle and has an infinite supply of blocks that they can place anywhere to build elaborate structures such as a realistic replica of the city of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings.

This introduction will describe only the Survival Mode game.

Controls

Minecraft can run on PCs, Macs, Linux machines and a range of different games consoles, so the buttons to control the game depend on the device. We're not going to list them all here. You'll have to look up the buttons for your particular console or device. Where necessary we'll use generic names for the buttons such as 'Mine', 'Use' and 'Go'.

The Minecraft World

When you start the game, a unique world is created for your character. It is saved when you exit from the game so any changes your character makes will be there next time you play the game.

  • The Minecraft world is flat, as in a Flat Earth - there are mountains and valleys, but it is not shaped like a sphere.
  • The world is limited in a vertical direction. It is possible to dig down to about 120m below sea level. If you attempt to go further, you reach bedrock, a sort of streaked black rock that is absolutely indestructible by any sort of tools.
  • Going upwards, the highest mountains and anything you build are limited to about 250m above sea level. It still looks as if the sky goes on forever above you.
  • Horizontal travel is effectively unlimited - if you go more than about a million metres from your starting point you will run into performance problems but it is unlikely you will ever reach this limit in normal play.
  • Minecraft internally uses an (x,y,z) coordinate system. It is possible to display your location in these coordinates on the screen and they can be useful for finding your way around. In this system, the y coordinate is height. Sea level is +63, the bedrock is at about -60 and the highest point below the sky is at approximately +320.

The world is lit during the day by a square sun and by night by a moon. These rise in the east and set in the west, and are positioned directly opposite each other so that if you can see the sun rising, you will be able to look in the opposite direction and see the moon setting5.

Days are short - the whole day-night cycle is 20 minutes of real time, so the sun takes 5 minutes from rising to directly overhead, and another 5 minutes until it sets; night lasts 10 minutes. If you see the sun low in the west, you should immediately think about finding somewhere safe to secure yourself from the night-time monsters.

There are no seasons in Minecraft - it is colder further north (snow-covered mountains, ice fields) and warmer further south (jungle vegetation or deserts and cactuses) but there's no change from day to day.

Moving Around in a Pixelated World

Your character can move around using the movement controls, but only on level ground or going downhill. If you come to a place where the ground moves up by one block, your character will have to jump to move forward.

If there is a vertical rise of two or more blocks such as a cliff, you won't be able to proceed, even by jumping, so you will need to build crude steps by placing blocks of dirt or stone in front of the cliff. Then you can climb it in a series of jumps. Alternatively, you can remove blocks from the cliff face to make a set of steps inset into the cliff.

Your initial location in the Minecraft world is likely to be near the sea. If the water is more than one block deep, you will slowly sink, but you can keep afloat by pressing the Go button repeatedly or holding it down. You can simultaneously use the move controls to swim forwards.

If you want, you can sink below the surface of the sea and look around - you'll probably see underwater plants, fish and perhaps interesting rock formations. Be sure to come up soon for air or you will drown!

Be warned - you are usually safe enough during the day swimming across water, but if you hang around too long in one spot, swimming zombies known as Drowned will come and attack you.

Working with Blocks

The first thing you will notice in Minecraft is that the ground you are standing on consists of 1-metre blocks. They may be blocks of sand, dirt (Minecraft's name for soil), dirt with grass on top, or stone of various sorts but all of them occupy exactly a 1-metre cube.

Dirt is the simplest type of block. You can 'mine' a block of dirt by attacking it with the Mine button. Turn to position the small crosshair in the centre of the screen on the block, then press the Mine button. You don't need to be holding any sort of mining tool - you can mine dirt with your bare hands. After a second or two it will disintegrate and be replaced by a small icon of a block of dirt floating where the original block was. If you are close to this, your character will immediately take it and it will be added to the inventory list at the bottom of the screen. If it is some distance away, you can move to it to take the dirt.

Once you have a block of dirt in your inventory, you can select it and press the 'Use' button to place the dirt at the position of the crosshair. Since dirt is sticky, it will attach to whatever surface you are pointing at. If your crosshair is on the top surface of a block, the dirt block will be placed there. If it is on the side face of a block, the dirt block will stick to that face, even if it has to protrude without being supported underneath. It will even stick to the underside of a block so you can add blocks to the underside of an overhang.

For both mining and placing blocks, you can select any surface that is within about five blocks of you - when you put the crosshair on it, the block you've selected will be highlighted by its edges being outlined. Even if a distant block is hidden behind closer blocks, if you can see even a tiny piece of it and put the crosshair on it, you will be able to mine it or stick a block of dirt to it. You can now build yourself a small house, with a doorway and holes for windows. You can keep monsters out by placing a block of dirt in the doorway, and can remove this when you want to go out.

