Some people seek greatness. Others have it thrust upon them. And some, when it is thrust upon them, turn tail and flee. That latter group, alas, includes Markus “Notch” Persson, former owner of one of the most successful and important pieces of software in history: Minecraft.
Anyone who’s played Minecraft knows that it’s much more than a game. Notch acknowledges this in his last blog post, even as he totally abdicates all responsibility for his own creation. Clearly, he had a legal and commercial right to sell his company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. And yet, it’s hard to feel that his choice wasn’t repugnant on every other level.
Bottom line, the Minecraft sell-out sucks for players, and for just about everyone else except the game’s insanely-wealthy creator.
“I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me.”
Notch, you’re breaking my heart. It’s not like anyone was asking you stand up in front of a screaming mob, or brave the machine-gun fire. All you were called upon to do was act with a moderate sense of social responsibility, while living like a rich, indolent prick for the rest of your life. Abdicating such an immensely privileged position can only be seen as an act of monumental stupidity, cowardice and/or greed.
Am I being a little harsh? I think not.
This is a time when civilization teeters on the brink. On one side lies catastrophe – economic collapse, nuclear Armageddon, ecological apocalypse. On the other side we can glimpse the possibility of a new golden age – an age of individual freedom, of ideals beyond short-term profit, of technology that benefits every person on Earth.This is a time when the annual income of the richest 100 people on the planet is enough to end all poverty – four times over.
Notch, if you weren’t one of those 100 people before, you’re definitely one of them now. But when you had a chance to really make a difference, you chose not to be bothered. When you were handed a responsibility – and an opportunity that anyone would envy – you chose to duck it.
Like it or not, Notch, you’re still a symbol. But of what?
More Than a Game
To understand that, we have to consider the wider context. Starting with the product you built, Minecraft.
Minecraft is not just any game. (I’ll use the present tense, since Microsoft hasn’t destroyed it, yet.) It’s a world unto itself. A a way of looking at life. A platform for peaceful, creative communal activity. Above all, it was a rare success story (past tense this time), proving that talented, creative individuals could still make a difference. That corporations don’t have to own everything.
Minecraft was a ray of hope.
By selling out to Microsoft, one of the biggest and least responsive corporations on Earth, you’ve extinguished that hope, Notch, and forcefully demonstrated that the corporate way is indeed the only way. You’ve come out definitively and told us: “It never was about anything but the bucks. The more, the better. Anything else is too much trouble. Everything is for sale. Everybody has their price.”
It may come as a surprise to you, Notch, but we really didn’t want to believe that. You could have proved that there were higher standards than the megabuck. But you chose not to. Instead of standing up for some ideal – any ideal – you just took the cash. You brilliantly demonstrated that there really is no Santa Claus – just a jolly old man with a beard. You showed us that when it’s time for everyone to clap hands, Tinkerbell is doomed. You sold the Bailey Building & Loan to Old Man Potter.
“Ahh, those are just fairy stories,” I hear you say. And you’re right – they are just fairy stories. Fantasies. Now. But you, Notch – you could have made them come true. You were actually in that position. You could have proved to the world that dreams and ideals are more powerful than mere greed. Instead, you took the money. A whole shitload of money.
I can’t take that money away from you, and believe me, I wouldn’t if I could. You earned it, you deserve it. But forgive me if I was holding out that tiny little glimmer of hope that you wouldn’t just snap it up. That you’d be better than that. Obviously, I was a sap, and you were the smart one.
Wealth and Power
But, Notch, there is something you need to understand. Creating one of the most successful (and mentally uplifting) games of all time made you a symbol. Taking the $2.5 billion doesn’t change that. You can’t escape the responsibility. You can only bungle it and make it worse.
For example, by accepting the insane sum of $2.5 billion, you’ve moved out of the realm of private wealth. A mere $100 million is vastly more money than any human being can spend, even on the most absurdly lavish lifestyle. You took 25 times that amount! That kind of sum isn’t ‘money’ any more – it’s raw power. You can’t spend $2.5 billion. Instead, that amount of money gives you a seat at the global poker table, equivalent to those of many countries.
