How I Peaked
(in Minecraft)

Or, How I Finally Quit Video Games:
A Memoir, A Warning, A Saga

Part One

I. The Birth of a Gamer

I believe that most “hardcore” gamers have the majority of their playtime in just a handful of games. 80% of their playtime in just 20% of their games, following the Pareto Principle. Such gamers are still “well-played”, having sunk twenty or thirty hours into whatever the latest game du jour is, but those hours are merely rounding errors when compared to the time put into The Game. The Game can take many forms, as long as it has enough depth or a high enough skill ceiling to sustain hundreds of hours of play. Competitive multiplayer games (shooters, MOBAs) are perhaps the most common suspects, with sandbox games not far behind. My own Game was a fusion of both, and maybe more: Minecraft.

I first played Minecraft soon after it came onto my radar in middle school, which was kind of a big deal back in those unconnected days when comparatively little found its way to the radar. It was to be the start of a new era for me, one that just a couple of years ago seemed to me as though it would last forever, as it already felt it had. Before Minecraft, I was no capital-g Gamer. The only game consoles I had were an SNES with three games (Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, and Yoshi’s Island, a legendary lineup at least) and a DS that was strictly for use on long rides. I hadn’t really played any PC games, and despite the boom that Flash games were going through at the time, I had only played the ones of varying quality that could be found on the LEGO website. What was I even doing with my time, then? Reading and re-reading far too many books in that dubious “genre” known as YA, playing with LEGO and Playmobil, and swim team. Probably. It’s very difficult to remember those prelapsarian days, but I sure could tell you what I was doing after I started playing Minecraft: playing Minecraft.

Almost concurrently, though, as if Minecraft had blown the barrier to the Gamer dimension wide open, I started playing other games as well. I got a Steam account, I started playing Team Fortress 2, I got my very own laptop, then an Xbox, kept piling on the games from generous Steam sales, Humble Bundles and so on. Before I realized it, I was a Gamer. My life became all about Gaming. Everything that wasn’t Gaming became a nuisance: school, exercise, reading, hobbies, etc. My mother started to grow concerned that gaming too much was going to ruin my grades, but her restrictions on gaming time fell away as I demonstrated that I could both game all day from the second I got home, and get A’s in all my classes (since high school is easy and I was somewhat precocious). In retrospect, she was completely right to be concerned about my time spent gaming. Middle school became high school became college, and the gaming never stopped for nine years. I might as well have been in prison. Even now, I’m not sure if I’m cured, or if I can ever be cured. Recovering gamer like a recovering alcoholic.

II. An Introduction to Minecraft

Let’s get back to Minecraft. Minecraft, Minecraft, Minecraft, the Game which I played for easily 5000+ hours and could see myself, in some less-lucky parallel universe, playing for 5000 more. The singleplayer game itself offers enough depth to justify such playtimes, but it was the multiplayer aspect that really hooked me. It adds an entirely novel, genuinely infinite layer to a finite (but still very large) game. Playing on a smaller server with a “community” you interact with and become a part of practically turns Minecraft into a form of social media, the possibilities (and perils) of which I’m sure nobody these days needs explained again. Six months was enough for me to exhaust singleplayer mode, after which I made an expedition into multiplayer from which I was never to return.

As a testament to its sandbox nature, there is an entire taxonomy of Minecraft server types, for all the different ways people had come up with to play the game together. Back in those early days, there were fewer options, of course, but many of the broad categories and types of server that were around back then are still around today. There were servers which generated infinite grids of plots for players to build on in creative mode with specialized server tools to make large building tasks easier, Factions servers where groups of players would eternally wage war on each other, and peaceful survival servers with combat between players turned off for those who wanted to survive and build with people from around the world. An odd server fad at the time was “Prison” servers, where players would toil their day away mining and farming endlessly regenerating ores and crops within massive, unbreakable bedrock walls, all so they can exchange them for server currency and eventually buy their way into a cushier “cell block”, with easier to harvest and more expensive crops, along with fewer combat-enabled zones. For a truly authentic experience, the server staff acted as prison guards, and would enforce rules banning “contraband” such as weapons by killing the player-prisoners if they happened to hold a sword in the wrong areas. But, out of all the types of server, I eventually settled on another type that was quite popular back then, and can still be found here and there today: the Towny + mcMMO server.

