Opinionated: What’s the deal with digging?

I wish I’d started out life with a pick in my hands. Though my mother might disagree on physiological grounds, she doesn’t know them the way I do.

They’re just so useful. That time when monsters attacked us in the middle of the night? Not only could I have fought them off with a pick, I could have dug us a snug little cave to whimper in till sunrise. And do you realise just how much valuable ore is left lying about under hundreds of feet of mere earth?

If only I’d known. But, thanks to the unbelievable rise of mining-centric games, I’ll be able to prepare my children for a life of subterranean bliss, and they in turn will give me the retirement I deserve by bringing me gems, precious metals and other non-renewable resources.

Actually, I’m confounded. I’m no miner. I can’t tell the difference between an interference methanometer and a stemple. But among the hallowed titles in my top three games, two of them involve mining. Mining!

For the uninitiated, the games I’m talking about are indie darlings Minecraft and Terraria. The former is three-dimensional, the latter two-dimensional, and in both you get to prance about in randomly-generated worlds, hitting things, digging up things without the oversight of pesky environmentalists, and making other things using the things you’ve either killed or dug up – which is sort of the way my dog lives every day of its life, the lucky tyke.

Let me not belabour the matter; if you haven’t heard of these games, you really should get out less.

Of course, the games didn’t invent the mining hat so much as pick one up in the depths of gaming history and dust it off. The early 1980s saw a boom in games related to mining, with titles like Digger and Boulderdash capturing the diamond-smuggling hearts of young magnates-to-be the world over.

So, if you like, Minecraft and Terraria are the next generation of mining game. Interestingly, neither game would be feasible in their current form without the wonder that is the Internet, because it is practically impossible to progress beyond the initial stages of either without gazing in wonder upon the experimental madness that other gamers with infinite time on their hands have committed. For the record, this includes creating a working CPU in Minecraft, which is not only daft but awesome.


The appeal of building things I understand. I, too, swallowed my fair share of Lego blocks as a child, inadvertently creating a working CPU. But mining? What gives? Why do I find so much pleasure in digging away at discreet chunks of virtual world, carving up shafts and passageways and… gasp! Is that iron? I already have more than I can ever use but I MUST HAVE IT.

I know I’m not alone in this. As I write, Minecraft has sold over 2.5 million copies. Terraria is catching up, having sold just short of 500,000 pieces of pixelated crack cocaine in its first month of release.

Of course, the usual tenet of the sandbox genre is likely to blame – freedom. Don’t like that mountain? Tunnel through it. Or raze it, if you’re utterly insane and have nothing better to do.

The rip-it-down and build-it-back-up model is a refreshing change from the beautiful but static design mentality that is the mainstay of most games. And I imagine, once the headache of a good procedural terrain generation algorithm has been killed, it must be liberating for developers not to have to worry about designing yet another damn level.

Who cares if the random terrain isn’t a considered work of art? Give the player a pick! Let them see if they can do better. So what if there’s no way to get from spot A to more-exciting spot B? They have a pick, don’t they? Let them figure it out! Players keep trying to “break” games – befuddle their scripts, wangle their way into forbidden territory – but now it just so happens that undoing things has become a central mechanic.

It’s hard to sum up the relentless allure of being let loose in an entire virgin world, free to explore as you please. It’s even harder to sum up the strange desire to get under that world’s skin and see that which lies beneath.

Perhaps, in some way, Gollum is kin to all us virtual miners. We’re all eager to reach the roots of the mountain, to grasp long-buried secrets, to peer into darkness.

Then again, maybe we’re more like Tolkien’s dwarves, who couldn’t help but delve too deeply.

Whatever the answer, I’m off to get myself a pick. You’ll find me in my back yard, making my own miniature Moria.