That’s a massive responsibility. One that you seem even less qualified for than your original responsibility as custodian of a simple computer game. Are you planning to wield that power responsibly? Apparently not:
“As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”
Amazing! You’re already making plans to duck any future responsibilities! When history came calling, asked you to stand up for something, you were found hiding under the bed. And you’re still under there, cringing in the dark. I actually feel a bit sorry for you, Notch. Responsibility is a bitch.
Many people will respond, no doubt, that I’m not standing in your shoes. That talk is cheap. It’s true. I don’t know for certain what I’d do in your place, Notch. But I can tell you this: if I did what you’ve done, I’d definitely expect someone to call me on it. If I dropped the ball as miserably as you have, I hope I wouldn’t be naive enough to think that the rest of the world would just nod and give me a ‘pass’ on it.
“I’m also aware a lot of you were using me as a symbol of some perceived struggle. I’m not. I’m a person, and I’m right there struggling with you.”
Struggling? Your whole blog post is about how you’re trying to duck out of the struggle. And what “struggle” is this you’re talking about? Most of us “struggle” to make ends meet every month. Many “struggle” to find enough food to eat every day. Personally, I’m lucky enough to have a roof over my head and an Internet connection. I feel like I’m “struggling” mainly when I turn down a lucrative job that I think would not be morally defensible.
I don’t see you doing any of that, Notch. If you’re not willing to play the part you’ve been given as a “symbol,” then exactly what kind of help can we count on from you?
Pride and Parables
Few people will ever be given as much as you’ve been given, Notch, and few will have done so little with it.
I used to hope you’d really open up Minecraft, make it a global platform for interaction in a friendly, creative 3D space. You didn’t do that – although a lot of it happened anyway. I hoped you’d set up a Minecraft Store, so that modders and texture artists could have a central way of reaching the players, and making a little honest money – while you got your honest 30%. You could have built an empire, a global movement. The next Facebook, the next Steam.
Instead, you backed away. Okay, you’re tired of programming. You’re not an entrepreneur. Fair enough. But surely you must have noticed a never-ending procession of programmers and entrepreneurs beating a path to your door. All you really had to do was pick one or two, and let them run with it. Or open-source Minecraft, and let the world run with it. You could have bailed out and continued to derive revenue in many ways – have your cake and eat it too.
Apparently, your imagination didn’t reach that far. Okay, everyone has their limits.
But even assuming you absolutely had to sell it, you could have made sure Minecraft went to some worthy custodian. You must have had other offers. And yet, you chose what has to be the buyer most perfectly guaranteed to ruin your creation, to turn it into a corporate parody of itself or even kill it entirely. To make it less-open, less imaginative. To make it a tool of some vast and pointless corporate agenda.
You yourself railed against Oculus selling out to Facebook. Since then, it’s become very obvious that Oculus faced technical problems that would need Facebook’s billions in investment. We were disappointed, but we’re coming to understand the necessity. But The $2.5 billion you took from Microsoft isn’t an investment in anything. It’s just a sell-out, plain and simple.
To be sure, there was no compulsion on you to be more than just “a person.” To consider the wider (i.e. non-financial) repercussions of your actions. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? It was your choice to make. We were hoping you’d make us proud. You chose not to. You knew a sale to Microsoft wouldn’t make anyone proud, or happy. But you had 2.5 billion reasons not to care.
What is the opposite of pride, Notch?
The Hero or the Goat
Notch, you were our hero. Like it or not, that’s a fact. You were our hero.
And you let us down.
Not just the 54 million of us who bought Minecraft. Everyone. The whole human race. All the people who wanted to believe that when given the chance, the ‘average person’ would show their higher nature. Not wimp out. Not take the path of least resistance. Not simply take the money and run, but rise to the occasion, show the rest of us a better way.
You could have been a contender. You could have been a mensch. The world desperately needed one, and now it’s just that much harder to believe that they even exist. If you couldn’t resist the $2.5 billion, who would? Eventually, we all know somebody has to. Just not you. I guess it will take a real hero to do that. And you’re not him.
If you can handle knowing that about yourself, I guess we’ll call it even.
So go ahead and enjoy your billions. Just remember that some of that money came from me. And from 54 million other people. And from a billion Windows users that Microsoft over-charged a couple of bucks apiece, to accumulate the vast wealth they’ve bestowed on you.
And realize that many of us wish we’d spent that money some other way. On someone who actually gave a shit.