Towny + mcMMO was a combination that had a little bit of everything, which is probably why it had so much appeal for me. It had both collaboration and combat, building and destruction in equal amounts. Towny was a plugin (server-side modification) that allowed players to create towns and claim land to protect it from destruction and combat. You could add other players to your town, and towns could join together into nations and go to war with each other. Anywhere outside towns on Towny servers was fair game: players could build, destroy, and fight as they pleased. Even inside towns, there were settings that could turn those mechanics on for certain groups of players, depending on their relationship to the town. It was the perfect compromise for someone like me who wanted to both build and fight. Factions servers had plenty of fighting, but the buildings were always strictly-utilitarian and geared towards defense, not to mention often prone to destruction, which meant all builds were quite ugly and ephemeral. Towny servers allowed you to fight in the wilderness, or on your land if you wanted to, but at the same time protected all of your builds so that you could freely make lasting builds.

mcMMO was, as the name implies, an attempt to introduce some MMO mechanics into Minecraft. It was often paired with Towny, but could also be found on Factions servers, and mainly served to extend playtime by adding abilities that you’d have to grind for. It primarily introduced levelled skills based around in-game tools and activities, such as a Swords skill for attacking with swords or a Woodcutting skill for using axes to cut down trees. You’d gain experience for performing the action with its corresponding tool, and unlock passive abilities like “Armor smasher” for Axes (do extra durability damage to enemy armor when attacking) or active abilities like “Super breaker” for Mining, where your pickaxe would temporarily gain a massive speed boost and multiply drops from mining ores. The abilities ranged from almost useless to overpowered, and often resulted in arms races. For example, someone would discover that the normally slept-on Acrobatics skill gave a 10% chance of dodging any attack at level 1000, spend a whole day jumping off stuff to level it up, suddenly become untouchable in combat, and then everyone else on the server will have to spend all day jumping off stuff to level up their Acrobatics skill in order to be able to compete. It didn’t add a whole lot to fights with regards to actual stuff to do like in an actual MMO, but it did mean that anyone who wanted to stand a chance in a fight with more established players would have to invest time in levelling all the appropriate combat skills. As such, I could’ve taken it or left it, but every Towny server I played on had mcMMO as well, just because they all did. At the very least, you do get used to the distinct tinkling noise it would play every time you gain a level in something, or the small conveniences like being able to hold shift to take less fall damage thanks to the Acrobatics skill.

So, for many years, that was how I played Minecraft, on a Towny + mcMMO server rotation. Servers would go bust every so often, or I’d just get tired of the people/staff on them, and quit for a bit before an old server buddy would draw me back with the promise of starting anew on a “good” Towny + mcMMO server they just found. After five or so years of moving around servers every six months to a year, our little Minecraft crew finally solidified, and we more or less settled on an unusually long-lived Towny + mcMMO server that would continue to be our ungrateful home for many years, through thick and thin, through ban and unban.

III. Settling into the Cycle

It was far from a perfect server, but that’s probably what made it so fun for us, because it was a challenge. We were always fighting an uphill battle against the server staff who generally disliked us for constantly getting into antics that resulted in work for them, and against the server’s upper crust of so-called “donors” who got ahead by paying for the ability to fly, toggle god mode, set infinite teleport locations, see the inventories of other players, among several other overpowered perks. We managed to carve out our own space on the server through sheer determination, an encyclopedic knowledge of the ins and outs of the Towny and mcMMO plugins from years of playing, the ability to think outside the box and develop novel strategies exploiting the interactions between the server’s modifications and the game itself, and a willingness to secretly break the rules. Funnily enough, we were so good at hiding it that we almost never got caught for the rules we knowingly broke. Often it was the “thinking outside the box and developing novel strategies” part that did us in. The owner wielded supreme executive authority over the server like a monarch, so he could theoretically punish us whenever he wanted and for whatever reason, but perhaps due to some sense of honor or fear of losing the popular mandate (by this I mean players quitting the server due to his poor decisions), he always tried to be “just” and make it appear as if we were only being punished due to breaking some server rule. The server rules themselves were (perhaps deliberately) vague, full of holes and changed at the owner’s whim, but this didn’t stop us and the server staff from arguing over their interpretation like seasoned jurists. The owner and server staff would capitalize on the smallest excuse and the widest interpretation of the rules to punish us for the things we did that they didn’t like, but that weren’t against the rules, since they felt they had to maintain the pretense of the rules above all. It was a competitive mental and verbal game within the game, just a hint of the depths added to Minecraft by playing multiplayer.

