Phillip Lobo

Phillip A. Lobo is an instructor of English at the Indiana Academy at Ball State University. He is a comparatist and literary scholar with an interest in the relationship between ludic and narrative practices. His work focuses on the function of games and literature as technologies for the production of subjectivity, investigating their procedural operation and political implications, particularly with regards to formal realism. He has presented at the Global Justice II Conference at Paris 8 University in 2012, as well as the ISSN Conference in Amsterdam in 2016. He has an article published in Chiasma: A Site for Thought, as well as in the journal Postmodern Culture. He has also written numerous articles for a non-academic audience for Open Letters Monthly, an online art and literary review.

Contact information: phillip.lobo at

Novel Subjects: Robinson Crusoe & Minecraft and the Production of Sovereign Selfhood

by Phillip Lobo


Video games are viewed with ambivalence, even as they gain increasing cultural currency. Like the novel before them, video games are hailed both as dangerous, corrupting influences and as invaluable components in a modern education. In either case, the shared hope and dread is in games’ ability to shape and produce subjects, a capacity alleged also to their novelistic forebears. This article performs a comparative analysis of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe -- widely considered one of the first works of formal realism -- and Mojang’s Minecraft -- a game frequently referred to as a ‘simulated Robinsonade,’ definitive in the survival game genre -- identifying, amongst their similarities, a ludic urge already present in the practices of realism, a desire to 'play in the world' of a text, and submerge oneself in a well-developed alternative subjectivity. It demonstrates how video games have taken up the torch of realism, both clarifying this underlying urge to make of novels a kind of game-of-self, as well as pointing to problematic qualities of the subjects they form and inform. Drawing upon Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, Jacques Derrida’s The Beast & the Sovereign v. 2, as well as contemporary criticism of games in general and Minecraft in particular, it establishes the realist novel as an individualist subjectivity-generator and locating the continuation of this mode in contemporary gaming, it demonstrates the common formal ambitions of both novels and games as mechanisms for the production of a coherent sovereign selfhood. By analyzing the methods of subjectification at work in each text, as well as the consequence subject’s particular characteristics, it both demonstrates the common thread of formal realism through these distinctly modern media, and explores the consequences of the distinctly modern, individual and sovereign, subjects they produce.

Keywords: Robinson Crusoe, Minecraft, Derrida, Rousseau, subjectivity, sovereignty, realism, novels, games.



For all the discourses of newness that proliferate in the marketing of digital games, game studies have had the benefit of a long view, seeing how texts echo, references and reproduces themselves across media. The connection is more than a process of remediation and adaptation, however; it is a genealogy of formal purpose and social effect, one through which a certain ideal of subjectification is conceived and executed. This essay aims to demonstrate the manner in which the first modern novels bequeath the task of formal realism to games and, conversely, how games can illuminate those aspects of formal realism which evince a ludic longing, a desire to become-game. In the construction of their subjects, and the functions of their forms, novels and games share an ambition that are each revealed in light of one another.

Fear of Fiction

The commonality between novels and games is most immediately visible in the contemporary reception of each respective medium: the alarmism around the “corrupting” influence of games echoes the initial outcry around the (now wholly-legitimized) novel. While the evils alleged to both novels and games are numerous -- addiction, moral degradation, violent fantasies -- most striking is their alleged ability to produce individuals divorced from social reality (Carbone & Ruffino, 2012; Cover, 2006). When the novel was itself novel, we feared renegade Quixotes and suicidal Bovarys; contemporary anxiety has fixed upon the dangers of digital alienation, an idea of anti-social gamers who, at best, wreak passive violence upon themselves and their families through social isolation, sexual apathy and self-neglect.

At worst, the fiction drives its consumer to acts of tremendous violence. Recoiling from the shock of the Columbine massacre, it took no time at all for the American public to locate the tragedy’s etiology, not in the perpetrators’ ease of access to high-powered weapons, but rather in the presence of the videogame Doom. Similarly in 1865, during the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, children’s periodical The Youth’s Companion pinned Booth’s crime on a literary education which had “familiarized him with every species of tragedy till a murder meant nothing more to him than a move on a checker board” (“Booth and Bad Literature,” 1865). Guns don’t kill people, this mentality seems to say, fictions kill people.