Incidentally, a dirt block will automatically grow grass on top after a short time (typically a Minecraft day) as long as it is exposed to light and there are other grass blocks nearby.

Floating Blocks

Although Minecraft attempts to be realistic, in some ways it is very different from the real world. Gravity does not work in the same way. It affects your character - if you jump upwards you will come back down, and if you step over a cliff you will fall and may injure or kill yourself. But the blocks that the world is made of are mostly not affected by gravity. You can't place a block in mid-air - it must touch an existing block - but once it is placed, you can remove any supporting blocks and it will continue to exist wherever you put it, even if it is hanging unsupported, surrounded by air. You will occasionally find parts of tall mountains that are detached from the rest of the mountain and float unsupported.

Sand and Gravel

Exceptions to this are sand and gravel. Sand looks a light brown/cream colour while gravel looks grey. Either of these can be mined in the same way as dirt, with a tool or with your bare hands. These are affected by gravity and are not sticky, so they will not stick to the sides or undersides of other blocks. They must be placed on the top surfaces of other blocks, and if you remove the block that is below, a block of sand or gravel will fall downwards to fill the space.

The Hotbar and the Inventory

The inventory list across the bottom of the screen is actually just a part of your inventory. It is technically known as the hotbar. It is visible at all times and shows nine items in your inventory that are easily accessible.

If you press the Inventory button, you'll see the full inventory. This has 36 spaces for items, nine being in the hotbar. You can move an item between the hotbar and the rest of the inventory by various combinations of buttons.

Spaces in the inventory can hold more than one item; for example, you might have 10 blocks of dirt in one space. Most types of item are 'stackable' which means that more than one of them can occupy a single space in the inventory. The maximum number that can be stacked is normally 64 so if you have 65 blocks of dirt, you'll see 64 in one space and 1 in another space. Some items such as pickaxes are not stackable - if you have three identical pickaxes, they will occupy three spaces in the inventory.

Making Tools

To work with stone, the most common type of block, you will need some tools. The simplest tool is the wooden pickaxe.

Gathering Wood

Unless you are very unlucky, you will be close to a tree at the start of the game. You can gather blocks of woods by mining the trunk of the tree - just use the Mine button while the crosshair is on the trunk. You will get a block of wood.

If you remove all the trunk, the leaves will continue to hang in the air for a while, but after a day or so they will disappear and the tree will be gone. If you mine the leaves before they disappear, you will usually find a sapling - you can place this on a flat piece of dirt in not too much shade and it will grow into a new tree over a few days. This is worth doing as you will need lots of wood.

Crafting

Once you've got some wood, you can start crafting - that is, making things. Press the Inventory button. Above the inventory you will see a 'recipe book' with items you can make on the left and the ingredients needed on the right. Select the block of planks and press the Go button. The wood will be crafted into some planks.

Now that you have planks, you can use them to make some sticks by a similar method. With sticks and planks you can make a wooden pickaxe.

You can now start mining stone. Find a block of plain grey stone and mine it with the pickaxe. You will soon get a block of stone added to your inventory. It appears in your inventory as Cobblestone. Keep mining until you have three blocks of cobblestone: you can now make a stone pickaxe, which is stronger than the wooden one. It will mine faster and will last longer.

A Source of Light

One of the most important things you can craft is a torch6. You make a torch by combining sticks and coal. Coal is one of the most common minerals you can mine and frequently can be seen on the surface of rock faces.

Once you've created a torch you can place it on the floor or on any vertical surface - it lights up an area with a radius of about 8 blocks. Torches do not burn out - they will continue to burn and light the area forever. Once a dark room is lit like this, you will encounter far fewer monsters - they don't like the light. In very dark areas, monsters will spontaneously appear at random - this is known as spawning. They don't spawn like this in lit areas, so the total number of monsters around will be reduced by adding lots of torches.

If you are going exploring, particularly underground, be sure to make lots of torches in advance.

Advanced Crafting

The basic wooden pickaxe can be crafted within the inventory, but for more elaborate items, you will need to make a crafting table. You will find it in the 'recipes' in the inventory. Once you have a crafting table, you can use it by looking at it (crosshair on the table) and pressing Use. A more elaborate inventory opens up, with lots more recipes. The system only shows you recipes for which you have some or all of the ingredients.

At this stage you should make yourself a sword - a stone sword is better than a wooden one. You use a sword by selecting it in the hotbar and pressing the Mine button.

Working with Stone

Stone is the main building material. Like dirt, it will stick to the sides of other blocks or the undersides of overhanging blocks or ceilings. There are many different types of stone. The following are very common:

  • Stone - yes, it's just called Stone. It is plain grey in colour. When it is mined, it looks lumpier and is called Cobblestone. Cobblestone can be used to make stone tools.
  • Granite - this is a pinkish stone like real-world red granite
  • Diorite - a white stone with black and grey speckles

All of the above can be used to build things. The main difference between them is that some look nicer than others. Cobblestone can also be used to make tools.

