Minecraft is not a game of bloodshed and carnage. It is not a game that encourages players to throw their morals out the window and murder their fellow man. According to its website, it "is a game about breaking and placing blocks." Another way to put that would be to say it is a very fucking boring game. So it seems odd that officials at the Children Services General Directorate of Turkey's Family and Social Policies Ministry announced on Tuesday that they would seek a nationwide ban on the block-based exploration game. Those conducting the probe argued that it had the potential to promote violence, social isolation, and cyber abuse amongst Turkish youths.
"Although the game can be seen as encouraging creativity in children by letting them build houses, farmlands and bridges," the report (as quoted in the Turkish daily Habertürk) reads, "mobs [zombie-like antagonists, which actually only exist in the game's optional Survival Mode] must be killed in order to protect these structures. In short, the game is based on violence."
Following these conclusions, officials passed their findings to the Ministry's legal affairs department, which would in turn lodge a legal complaint with the nation's courts. If the ban does clear the Turkish judicial system, it will become the first ever nation to ban Minecraft, which, as mentioned earlier, is pretty vanilla as far as video games go.
"Minecraft is one of the last games I would think would be banned based on violent content," Newsweek quoted Jonathan Jordan, editor of the UK's Games™ Magazine, as saying when the Turkish government first started investigating the game for potential violent content.
Turkey's probe into Minecraft began about a month ago , when Family and Social Policies Minister Aysenur Islam delivered a speech before the nation's parliament arguing that the game awarded points for violence (a dubious statement) and that it might promote violence against women specifically (a confounding statement). He apparently based his case on a 2013 incident in the United States, where a nine-year-old boy took weapons to school, saying he had been inspired to do so by a Minecraft character. But no further evidence or reason was provided.
On its face, the whole affair seems like a hyper-sensitive extension of the same sort of video games and violence debates the US has gone through for the past quarter century. (In the US, the furor has died down a bit and recent studies seem to suggest there is no real correlation.) Yet this case is a little odder and more inexplicable than that. Turkey has a history of censorship, but generally not over violence or video games. And Minecraft, while criticized for its addictiveness, doesn't have many accusations of violence against it, making it a weird target for silencing.
Most Turkish censorship involves web content that the increasingly conservative government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan deems inappropriate for political, religious, or prudish reasons. As of last month, the government has banned about 66,127 websites and thousands of Facebook and Twitter posts and issued over a hundred gag orders. Recently, they tried to ban Twitter. Yet in none of these instances does it appear that the government targeted games, much less violence in games. In fact, Turkey actually has no known record of banning video games at all.
The Turkish government may be getting a bit more paranoid about violence in video games now thanks to the fact that protestors in 2013 chanted about how they'd grown up beating on police in Grand Theft Auto. Yet the delay between 2013 and 2015, and the lack of prior action on more explicitly violent and popular games like Call of Duty , suggests that link is tenuous at best.
So analysts remain perplexed by the Minecraft decision. Violence in the game (which is used as an urban planning tool by the United Nations and a teaching tool in Sweden, the UK, and the US) is bloodless, not explicitly promoted, and solely directed against pixelated monsters , contributing to its age seven and up European rating and age ten and up US rating. Media experts stress that what violence there is promotes cooperation amongst human characters, furthering the game's good intentions.
In response to the Turkish ruling, a spokesperson from Mojang, the company behind Minecraft, stressed to GamesBeat that the game is malleable and even minimal violence is optional:
"Many enjoy the creative freedom that's presented by Minecraft and its tools, some are more interested by the opportunity to explore a landscape without boundaries and to go on exciting adventures with friends," said the spokesperson. "We encourage players to cooperate in order to succeed, whether they're building, exploring, or adventuring."
"The world of Minecraft can be a dangerous place: it's inhabited by scary, genderless monsters that come out at night. It might be necessary to defend against them to survive. If people find this level of fantasy conflict upsetting, we would encourage them to play in Creative Mode, or to enable the Peaceful setting. Both of these options will prevent monsters form appearing in the world."
But if Turkey were serious about its concerns for violence in Minecraft, then they'd have to start seriously investigating basically all children's playthings, or at least that's what Dr. Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist who works on videogame violence at Oxford University's Internet Institute, suggested to Newsweek back toward the start of the investigation last month:
"Thinking of investigating Minecraft for being violent," he said, "is the equivalent of ordering an investigation into violent LEGO playing."
This leads some to suspect that Turkey has an ulterior motive in targeting Minecraft—maybe to do with controlling communication channels, a la their attacks on major social media platforms:
"Banning Minecraft is similar to banning Twitter because it's a game played on a server," Rik Eberhardt, the manager of MIT Game Lab's Gaming Studios, told The Christian Science Monitor recently. "On a server those communicating can't be easily observed and monitored. I wonder if they see that Minecraft's popular, have a negative memory of video games influencing youth and worry this game is connected in some way."
Minecraft is incredibly popular in Turkey (a nation with a large and growing gaming market ). A local children's book on the game recently became a bestseller. And those joining Minecraft are hooked into a massive global user base. Since launching in 2009, Minecraft (which was recently sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion ) has attracted over 100 million users, surpassing Call of Duty's popularity on the Xbox Live network. That makes it essentially a large communications network, which could be utilized to spread political or religious information in ways that are difficult for government's to scrap and monitor as they can do via social networking sites or search engines.
There's precedent for governments taking on online games as a potential vector for undesirable discourse. In 2013, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency and the British Government Communications Headquarters, had both been deploying undercover agents into online gaming communities like Second Life and World of Warcraft to monitor their participants for suspicious communications. There is no evidence that these efforts were actually productive, but they do make it plausible that Turkey might, rather than drop agents into Minecraft, just seek to eliminate it as a communications channel.
Yet that may be giving Turkey too much strategic credit. The nation's in a weird place right now, veering deeper into protests and discontent amidst social upheavals and shifts. And it's being helmed by sporadic officials led by the increasingly bizarre Erdoğan, who over the past year has done many inexplicable and arbitrary things, like allegedly sucker punching a protestor after a mining disaster and pushing the idea that Muslims were the first to discover America. In all this swirling mess, almost any rationale for the potential Minecraft ban is possible. Or, as one gamer on Turkish website LeaderGamer summarized the situation:
"This is Turkey. At any moment, anything can happen."
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