Something about fiction is frightening: in its capacity to immerse and alienate, in the way they seem to risk short-circuiting the reality principle, either trapping its victims in an anti-social fugue or causing fantasy to explode into the social sphere; this is particularly true of those that seem to threaten immersion or an “ingress into a virtual… world” or provide a “‘release’ from the constraints of identity” (Cover, 2006), as are alleged of novels and games. The change in attitudes around the former might lead us to take a historical perspective about the latter, entitling us to dismiss these fears as mere backlash. We can read the emergence of each of these forms as symptomatic of wider social changes of the sort that reliably inspire reactionary attitudes.

Yet, rather than simply dismissing this implicit equivalence and its associated dangers, we should see them as expressive of the powers and potentials alleged to these fictive forms. This is not to avow these powers, to claim they are effective to the extent propounded by fiction’s most vociferous critics, but rather to investigate what about these media in particular -- the novel and the videogame -- stir up such fears.

We would do well to take these fears seriously, to insist, as media studies have long done, that fiction has efficacy, that it contributes to the production of subjects, with all their quirks and characteristics. This is particularly pressing considering the preeminence of novels and games in contemporary cultural production and deployment, not least in the realm of education, where novels like Robinson Crusoe are already sacrosanct, and games such as Minecraft increasingly hailed as a vital part of developmental curricula. If novels and video games share a genealogy, if they truly take part in the shaping of selfhood, as their educational use entails, then they contribute to those features we rightly view with interest and ambivalence: the individual, the intersubjective, and the sovereign.

The Novel Subject

In his aptly named book The Rise of the Novel Ian Watt ties the novel to the emergence of middle-class hegemony and the concurrent appearance of formal realism. As Watt puts it, “…the various technical characteristics of the novel described above all seem to contribute to the furthering of an aim which the novelist shares with the [realist] philosopher -- the production of what purports to be an authentic account of the actual experiences of individuals” (Watt, 2009, p.27). This means novels are focused on the task of representing individual (and individualist) experience, one grounded in historical time, unlike previous genres which relied on stock characters and timeless settings. The result is supposed to be a more “realistic” representation of a contemporary individual’s experience of the world or, at least, that of the novel’s primary readership, the literate middle-class.

In On Longing Susan Stewart asserts that this formal practice is not just the representation middle-class subjectivity, but a production of it. Through “the solitude of … reading,” taking place as reading often does in private -- in “the milieu of the bourgeois domestic” -- the novel enables its reader to “mim[e] the creation of both an interior text and an interior subject.” In this way the novel acts as a kind of prosthesis of the soul, an “addition to the body which forms an attachment, transforming the very boundary, or outline, of the self” (Stewart, 1993, p.xi). This, according to Stewart, is accomplished by the creation a kind of exterior-within, by way of the novel’s carefully realized setting, within which the reader’s point of identification is rendered.

Stewart and Watt’s claims are both underpinned by a fundamental premise of literary subjectification. Both agree that the process relies on the definition of certain boundaries in the text. For Watt the line lies between the character and their environment; it is the realistic specificity of the world in the novel which makes the character’s experience in it relatable. For Stewart it is between exteriority and interiority; it is the production of both exterior and interior space through the act of reading which produces the effect of an interior subject. In either case, it is a matter of the subject and the objects around them: it is a matter of the self and the world.

What, then, can we say of world which Daniel Defoe creates in Robinson Crusoe --the first extant example of formal realism, according to Watt -- and what kind of subject arises from it?

The novel is most memorable when Robinson is on his famous isle, a space of ambivalence both dreaded and desired for its remoteness, its wildness. This transportation to an uninhabited isle is meant to make of Robinson a bare subject, a focal point for universal identification. Oft-cited is the claim that Robinson’s experiences, and thus his subjectivity, is accessible and thus relatable to all. As Samuel Coleridge puts it, Robinson appears as “the universal representative, the person, for whom every reader could substitute himself” (Coleridge, 1884, p.317).

