I occasionally imagine a gaming server network remaining hidden away after the bombs fall, unpowered but unharmed. Intergalactic visitors making a pit stop centuries later would find these abandoned programs, and maybe fire them up to see what's inside. Entire worlds could reveal themselves in an instant—preserved monuments forged by long-gone men and women reaching into virtual skies, colossal messages etched into pixelated mountainsides. Simultaneously eternal and never existent, these cyber-landscapes could attest that thinking, creative creatures once roamed this physical world.
Virtual sprawl isn't empty, lifeless cyberspace. Like their real world archeological or urban counterpoints, these are windows into cultures and histories—testaments of what we can dream of if physics, time, and material are inconsequential. At their best, virtual worlds should stop only at the limits of humanity's imagination.
I wanted to see what happens when there are no barriers for us, when we are free to digitally live and build whatever, whenever, with whoever. How do people respond to the possibility of limitless creative freedom, and what evidence do they leave behind?
"Minecraft," a friend tells me one day when I explain this to him.
"That's what you want. Some places in that game are just…" he trails off.
"Never played it," I tell him.
"Seriously?" he asks, genuinely surprised.
Tens of millions of people have logged into Minecraft since its release five years ago. I might be the only nerd never to step foot in what I dismissed as the virtual equivalent of playing with blocks.
"Man, I logged well over two hundred hours on that thing. I had to stop."
I nod, perplexed. My friend is currently in the first year of his psychiatric residency. I have far more free time than him, but even then, I don't like video games with other people. When I play, I play to be completely alone. If I wanted fun times with other friends, I'd buy a frisbee.
"Look up the 2b2t server," Doctor Friend suggests without elaborating.
Good enough for me. I download a copy of the game, create a character, and pay a visit to my friend's suggested server. Surely, this will be the shining beacon I envision representing us for future generations.
I materialize atop a spire overlooking a vast expanse populated by decrepit mountains and lakes of fire. It's night, near total darkness, but in the distance I see the glowing eyes of groaning things skittering across crudely terraformed granite quarries under faint moonlight. Even if I could descend from the peak of this tower, why would I? I'm supposed to be exploring Minecraft, not the infernal planes of Carcosa.
Green fields. Blue skies. Cute cubist sheep. Quaint hamlets. That's what I anticipated. But this isn't what I see around me. This is some unforgiving cyber-wasteland, a hellish, pixelated world where one wrong step will lead not only to my death, but to public shaming of my virtual ignorance, as well. I survey my surroundings one more time, plot a descent route, and take my first step. I immediately slip and fall what would be a real world's seventy-five stories onto the basin floor. The chat log announces, "Andrew broke."
"Great job, faggot," a random player types.
2b2t is billed as the largest, longest-running unaltered server in the game, a fantastical world full of possibility and horror, equal parts Rivendell and Mordor. Exact numbers aren't known, but according to one 2b2t historian, "nearly 60,000 players have wandered the world at least once," generating a space so huge that the world takes up almost 800 gigabytes. 2b2t is the stuff of legend.
"Virtually the entire map from the spawn point to 5km from spawn is a desolate wasteland littered with ruins griefed bases, castles, and megastructures," wrote one 2b2t user on a Hacker News thread. "Typically players will build their bases anywhere between 10-500km away from spawn, and when they do, they build some of the most impressive bases I've seen in the game. One favored hobby of many regulars is to go hunting for these gems that have usually been abandoned years past."
"2b2t provides a very unique experience to players both new and old to Minecraft," wrote another on a Facepunch forum thread detailing the server's history.
"Good luck, and try not to die too much," is someone's simple advice given in the same thread.
"We're all equally worthless on this server. Nobody cares if you are raped, your base is destroyed, your friends betray you and your shit is stolen," said another, before one user summed 2b2t up simply:
"Welcome to Minecraft Hell."
"There was no main reason or big idea, it started out as any generic Minecraft test server in late 2010 where me and some friends played on to play the game," one of the anonymous server founders writes me after reaching out to him via email. "[A]fter a while we decided to open it up to see how much destruction could be made and started advertising it on various places on the internet." The founders made the usual rounds to sites like Reddit, Facepunch, and 4chan. Soon, hundreds of people spawned into 2b2t, taking advantage of its anarchic freedom.
