Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Little Things

It's May. I say that with the holy-crap-it's-five-in-the-morning sense of shock that life really did happen while I was making other plans, a feeling intimately tied to playing Minecraft.

Oh hell, Minecraft. I avoided this like the plague for the same ostensible reasons I avoided Pokemon for so long: everyone was doing it, ergo it was popular, ergo it was populist, ergo I would hate it or hate myself for not hating it. Shut up, I'm complicated. Anyway, deep in my gaming heart I knew that the real reason I was avoiding it was fear that I would become as addicted as those who had gone before me, and be no longer able to distinguish myself as Different And Special, as all sentient beings must in order to remain sane.

To be fair, I was right about Pokemon. It is indeed populist, manufactured to fit precisely the grasping neurons of the reptile brain and a terrifying timesink. Minecraft feels less manufactured, more of an accident: since it is essentially a blank canvas (a rather more flexible one than that other pop phenomenon, Draw Something, which fails as a game for the simple reason that you can use Post-It notes and a biro to the same effect) it's as addictive and deep as your imagination, so it's basically your own stupid fault if you look up from your meticulously-sculpted stacked-roof log cabin to see that holy crap, it's five in the morning.

I am playing the Xbox version, which is apparently several updates and many features behind the PC edition. It's restricted to a finite (but still huge) space and a subset of the bits and bobs, but I like this. Thirty years ago the ZX Spectrum was launched, a microcomputer with 48K of memory and a rubber keyboard. It was defined by its restrictions: the small memory footprint, the legendary attribute clash and that keyboard forced creativity, but the freedom to do anything you wanted with it positively begged for it. This is the direct opposite of the modern computer, which is staggeringly powerful, unlimited in capability but very constrained in permission. You can't just do whatever you want with a PC or a console: there's always somebody who wants paying first. It's a tool for somebody else to sell you their creative endeavour, not for you to unleash your imagination.

The Raspberry Pi cunningly plugs this gap, providing a machine that quite deliberately can't do much out of the box. You've little choice but to figure out ways to make it do the things you want, and once upon a time that was what we called 'computing'.

All of this, in a roundabout way, is an explanation for my learning to play the ukulele. (Actually, the reasons for this are a lot more complicated. I read a book by Michael Moorcock (Firing The Cathedral, since you ask) in which time-travelling psychedelic secret agent Jerry Cornelius plays a ukulele; shortly after, I discovered a YouTube video of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus; then I discovered that Neil Gaiman - who regular readers will recognise as my literary hero - is married to a punk burlesque ukulele player by the name of Amanda Fucking Palmer. These three things, taken in concert, amount to a directive from the gods as far as I'm concerned) It's smaller than a guitar, has four strings instead of two and the most bizarre tuning scheme of any stringed instrument, but these constraints promote creativity. Google 'Ukulele' and 'Radiohead' if you don't believe me. It's the ZX Spectrum of musical instruments, and I rather love it.

We need to know that something is impossible, I think, before we can muster up the will to do it anyway. Picasso said "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it" - he'd have liked Minecraft. He was partial to cubes.

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