Indeed, so confident was Jean-Jacques Rousseau that Robinson Crusoe could serve this purpose that in On Education he asserts that it is the only book he’ll permit his nephew Emile to read, trusting that it will foster in him the natural goodness and natural reason of his natural self. The way he exhorts Emile to take to this reading is telling:

His head should be full of it, he should always be busy with his castle, his goats, his plantations. Let him learn in detail, not from books but from things, all that is necessary in such a case. Let him think he is Robinson himself; … He should anxiously consider what steps to take; will this or that be wanting. He should examine his hero's conduct; has he omitted nothing; is there nothing he could have done better? He should carefully note his mistakes, so as not to fall into them himself in similar circumstances, for you may be sure he will plan out just such a settlement for himself. (Rousseau, 2013, p.177)

To wit, he thinks Emile should play in Robinson’s world, assuming his subjective position as his own, with all the freedom of action that should entail. This emphasis on the beneficial aspects of play is part and parcel with the rise of individualism in which the novel plays such a central role. Rousseau’s is only one particularly influential example of the “widely reproduced theories” of 17th and 18th century Enlightenment scholars who set about “disseminating the paradigm of valuing children’s individuality and the formative qualities of joyful play” (Fanning & Mir, 40) that gained such currency amongst the middle classes of the Anglophone world and persist to this day, reimagined and reinforced by psychologists and educators such as Abraham Maslow and Maria Montessori. (Nguyen, 2016).

What is so compelling about Robinson Crusoe, then, is not the psychological convincingness of its protagonist, but rather the empty space which he creates, the position he leaves open for inhabitation by the reader; by this measure Crusoe’s adventure is noteworthy not because it is Crusoe’s alone, but rather because it opens the door for the kind of play which fosters an individual delivered from the fetters of the social, what Maslow calls “rubricization,” which limit the development of the creative individual (Nguyen, 2016, p.481). Rousseau sees in Crusoe a world in which the selfhood of his nephew might safely grow, uninhibited and unrubricized, free to be creative, agentic and autonomous. And this due to the ease with which the experiences offered by the novel can be adapted and incorporated into the experiences of the reader -- a reader who becomes a player -- as well as the seeming reality or ‘naturalness’ of its world.

This points the way to the state of contemporary gaming. The task of realism as set out by the first novelists has been taken up by gaming with its diverse approaches to verisimilitude and its methods for constituting the subject. Indeed, in this capacity for play it is possible to see the ludic longing already present within literary formal realism, the way the novel reader was always invited to ‘play’ within its setting, and thus to produce the unique, individualized experience which defines the modern conception of subjectivity.

The Matter of Minecraft

First published in 2011 by Mojang AB, a Swedish game developer founded by Markus “Notch” Persson, Minecraft has since become one of the best-selling videogames of all time, second only to the innumerable iterations of Tetris. Described as a “sandbox” game -- that is, a game without clear goals or objectives, evoking the free-form play of a child’s sandbox -- Minecraft places the player in the position of a solitary individual within an extensive natural landscape open to the player’s plans and ambitions, but containing certain threats to the player’s in-game manifestation. Gameplay begins with the player-character placed at random within one of the game’s biomes, possessing nothing more than their health. Without prompting or tutorialization the player must learn to gather resources -- first wood from trees, later stone from the landscape, and numerous other materials including sand, seeds, coal and ore -- and to craft those resources into tools or more refined materials. In the meantime, the player-character must avoid natural hazards and hostile entities that populate the game world, pairing subsistence with survival until the player’s efforts buy them prosperity and security. In short, it is a Robinsonian scenario, in content as well as form, a connection remarked upon by other scholars, to the extent that Minecraft has been described as both “a personal Robinsonade” and “a simulation of Robinson Crusoe’s adventure” (Dooghan, 2016, p.6; Nguyen, 2016, p.484).

It is appropriate, then, that many educators -- still operating under the tenants of neo-Rousseauian theories -- have embraced Minecraft as a tool for precisely the kind of creative play which Rousseau encourages in the Emile’s reading of Robinson Crusoe. (Abrams, 2016; Allert, Richter & Friedrichsen, 2016; Dezuanni, 2016; Dooghan, 2016; Fanning & Mir, 2014; Nguyen, 2016) This conceptualization of play has everything to do with the project of individualist subjectification, such that “the capacity to creative something new and original… functions as a privileged concept that is understood as highly individual” (Nguyen, 2016, p.472) -- a goal which parallels exactly formal realism’s goal to produce “individual experience which is always unique and therefore new” (Watt, 2009, p.13).