Over the course of many years, our little clique established a reputation on the server, as fighters and as troublemakers. It would’ve been nice if we had also been known for my many grandiose, corporate-style skyscrapers I painstakingly built. But, I rarely finished them and wasn’t much of a self-promoter, so they were always overshadowed in the minds of players by our visits to their towns, looking for fights. They in turn would come to our main bases, menacingly cloaked in lava more for show than as a Factions-esque defense mechanism, and leave presents for us just outside the town boundaries in the form of random ugly builds or destruction which is known in the Minecraft community as “griefing”.

A selection of my skyscrapers

It was becoming increasingly clear to me that as a group, we were stuck in a bit of a Minecraft rut, just as I was in a rut in my “real” life thanks to Minecraft (though I would refuse to acknowledge this at the time). A sort of cycle had developed, based on the quasi-natural dynamics of the server’s regular world resets every six months or so. When the world reset, every player would have to start again from zero in a fresh world, and this often rekindled interest in playing for many server regulars who had either quit or levelled off their playing. There would be several weeks of hectic activity as everyone gets themselves established again, gathering resources and building bases/towns. Before long, all the regulars (thanks to their dedication) would be very rich and start occupying their time with ambitious megaprojects, fighting, or just logging in and chatting with everyone else. As said megaprojects were completed (or abandoned) and fighting/chatting became boring, regulars would begin dropping back into inactivity, and nobody wants to play on a dead server so that would result in a cascading effect where other regulars and even newer players stop playing as well. Eventually, one of the regulars or the server staff would take notice of the inactivity and start looking for solutions, which inevitably resulted in yet another world reset since nothing else ever seemed to work.

An illustration of the rut: these grinders we made were built nearly 2 years apart, yet look almost the same

The reset cycle itself wasn’t necessarily bad, as each cycle is a chance to start afresh and do something different. I noticed, though, that that’s not what we were doing at all: we were in a cycle ourselves, doing the same things over and over again. We’d build the same builds the same way each time with only minor variations (main base, farm, mob grinder, giant skyscrapers), and once we were established, we’d spend all day either grinding mcMMO skills in the grinder, going around the server looking for fights that wouldn’t happen (everyone was much too scared of us), or just bantering in chat. Our own actions within the cycle had become as rigid as the cycle itself. Soon after I had realized all of this, it was just about time for yet another reset...

IV. ...and Breaking It

Summer 2019. It was an auspicious time for a world reset. After nearly a decade with no changes whatsoever (seriously), the creator of mcMMO returned and was overhauling the plugin. Something similar happened with the Towny plugin, which had been in mere maintenance mode for years but was finally seeing some new features. Instead of the usual generated Minecraft world, the next server reset was also going to be using a custom map in the shape of the Earth, with a corresponding online map where you could track the status of the world. This was particularly significant not just because it was something different with a lot of new gameplay/roleplay potential, but also because it coincided (probably not by accident) with a bunch of popular Minecraft Youtubers playing on an Earth map. This led to a new trend of Earth-map Minecraft servers that players inspired by the Youtubers flocked to, and as a result even our humble server ended up becoming more popular than ever before.

