It was a normal evening in late June when a friend’s fateful suggestion landed in our Discord server.
“If I set up a private Minecraft server for Friend Land, would anyone be interested in that?” he asked innocently. The chorus of affirmative responses was quickly followed by a heatedly nerdy discussion about what kind of server and where it should live.
Should it be on Minecraft Realms, Microsoft’s for-pay service that does all the setup and maintenance work for you? Or should we go the more DIY route, which requires technical knowhow to maintain, but also offers more flexibility?
There were questions about how to handle the server, which version would be best for people who wanted to play on different hardware, and whether or not it made sense to wait for a major graphics update (since released) that’s been a long time in the making for Minecraft.
“Literally what are any of you talking about at all?” one friend asked as questions piled up. “Is playing Minecraft seriously this difficult?” That friend has since become one of the most prolific creators on the server, which was swiftly dubbed Friendland. Something had clearly been sparked.
We were four months into the pandemic at this point, and personally, I was four months into being a first-time parent. Normalcy had long since faded into the background. So this deeply nerdy banter among long-distance friends was immediately restorative, a little piece of my pre-pandemic, pre-parenting life resurfacing. It was the first time since March that I started seeing games as a social exercise again.
It’s not that I hate being a parent. When I walk into a room and that little devil’s smile shines in my direction, the entire universe lights up. Parenting is a thrilling, invigorating, and love-filled adventure. But it’s also deeply exhausting, unpredictable, and ever-present. When you’re alone with the baby, you can’t check out for even a moment to recharge.
It’s a massive life change, especially for someone like me, with my piles of social anxiety and introvert tendencies. I’m a homebody by nature and always have been. I have a wonderful partner in this journey who helps immeasurably as an equal participant in life and in parenting, but it’s still a lot. I have a hard time being sociable with total strangers, and, with a baby, they’re more present now in my day-to-day than they’ve ever been. I also struggle with self-doubt, which makes me wonder how I’ll ever effectively raise this child into a well-adjusted person.
Minecraft has always been a favored escape for me.
To be clear, I’m excited to meet this challenge. But it’s still a lot, and during those first, frantic months of juggling new parent anxiety alongside pandemic anxiety, I struggled with anger issues and oversensitivity I thought I’d left behind long ago. It’s a little reductive to suggest that Minecraft is solely responsible for snapping me out of that funk. In truth, these are things I’ve worked on — and will work on — for my whole life.
Still, Friendland was huge. Minecraft has always been a favored escape for me in general. I like the feeling of discovery as you inch into a new world, where you never know what’s over the next mountain or buried in the next cave. Then, as you conquer the wilderness and build up a presence in that world, you imprint it with your own sense of identity. Turning that basic vibe into a social game where everyone’s personality is made manifest, block by carefully placed block, merely takes things to another level.
All of a sudden, I was an explorer in a group of explorers. We were all discovering this world for the first time, carving out our own little pieces. We didn’t realize or articulate it in quite this way at the time, but we were making our own history. It’s a still-unfurling history that’s detailed in a lengthy tome found in our community’s central village.
Identities quickly formed as we established our presence in what was then an untouched Minecraft world. The one friend who expressed doubts before going on to become one of the most creative forces in Friendland built himself a beautiful mansion carved into a mountain alongside a river, complete with an automatic secret door and underground lair.
Another member of the group threw himself into forming a mining concern. He spent less time building a home base and more time setting up an infrastructure for exploring and building up a stockpile of resources. There were other creations, too: A mountaintop castle built entirely out of blackstone bricks; an epic treehouse; a massive glass pyramid with Baby Yoda and Minion statues guarding its entrance.
Those early days were marked by a sense of independence.
Those early days were marked by a sense of independence. I built my own little corner of the world just a stone’s throw from our starting community center area. It’s a tribute to my new real-world life, a virtual religion named after my infant son. Like all of our other server identities — corporate overlord, mining baron, king of an empty castle – my fake church is a vehicle for humor and inside jokes.
After a few weeks of excitedly discussing personal projects and comparing notes in Discord, Friendland started to feel more alive. At one point in the early days, a tax was levied on the server’s small group of founders, with each of us asked to deliver large piles of iron for an eventual beacon. A construction crew also broke ground on our first proper mega-project, a sprawling train terminal built into our community center that links up to all of our respective homes using an elaborate, redstone-powered switching system.
That turned out to be the first of many projects. We have farms now for pretty much any Minecraft resource you can think of, to the point that it’s rendered the typical resource hunt moot. We’re not fighting to survive; we’re thriving, thanks to the ingenuity of various community members. It’s not just wood, stone, and other basic Minecraft resources. We also have farms for everything from black ink to Totems of Undying, as well as a curated village filled with vendors who stock rare enchanted books and other materials.
The focus of our projects has moved on to beautification and convenience, whether it’s making our home in the Nether look amazing or adding a second rail station. One of Friendland’s later arrivals even set himself to building a functioning theme park. Its standout rides include one modeled after Disney’s “It’s A Small World,” complete with a tour through Minecraft‘s most recognizable biomes and underground settings, and a roller coaster modeled after the Nether.
Some of these are group projects, others are the work of dedicated individuals. Most of us are media types, so it’s not uncommon to see a press release pop up in Discord touting someone’s latest creation. But everyone who participates in Friendland benefits. There are more resources available for fulfilling our own wild Minecraft projects, yes, but every little addition also makes Friendland a more appealing place to hang out, too.
It’s not something that we really talk about explicitly, but I feel like Friendland has given everyone who participates a sense of community. Not in that traditional way of stepping outside your door and interacting with neighbors. That’s often not possible on the server due to time zone differences and schedules that aren’t always complementary. (And it’s not possible in the middle of a pandemic, anyway.)
But to describe our social makeup as anything less than a community is to undersell it. I’m close enough to some of my fellow Friendland-ers that they were at my wedding. Others I’ve gotten to know more recently, mostly through the Minecraft server and our Discord chats. That’s led to other kinds of gaming and different flavors of good times, as these things often do.
I’ve felt this kind of thing from other games in the past. The crew I played the original Destiny with back in 2014 and 2015 are still some of my closest friends (a couple of them are Friendland founders, even). Going even further back, I had similar social groups in games like Borderlands 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
For this Minecraft server, timing is everything. It’s not just the people I’m playing with, though I do adore them all. It’s also the feeling that springs up every time I sign on, where I’m stepping into a kind of social space that’s been all too lacking for us during These Trying Times. And that goes doubly for my newbie parent self.
Minecraft has always been one of my go-to escape games, but in the midst of rising personal anxieties and outside forces locking us all into our homes, it’s become something quite different. The familiar, friendly, cared-for space that is Friendland brings comfort in a way that our chaotic real world simply hasn’t in 2020. And for that, I’m grateful.