Minecraft and Crusoe Economics
Austrian economists often employ the pedagogy called “Crusoe economics” to illustrate the foundational principles of economic theory. Robinson Crusoe is alone on an island. He has nothing but his own body at his disposal, and he needs to find food and construct a shelter to survive. So what does he do?
He starts punching trees, of course!
Okay, Robinson Crusoe doesn’t punch trees — that would be a recipe for bloody knuckles and wasted time. But in the game Minecraft, in which players are plopped into a world in a very Crusoean situation, punching trees is how they obtain the initial materials they need to start constructing a shelter and tools.
But while Minecraft may not accurately illustrate real-world physics and biology, it does illustrate many (not all) of the foundational principles of economics. Before we can consume, we have to mix our labor with nature. In the world of Minecraft, this is done by punching trees to obtain wood. Wood, then, serves as a factor of production; throw a few blocks of wood together, and you get a crafting table — a higher-order production good — which allows you to craft lower-order goods like shovels, swords, and pickaxes.
Murray Rothbard wasn’t writing about crafting tables and pickaxes in Man, Economy, and State. He was writing about berry picking and fishing poles. But the principles are apparent in both worlds. “To acquire fish,” Rothbard writes, Robinson Crusoe “must have a pole or net, to acquire shelter he must have logs of wood ... and an axe to cut the wood.”
Fish and shelter are among the basic consumer goods one might seek in Minecraft, and the player has to spend labor (well, virtual labor) to craft production goods like the fishing pole or the wood blocks and doors for the shelter — and an axe is certainly handy for cutting down future production time for players who make the initial investment in crafting one.
The stages of a production process play out in Minecraft, as well. Rothbard writes that “any process ... of production may be analyzed as occurring in different stages. In the earlier or ‘higher’ stages, producers’ goods must be produced that will later cooperate in producing other producers’ goods that will finally co-operate in producing the desired consumers’ good.”
If a player wants to craft a fishing rod, punching trees is simply the first stage of production. Next, they most create a crafting table. Then, they have to use blocks of wood to create sticks. And just as in the real world, the player must obtain string by killing spiders (well, not so much like the real world, but the economic principles are still apparent here — labor mixed with nature). By following the proper recipe — which Rothbard calls a “unique type of factor of production that is indispensable in every stage of every production process” — the player can combine sticks and string into a fishing rod. Finally, with this production good in hand, the player can obtain “raw fish” — another factor of production. By cooking the raw fish in a furnace (created in a completely separate line of production), the player finally obtains the consumer good: “cooked fish.”
Minecraft serves as a model of a simple, developing economy that — not unlike the real world — continues to develop by accumulating capital. Crafting tables allow you to create more goods, and furnaces allow you to transform materials like coal and ore into metal ingots, with which even better items can be crafted. By continually combining raw materials into increasingly complex goods, players have constructed extremely intricate and majestic cities. But all of this building begins with nothing more than a character and an untouched world.
As Minecraft itself evolved, multiplayer options developed in which many players can participate in the same world. Just as when Crusoe met Friday, opportunities for trade grew out of these multiplayer servers. It would probably be a step too far to say that players spontaneously developed money by engaging in indirect exchange until the most liquid good emerged, but commodity monies have been established via currency in these servers — usually being a rare metal or gem. Thus, as the Minecraft economy grows, direct and indirect exchange takes place, mimicking a real-world economy.
The parallels between Minecraft and Crusoe economics can only be carried so far, and of course, not everything in the game perfectly correlates to a distinct economic concept. But Minecraft is one of the most popular games in the world, especially among young children who might be coming into an age in which an introduction to basic economic concepts can plant seeds for their future studies. As we try to think of ways to bring these ideas to the next generation, it might be worth paying attention to what lessons can be taught through this popular medium.
And if your kids accuse you of ruining their favorite game with dismal economic lessons, you can always hand them a copy of Economics in One Lesson as an alternative.