"After the server got a pretty big playerbase, shutting it down suddenly would be boring and sad for everyone involved so it just kept going, even though most of us had quit the game at that point. So I just kept it running."
Although there is now only an average of twenty or so players any given day on the server, its upkeep of ninety dollars a month is maintained at almost no cost to its founders.
"Some people have been very very generous and kept the server up for several months in a row now without me having to cover anything."
I ask if any overarching philosophy or ethos behind 2b2t exists. Why do people keep coming back when there are countless other servers with fewer deathtraps, cleaner landscapes, and less use of the term "Newfag?"
"Partly," they write. "[Players] would join to play a game of Minecraft, and right as they spawn they see the huge mess, and there is nothing telling them what to do."
It's taken me a couple hours, but I've finally figured out how to live long enough to escape the initial starting point nightmare. Things seem somewhat tamer, albeit not by much, outside the obstacle course. A few buildings begin sprouting up in the distance, pockmarked, but still standing. Small rivers flow around me, even one or two minuscule plants growing from patches of grass. The experience is improved considerably by muting the chat log, which is now comprised primarily of three users arguing over when it's okay to use the epithet "nigger" in everyday vernacular.
In daylight, away from the spawn coordinates, the environment is decidedly less hostile. Less "At the Mountains of Madness," more "Through the Looking Glass." Floating pathways cross in and out of frame, some extending towards the horizon, others ending abruptly above me. Untended gardens show up every so often, and I pick some flowers, assuming they'll come in handy later. The terrain is still uneven, and often drops away into deep caverns. If one's not careful where they step, a fatal plummet can happen at any given moment. I'm not careful, and fall. Again. I respawn, flowerless, in the Pit of Despair, and almost immediately get stuck in a crevice, forcing me to spend the next ten minutes hopping frantically, trying to scramble my way out.
By some divine gaming provenance, a helpful user appears.
"Jump when I say so," he types privately.
I do, and after a few tries he builds a path for my escape. Afterwards, he gifts me sixty melons. I thank him, although I'm not sure what to do with said fruit, and continue along towards new areas of the map. I try turning the chat back on, and a new player has joined the discussion. His arguments are much more to the point—he just repeats "Heil Hitler!" over and over, incessantly. The others put a pin in their semantic discussion.
"What the fuck is wrong with this guy?" one asks.
"Heil Hitler!" he responds.
"Is this a bot or something?" another asks.
"Heil Hitler!" he responds.
"Hi, I'm new to this thing. So did people build all this shit around me at some point?" I ask.
"If by shit, you mean my pretty castle, then yes," someone types.
"Heil Hitler!" says Heil Hitler guy.
"Why do you keep coming back to this server?" I ask.
"Drugs," someone says.
"Heil Hitler!" says Heil Hitler guy.
"Honestly, what else did you expect?" they add.
"Not much, I guess," I say.
"It really is kinda like drugs," another user chimes in. "I just keep coming back to it."
I'm exploring a massive, phallic obelisk built of fruit when I notice my health bar depleting. I can't figure out why—there aren't any monsters nearby. Soon, the inevitable happens.
"Andrew starved," announces the chat log.
"Seriously?? After I gave you sixty fucking melons?? Dumb faggot," types my rescuer.
Later, as I pass a floating swastika while shrugging off the latest barrage of anonymous insults—"Niggering Nigger Jewfag" sticks out—I realize maybe 2b2t doesn't represent the pinnacle of human ingenuity. But it still might serve a different purpose: The mapping of a collective mindscape, our virtual id, visualized and digitized for all time. The highs, the lows, the nagging voices of criticism, the thoughts we'd rather not share—who hasn't felt all of these at some point?
In some ways, 2b2t is a more accurate depiction of humanity than I initially thought. Whether or not intended by its creators, the game gives imagery to an unrestrained stream of populist consciousness, the total summation of a certain segment of our species. 2b2t is like any other human mind: An infinitely expanding plane, filled with ideas both beautiful and terrifying, with an occasional voice on the wind making you feel like a fucking idiot.