Education is perhaps the most self-conscious exercise in subject-formation, explicit and avowed in a manner typically alien to performativity, interpellation, and other modes of subjectification. Even in our valorization of individuality, in the matter of education we accept the social role in fostering subjects, even if it is only so that we may shape them as individuals, capable of shrugging off the social. By examining the formal mechanisms by which a novel or game performs this feat of subjectification, we gain insight into the characteristics of those subjects it produces. To do so, we must establish just how the subject of the text is constituted, how the subject-position is formed.

The Player’s Personhood

Roland Barthes describes three factors which “define the positional field of the subject”: “temporality, person, and diathesis” (Barthes, 1986, p.20). Understood in terms of games, ‘person’ describes the inherent qualities of the player’s in-game manifestation, ‘diathesis’ the player’s range of actions and interactions within the game’s world, ‘temporality’ the manner in the subject is constituted with relation to time in the game. These three factors -- self-definition, world-interaction, time-experience -- are interlocking codes, necessarily combined to produce a robust experience of subjectivity.

The person of Minecraft is the focal point of the player’s experience. The player’s vision is represented by a first-person view of the world common to videogames. By placing the player ‘behind the eyes’ of the body they inhabit, the game performs its first and most straightforward calibration with individual experience, combining the literary conceit of ‘first person point of view’ with the linear perspective of visual art, itself a means of producing “...fluent, realistic and seamless ‘direct representation’” (Işiğan, 2013), accounting for the association of the first person view in video games with “the popular concept of immersion,” a consequence “the perceptual illusion of non-mediation” (Therrien, 2015). This matches precisely Barthes’ description of the reality effect in literature, where the representational method effaces itself in the interests of seeming to depict, unmediated reality (Barthes, 1986). All interactions with the world -- all potential diatheses -- originate from this fixed viewpoint.

Minecraft’s person has needs and physical limits, at least when the game is played in ‘survival mode’, the most Robinsonian, as well as the most popular, style of Minecraft play (Nguyen, 2016; Dooghan, 2016). In the novel, Robinson’s own experience is structured by many of the same concerns -- the need for food, for protection, for shelter from inclement elements -- which are proper to lived, embodied experience. The central motivation for the player of Minecraft is, at least in the earliest stages of the game, identical to Robinson’s: a question of survival, not just constructing but sustaining consciousness within the world.

The player character is silent, possessed of as few ‘personal’ qualities as is possible, eschewing any conceit of psychological complexity in favor of constructing a bare, unwritten subject. The player arrives at themselves seemingly without pre-existing attributes or motivations beyond those most fundamental to a singular subject. The person of Minecraft’s player character is thus hyper-Robinsonian in its reduction, its needs motivating engagement with the world, without otherwise defining and thus limiting the qualities of that person.

This brings us to diathesis, the active, ‘verbal’ component of literary subjectivity. Labor -- one of the main forms of diathesis in Minecraft -- is not abstracted or elided. Each blow of the mining pick must be actively played out, a repetitious activity that should, on the face of it, be extremely tedious. Yet like Robinson’s journal, which is similarly repetitious, this collapse of narrative and experienced action leads to a compelling sense of immersion in that action, a simulation of that experience or, in the case of Minecraft, its immediate production, achieved through a “close match between player action and game response” (Costello, 2016). This is a radical realization of the realist ambition to produce “a continual sense of actual participation in the action” (Watt, 2009 p.25), which in the novel had relied upon epistolary or journal forms.

Labor in Minecraft also serves to enable the complexities of crafting, much as it does in Defoe’s novel. Mere survival begins an inevitable progression towards an ever-more extensive power to shape and control the world, thus marking it with the player’s presence, the stamp of their self. This relationship to objects is intrinsic to the player character’s subjectivity. Recipes are simply known or at the very least possible, and in fact define the furthest extent of the player’s interaction with the world. To craft complex and refined items from rare resources is the closest thing to a ‘goal’ the game offers beyond survival; the ability to bake a cake was at one time seen as a prestige achievement.