  • Sandstone - found under sand dunes, or can be crafted from sand
  • Deepslate - the predominant type of stone in the deep levels below level 0. A dark grey, hard stone: mining it takes longer and wears your pickaxe more. When mined, Deepslate becomes Cobbled Deepslate - like normal Cobblestone, it can be used for making tools.
  • Obsidian - a black stone with purple streaks. Extremely hard; you need a diamond pickaxe to mine it. Obsidian is rare but can be made by pouring water onto a certain type of molten lava.

Mobs and Monsters

You'll see various animals, creatures and even people wandering around your Minecraft world. These are known technically as 'mobs', short for 'mobile non-player characters'. Most of these are harmless but some are dangerous.

Harmless mobs include:

  • Farmyard animals such as cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, horses and donkeys. Minecraft chickens can swim and you will often find them swimming on the sea.
  • Humans living in villages. You may find one of these if you go exploring.
  • Wild animals such as rabbits, llamas, parrots and mountain goats.
  • In the sea are fish, squids and dolphins.

Neutral mobs are ones that will generally leave you alone if you don't provoke them:

  • Wolves - you can provoke a wolf by hitting him (with the Mine button) or attacking him with a sword. He will probably then kill you. But if you give the wolf bones, you can tame him and he will become your loyal friend, following you around and fighting anybody that attacks you.
  • Bees will attack you if you break their hives to get at the honey.

In the hostile category are:

  • Zombies - they usually only come out after dark, or may lurk in dark caves and large dark rooms. They can usually be killed fairly easily with a sword although some of them have armour and are harder to kill. If exposed to direct sunlight, they burn and will soon die but they can still do you some damage while they are dying. If you put lots of lights in every dark room or cave you visit and stay indoors at night, you'll encounter far fewer zombies.
  • Drowned - these are underwater zombies. During the day they will burn if they come out of the water, but can survive underwater. Some of them will throw tridents at you.
  • Skeletons also burn in direct sunlight so they are best avoided by staying indoors in a lit room at night. They carry bows and arrows and can thus kill you at a distance. You can kill them by running at them and attacking them with a sword.
  • Spiders are flat and wide, so they can fit through a hole that is two blocks wide but only one block high. They can climb up vertical walls of any height, although they can't climb along the underside of an overhang. If it is dark, spiders will attack. In daylight they tend to ignore you and wander off so are not a big threat.
  • Creepers are thin, green creatures with a sad face. They like to creep up on you and then explode, killing you and also damaging the scenery. The best way to escape from a creeper is to run away. If you are doing something and suddenly hear a loud hissing sound, run as fast as you can. You can also lure a creeper into deep water - if they explode there, they will not do any damage.

Food

When you start playing Minecraft, you will probably get killed fairly regularly and wake up again at your start point. As you gain experience you will stay alive, and after a while you will start to get hungry; you'll need food.

The simplest way to get food is to kill one of the many animals that wander around. The raw meat will sustain you, or if you have a furnace and some coal, you can cook the meat to make it more nourishing.

Another way is to plant and harvest cereals and vegetables. You can find seeds by mining any wild plants you find. Long grass will give you wheat seeds. You'll need to make a hoe. Find a piece of dirt near water, hoe it and plant the seeds. They will grow over the course of a day or two into wheat. When fully ripe, harvest it by mining it - you will get sheaves of wheat and more seeds. You'll nearly always get more seeds than you planted, so you can keep making your wheat field bigger. The sheaves of wheat can be crafted into bread (you don't even need to bake it) and eaten whenever you feel hungry - you can easily carry around 64 loaves of bread and only occupy one space in your inventory.

When a zombie dies, he leaves behind a piece of rotten meat. You can eat this if you have no other food and are extremely hungry, but it will poison you. You will gain some strength but become hungry again very quickly.

Water

Another place where Minecraft differs very much from the real world is in the behaviour of water. Minecraft's water can be contained by having something solid underneath and on each side of it. If there is a side without anything solid, it will flow. This is close enough to real water to allow lakes, waterfalls and the sea to exist, but there are some ways in which it behaves quite differently from real-world water. For example, if you are digging in a deep cave and you remove a block from the wall, and it turns out that the sea is on the other side of the wall, water will come pouring in, but it will never fill the cave. The water will spread from the hole in the wall but will appear to just seep into the floor and disappear. If you stop the hole by placing a block of dirt or stone in it, the water on the cave floor will disappear in a few seconds.

Another example of the strange behaviour of water is that it never flows upwards so it doesn't 'seek its own level' like real water. If you dig downwards and find water, that water will stay at the level you found it even though the water may be connected underground to a body of water much higher up.