In advance of the reset, we had begun establishing new plans for what we’d do, trying to break free of the rut. Inspired by how we’d call other players and ourselves “Mongolians” on one of the older worlds, we decided that on this new map we’d be the Mongols. From Civilization V, I remembered that the capital of the ancient Mongol empire had been called Karakorum, so that was to be our town name. The town itself was going to be on a large, flat plain in Asia (around where Beijing is in real life, I believe) as it would be easy to build on and somewhat close to the historical location of Karakorum. To be spiritually on the same wavelength as the Mongol hordes, we’d go around visiting other towns and picking fights as we’d usually do, but this time we were doing it to be historically accurate. Our first goal, though, was to find an End Portal to get to the End dimension and kill the final boss of Minecraft, the Enderdragon. This is because the first time the Enderdragon is killed, it drops an extremely rare block called the Dragon Egg, which would be very prestigious for us to display. Getting to the End early also had some other benefits, like access to the Elytra (wings) item that allows one to fly, and making it easy to level up mcMMO combat skills by killing the hordes of Endermen that litter the End.

Things got off to a pretty good start. We quickly made it to our Asian plateau and founded the town, then set off to gathering resources. One quirk of the custom map was that ore distributions were supposed to be roughly based off of real-world ore distributions, which resulted in a bit of a Scramble for Africa as players who settled in their desired locations across the map rushed to Africa to mine resources. The amount of diamonds and gold that could be found in some parts of Africa were many more times than could be found in a normal Minecraft map, and frankly trivialized the mining part of the game, but we weren’t really playing for the Mine part of Minecraft (or the Craft part, for that matter). Geared up with diamond (the highest tier of tools/armor at the time) and flush with gold (which was the currency on the server, a new feature for this particular reset), we started hunting for an End portal. But soon, disaster struck: the very same custom map that had enriched us so quickly had also broken the normal method of finding End portals. Our only hope would be to stumble upon one randomly, an exceedingly difficult task considering that they were almost invariably buried deep underground. Then, things really took a turn for the worse: the coalition of donors that were our main rivals had somehow done the impossible, within only 48 hours: we heard the server-wide crackling sound that indicated the Enderdragon had been slain. The dragon egg had slipped away from us.

Fuming, I focused on my original building plans in order to put off the thought of the defeat we had just been dealt by nothing more than just plain bad luck. Our rivals gloated as their teleported their friends into the end and flew around (using their donation perk) grabbing all elytra that they didn’t even need, mostly to deprive us of them or perhaps to sell them to us at extortionate prices. Our lives would be significantly harder without elytra or an endermen grinder, so we still desperately needed to find an end portal, but I simply couldn’t muster the motivation to search anymore. While some of the others continued the search, I stayed behind and worked on the base. I wanted to see if there were any large caverns beneath our town for potential building opportunities, so I used one of the tools in our toolkit that was squarely in the “gray area of the rules” section. The “definitely against the rules option” was to use an X-ray hack (bundled with almost every hack client) to see underground, but I did things a bit differently. Instead, I used a client mod to download the world, and then went into spectator mode in singleplayer to check what was underground. And when I checked underneath our base, looking for caves, what should I see but an END PORTAL, hiding right beneath our noses the entire time. Breathless from laughing at the absurdity of the situation, I relayed the news to the crew, and we commenced a mining project in our base that would plausibly make it appear as if we stumbled on it by accident, if anyone happened to be watching (they wouldn’t be, but an excess of caution is always how we’d avoided getting caught for anything else). So, we made our way into the end, holding beds (which explode if used in the end) to try and suicide bomb anyone who tried to stop us. This ruse allowed one of our number to successfully sneak off the main end island, and off into the vast expenses of outer islands, where we could find elytra and a suitable location for our grinder.

The Bed Bomb Boys prepare to enter the End

With the End itself within our grasp at the very least, I took a break to focus on what I’d really wanted to do during this reset: bring a sort of Industrial Revolution to the server. Automatic farms for various items (mostly from crops or mobs) had a lengthy history in Minecraft, gradually improving as new blocks and techniques were introduced with each successive update to the game. Many players built rudimentary farms, designed themselves or based off of tutorials made by popular Youtubers. I, on the other hand, had a secret weapon: I followed the relatively obscure Minecraft channel of a troop of mostly German engineers and programmers who had an almost autistic dedication to making the absolute most efficient farms, utilizing arcane game mechanics approaching wizardry. Many of the farms they produced were too large or elaborate to be built by someone like me, who didn’t want to spend all day just building farms. But recently, with the new update, a quantum leap had occurred in farming technology: a rather simple glitch was discovered that would make crops grow exceedingly fast, just by using pistons to swap the blocks beneath them extremely fast. By filling a huge warehouse with these new “zero-tick farms”, I hoped to make us fabulously wealthy by producing crops on an industrial scale and selling them to the server.