Minecraft’s temporality is all that remains to fully situate the player’s subjective field. In Minecraft narrative time is entirely collapsed into the time of conscious experience. At most time in Minecraft is accelerated, as evidenced by the fact that a day and night cycle in the game takes only twenty minutes. The time experienced in Minecraft, while miniaturized, is continuous and one-to-one: time in narrative equals time in consciousness. Elision of time is possible in the game only by interacting with a bed, by ‘sleeping’ in the game, an act which is analogous to an elision of consciousness itself.

World Enough

So much for the player’s subject position. What of the world? Robinson is nothing without his island; insulation enables what Watt calls the “absolute economic, social and intellectual freedom for the individual” (Watt, 2009, p.86) that is central to Robinsonian subjectivity. For while at first he despises the island in time Robinson learns to love it as Rousseau loves it: as a state of nature.

Of course, Crusoe’s island is not nature; even Rousseau admitted this prelapsarian state may never have existed, and might never exist, that it was a useful fiction (Rousseau, 2005). To see this as other than a fiction is to fall into the trap of naive realism, which presents the text as a source of unmediated access to both nature itself and to the rational subject within it. Instead the ambition to do both highlights the specific formal methods used to represent ‘natural’ reality.

Because while Crusoe’s island and Minecraft’s world cannot give us the real, it does aim to provide an experiential approximation of reality. Barthes touches upon this when he comments on the importance of “insignificant notation,” “purely summatory” description that amount to “useless details.” (Barthes, 1986, p.142-3) This signification in and of excess denotes reality by virtue of its seeming to do nothing besides report the real, in all its structurally uncalled-for plenitude.

This aspect of reality -- excess -- is but one of several qualities which the world of games such as Minecraft very successfully simulate in their own assumption of the realist task. It is, indeed, precisely in their ability to generate worlds that games continue the realist tradition.

Minecraft’s world is excessive -- this is evident from its size and depth. While there are technical limitations on the size of the world in Minecraft, this limit is absurdly high, such that the proper ‘maximum’ size of the world would still be 9.3 million times the surface area of the Earth. In dimensions alone the potential space of Minecraft’s world exceeds that of our own in terms of scale and extent. From the perspective of direct representational realism this is quite obviously unreal, but it is perfectly congruent with the goals of experiential realism. For the solitary individual, the real world is infinite insofar as it is inexhaustible by any singular mortal experience; Minecraft assures its subject of a comparable infinity.

As well, the world demands consistent forms of applied labor from the subject if they are to make their mark -- however infinitesimal. Here we bump into another aspect of experiential realism, that of resistance. Compare the aspirations to realism implicit to “survival mode,” wherein mortality and labor are enforced aspects of the game’s rules, to “creative mode”, wherein immortality and flight are both bestowed on the player, and the labor required to make a mark on the landscape is reduced to zero. Of these two modes, “survival” is easily taken as the more real, almost exclusively by dint of its difficulty, in the way the world resists as well as responds to the activity of the subject.

Last of all, the world of Minecraft is random, thus activating a third aspect of experiential realism, and one which games are uniquely suited to provide. Whereas Robinson’s island will be the same every time, as will Robinson himself, Minecraft deploys a mechanism particular to gaming and its contributions to formal realism: that of procedural generation. This world-generation process is governed by certain rules, and thus certain consistent properties and qualities can be expected of it, but the ambition is clear: to make no two Minecraft worlds the same. This enables that all important ‘uniqueness’ of individual experience by giving the player a functionally unique world in which to constitute themselves. The world is individual, and thus the subject must also be, as there is nothing else besides the world and the player’s interactions with it to define what the subject even is.

These three aspects of Minecraft’s world -- excess, resistance, and randomness -- are all matters of creating a sense of otherness, definitionally the limit of the self. They describe the uninhabited -- that which has not been subsumed into habit, that which exceeds, resists and confuses habituation -- and thus both nature and the other. It is in the service of creating a space for a habit-less subject that such a world is conjured, if only to encourage them to generate their own new habits, and thus a new subject.