If you want to work with water a lot, for example building artificial lakes and canals, you will need to fully understand the behaviour of 'water source blocks', a topic too elaborate to be discussed here. You can look up the details in the ultimate Minecraft reference, the Minecraft Wiki.

Another interesting, unreal feature of Minecraft water is that you can fall from any height into a pool of water without injuring yourself. If you put a pool of water at the bottom of a deep mine-shaft, you can just dive down and land in the pool without having to negotiate a load of stairs.

Dig Deep for Exotic Minerals

If you dig deep down into the Deepslate (below level 0), you'll find that certain minerals are more common - you'll come across iron ore more often and will also find gold and diamonds that are not available at all at sea level. In general, the deeper you go, the more common they become. You can mine iron ore with any type of pickaxe except a wooden one, but you will need an iron pickaxe or better to mine gold or diamonds. If you use a wooden or stone pickaxe on a block of gold or diamond ore, the block will be destroyed but you won't get any gold or diamonds.

Gold is useful for making very smart-looking armour. Diamonds are best used to make tools - a diamond pickaxe will last a long time and can be used to mine very hard materials such as obsidian.

If you go down far enough, you will be below the deepest sea, so you can dig horizontally as far as you like and establish tunnels to remote islands. But there is always the danger of encountering lava.

Lava

Lava is rare on the surface but much more common down in the lower levels. It is recommended that you never mine straight downwards or upwards - you may fall into a pool of lava, or open a hole into a pool of lava over your head. But if you find a cave with a pool of lava, you can use an iron bucket to collect lava and move it around.

Lava is dangerous. If you touch it you will go on fire - run away, then wave your arms around to put out the flames. If you fall into it, you will almost certainly die. You'll wake up again at your 'respawn point', but many or all the items you had in your inventory will have been destroyed.

Lava flows in the same way as Minecraft water but more slowly. You can easily outrun it. If you are mining horizontally and encounter lava, you can run backwards and fill the hole with stone to prevent being engulfed.

Some uses for lava:

  • Making the hard, black stone called obsidian. This is done by pouring a bucket of water onto a lava source (not flowing lava). You will then need a diamond pickaxe to mine the obsidian. For large quantities of obsidian, divert a waterfall onto a lava pool.
  • As a rubbish bin. Dig a hole and fill it with lava using a bucket. You can then drop things you don't want into it and they will burn up.

A Huge System to Explore

There is a lot to find in Minecraft - little details and also major things that you can do. There isn't room to list them all, but here are a few:

  • Craft a shears, shear some sheep and combine the wool with planks to make a bed. When you sleep in the bed, you won't have to sit indoors through the night waiting for the sun to rise.
  • Trade items with the wandering Peruvian trader. You'll meet his beautifully adorned llamas in many places and the trader will be somewhere close by.
  • Craft an enchanting table and learn how to cast magic spells.
  • Give fish to dolphins and they will lead you to underwater buried treasure.
  • Explore a giant cave - the deep, dark parts may have valuable ore but will undoubtedly have lots of monsters. Plant torches liberally to keep them at bay.
  • Craft a rowing boat7 for quick access to distant places. Row straight out into the open sea - eventually you will reach land.
  • Find a village and trade with the villagers.
  • Find a castle occupied by evil humans known as 'illagers' or 'pillagers' - and fight with them.
  • Build mechanisms based on redstone dust, the Minecraft equivalent of electronics. For example, you can make a trap that will dump buckets of lava onto a zombie when they stand on a particular slab, or a house door that opens automatically when you approach it but does not open for monsters.
  • Build a Stargate-like portal from obsidian and travel to the 'Nether', a hellish world of caves lit only by lava and glowing funguses. You'll find lots of gold and other unusual minerals, but also new monsters such as pig-like humans, giant boars and fire-breathing skulls.
  • Find a broken portal of a different type, fix it and travel to The End - a world of islands floating in a void - where you can fight the ultimate 'boss monster', the Ender Dragon. This is the official end of the game - the titles roll after you defeat the dragon, but you can continue playing.
1There are many series of games, such as Pokémon, Super-Mario and Grand Theft Auto, that outsell Minecraft, but no individual game in those series has done as well.2$2.5 billion.3This is only in the 'hard' mode. In 'normal' mode, you'll become very weak but won't actually die.4This depends on a number of things such as how much time has gone by, whether the items are in a section of the world that is being currently updated by the program, and whether passing zombies have taken a fancy to your items - you'll often find zombies carrying one of your items in their hand or wearing your armour.5Because the moon is always directly opposite the sun, it should always be a full moon, but the Minecraft moon shows different phases. There is no explanation for this.6This is the American type of torch - a stick with one end on fire - rather than a British torch which is a battery-powered device producing a beam of light.7In Minecraft rowing boats, you face the direction you are travelling.

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