The warehouse nears completion, with the town's claim boundary framed by cobblestone wall grief just outside

As soon as the warehouse was completed (despite its size, the first proper building in our town), I built the first few zero-tick farms within, and they worked exactly as I’d expected. I eagerly took the first of hopefully many loads of crops to the server shops, and sold them. The dream was not to last long, however. Our enemies were at the door. They laid ugly cobblestone walls at the edges of our fledgling town, and it wouldn’t be long before they noticed that something strange was stirring within the warehouse, especially due to the constant piston sounds you could hear if you came close. It really did sound like the factory it was. Our old enemy, the admin Elain, was eventually brought in to investigate, and the whole story is recorded (if a bit fancifully) in the history books we later wrote on the server:

Humble profbananaslug was the magnificent and mighty Khan of Karakorum, determined to usher in a new age of prosperity for the Mongol horde. He had eagerly awaited the new Version, so that he may use strange and arcane Techniques to push the limits of the World and bring unparalleled riches to he and his Mongols. Within the hallowed halls of that Warehouse of ProfCo, he tinkered tirelessly into the forbidden depths of technology and constructed several boisterous Machines, throbbing with the constant, and some would allege laggy, movement of pistons. These were no ordinary contraptions, however: using but a few plants, they produced harvests most bountiful in but a few brief moments. For these machines had been imbued by their Creator with something quite extra-ordinary: the ancient but now powerful zero tick piston. On honeydew hath profbananaslug fed, and the milk of paradise did he drink. But, as with all forbidden smuggled from Above, it too would prove to be his downfall. Such Power cannot be concealed for long, and the one known as Elain came to restore the righteous Order. The treacherous machines were spirited away to the realm beyond, and profbananaslug banished in turn for his transgressions. Karakorum and the Mongols were left sans the steady and visible hand of leadership. In the chaos, ProfessorUtonium left Karakorum to create his own town on the island of Hawaii and Lytei, MadeHistory, and dev_revs were left leaderless. Without profbananaslug or ProfessorUtonium, the city of Karakorum faced an uncertain future of decline.

EARTH, A History, Vol I: The Early Days and First Civilizations

And so I was banned yet again, under the flimsy pretense that zero-tick farming was considered an “exploit” and that the machines caused “too much lag” for players that were around them, although our crew had been around them the most (they were in our base, after all) and never had any issues. As is tradition, I immediately took to the forums and began composing my ban appeal. This one was to be the pièce de resistance of my ban appeal oeuvre. It contained a meticulously researched and clear explanation of how zero-tick farming worked and why I didn’t consider it an exploit, along with arguments against all the other reasons for my ban. I probably spent more effort on it than on almost every school writing assignment I’ve ever done. I would have liked to include some excerpts from it, but unfortunately it appears to have been lost. Maybe it will turn up one of these days, who knows. Believe me though, it was a real tour de force, since I cared so much and actually put in the work. That was rare back in those days, and it’s not surprising that of course I chose to put effort into something Minecraft-related.

Despite my efforts, it wasn’t enough. The discussion on the forum raged on for several pages, with a surprising amount of people coming to my defense, even some unexpected ones whom I was on bad terms with. The owner finally felt that he had sufficient reason to be rid of me, left a laconic rejection of the ban appeal, and locked the forum topic so the argument could not continue. So, that was it. It was hopeless. I was done with Minecraft. I played some other games, worked on the homework I’d been putting off, saw my friends. In the back of my mind, I lamented what could have been, what awesome adventures and shenanigans we could’ve gotten into on the Earth map. I was perhaps physically done with Minecraft, but not mentally...