Thus Minecraft aims to further fulfill a dream of realism, one which Rousseau identified in Robinson Crusoe, the dream of bare subjectivization (i.e. producing a subject without habit) through the production of a virtual nature (a definitionally uninhabited space). In many ways, Minecraft better answers the demands made of Defoe’s text: its subject appears more bare than Robinson Crusoe, the world more capacious and, by the standards of realism itself, more representative of the ‘natural’ by dint of its randomness, a randomness that, itself, guarantees the unique character of the subject and their experience. In short, Minecraft -- being a game -- permits freedom, of precisely the sort Rousseau values: freedom from habit, freedom from society, the freedom of the solitary subject.

What’s noteworthy, then, is the extent to which, in the face of all this freedom, the same behaviors tend to emerge, common fears and shared anxieties. In short, the subject is not as bare is it might seem; Minecraft aims to be ‘more Robinson than Robinson’ yet in this very hyper-Robinsonism we find Robinson’s peculiarities of habit emerge not from any pretense of psychological interior but rather as a consequence of formal subject/world relations.

From Survivor to Sovereign

What are the habits and impulses that, in the face of purported freedom, tend to reliably emerge? And why do they emerge, from what conditions, what relations between this supposedly bare subject and their supposedly uninhabited world?

We say supposedly uninhabited, because while the core experience we have described is the single-player experience of Minecraft, the most Robinsonian in its solitude, even this island-world of solitude contains entities which approximate others. There are, in Minecraft, a number of non-player entities, some domesticable -- most of the animals -- some unremittingly hostile -- a number of supernatural monsters. The domesticable animals find clear analogs in Defoe’s novel -- that the animal appears as a mechanical and masterable part of the world in both subjective universes is fully compatible with the Cartesian subject -- but, upon closer investigation, we find that there are also threats and fears that appear in both Minecraft and Robinson Crusoe, in the form of the monsters and phantasms that mark both texts.

In his reading of Minecraft’s implicit ideology, Daniel Dooghan claims that the game is “a utopian space for aspirational neoliberal subjects” through its privileging of a “mythological individualism” (Dooghan, 2016, p.5, 17), and indeed it is this myth upon which the valorization of the unique, creative subject rests. Yet just as Minecraft participates in the tradition of the Robinsonade, its alleged neo-liberalism is descended from older formulations of the citizen-subject. As Dooghan himself asserts, reinforcing that genealogy, “what [Robinson Crusoe] provided for the rising 18th-century bourgeoisie, [Minecraft] provides for those under late capital.” (Dooghan, 2016, p.2) The common thread of individualism connects novel and game, reflecting the difficulties that arise when this paradise of the self encounters signs of the other.

It is here that we will find Jacques Derrida’s seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 2 particularly useful, dealing -- as it does -- with both Robinson Crusoe and subjectivity, particularly the connection between sovereignty and subjectivity which, he argues, Defoe’s novel illustrates. And it is in Crusoe’s fear that he locates this connection: “[Crusoe] is scared. (He sleeps in a tree, having no house, ‘for fear of wild Creatures’): he scared, that is his basic feeling, like Hobbes’s man for whom fear is the primary passion, the one that originally leads to the foundation of the state…” (Derrida, 2011, p.2).

We have already theorized that it is during an epoch of social change (the rise of the middle class) that fears about the novel and its powers proliferated; we have also suggested that this is due to the novel’s (alleged) power to generate that change, producing new subjects for a new social order. Yet what fear motivates the writing of the novel itself, and what fears does the novel’s new individualist subject express?

For Rousseau it is the tyranny of society and all its prejudices that drives people to seek Robinsonian experiences, to attempt the Cartesian deconstruction of the traditional self to make way for something natural, reasonable and virtuous. As Watt points out, Robinson’s disastrous shipwreck, “far from being a tragic peripety, is the deus ex machina which makes it possible for Defoe to present solitary labor, not as an alternative to a death sentence, but as a solution to the perplexities of economic and social reality” (Watt, 2009, p.88).

Indeed this very desire to retreat from society is part and parcel with the very society that was forming and was being formed by the novel; the individualist subject, whether or not it is brought into being through lived experience or through its fictional analog, endures in solitude yet fears its alternative. Thus Robinson Crusoe’s popularity can be accounted for in part due to its power to redeem the experience of being-alone which, for the individualist subject, is basically constitutive of experience. As Watt puts it: “The solitary readers of two centuries of individualism cannot but applaud so convincing an example of making a virtue out of necessity, so cheering a coloring to that universal image of individualist experience, solitude” (Watt, 2009, p.89).

And in making a virtue of his solitude, Robinson reciprocally creates a fear of the other -- a fear of a society of others, of the Other in general -- which haunts him in various and ambivalent forms. As Derrida points out:

[Robinson] is afraid of being swallowed up or “buried alive” … thus of sinking alive to the bottom, of sinking and being dragged down to the depths, as much because of an earthquake as because of wild or savage beasts, or even because of human cannibals. He is afraid of dying a living death by being swallowed or devoured into the deep belly of the earth or the sea or some living creature, some living animal. That is the great phantasm, the fundamental phantasm or the phantasm of the fundamental: he can think only of being eaten and drunk by the other… (Derrida, 2011, p.77)

These fears -- of the earth, of beasts and of cannibals, all manifestations of the other -- remain visible in Minecraft, demonstrating the deep relationship between the kind of subject these texts form and the kinds of fears inherent to this formation of subjectivity. We can see it best by examining the closest thing the game’s world has to others, the mobile and thus automatic and autonomous entities in Minecraft, commonly dubbed ‘mobs’.

The most benign entities in Minecraft are domesticable animals. Pigs, sheep, cows and chickens can all be tamed, bred and slaughtered for resources such as leather, wool and meat. In this way they are not notably different from Robinson’s tame goats; indeed, they serve a similar function in both texts, as subordinate companions and as both food and clothing. They are cute and distinctly inhuman; they are cohabitants -- their presence shapes habit by existing as interactive objects and resources -- but they are not easily mistaken for subjects.

Meanwhile, the hostile mobs tend to be the most humanoid: there is the disembodied head of the slime, the armless torso of the creeper, the fleshless frame of the skeleton and then, finally, the most common hostile mob, the zombie, the embodied example both of living death and of death by being devoured -- those very things Robinson most fears. The gradient that stretches from domesticable animal to hostile monster ends with the avatar of Steve himself, the player’s default avatar and -- as side by side comparison reveals -- the zombie is depicted as wearing the exact same outfit as Steve, comprising a dark (greenish, really) mirror of the subject. The zombie is thus a most proper contemporary analog to the cannibal which so concerns Robinson Crusoe; the two embody the same anxiety about the self-eating capacity of others, the threat to one’s ipseity they represent, both through both their difference (as other) and their resemblance (as too close to the self).

As Derrida points out, this ambivalent fear of the other is correlated with habits of sovereignty; it reveals the mentality that produces both the modern subject and the modern state. Already the all-aloneness of the Robinsonian scenario, the individualism that Watt considers foundational to the novel and thus to its subjects, provides the basis for a conception of sovereignty. “It is not by chance” Derrida observes, “that two meanings as different as ‘I am alone’ (in the sense of solitude) and ‘I am alone,’ in the sense of exception, singularity, unicity, election, and irreplaceability (often, moreover, the features of sovereignty) here lodge in the same word…” (Derrida, 2011, p.66).

Not content with this grammatical link, however, Derrida returns us to Rousseau, in order “to link firmly our reading… of Robinson Crusoe to our problematic of sovereignty.” He notes that, in a text other than Emile, Rousseau “invokes Robinson Crusoe” but this time “not as an experience of an exceptional insular originality that is freed from all prejudice, but rather sovereign mastery, monarchy of a Robinson who commands everything on his island, on an island during the time he lives on it alone, the sole inhabitant of his world” (Ibid, p.20).

The monsters, however, most vividly demonstrate the anxieties specific to the question of the presence of the other and the potential dangers they represent. The experience of threats to the player-subject -- threats which themselves present a distorted or reduced image of the subject -- is what motivates much of the initial construction in Minecraft; the danger of others is one of the most forceful initiators of activity and thus of the very inscription which, as we have established, comprises the formation of the player-subject. A similar motivation drives Robinson as he constructs his wooden stake fences and, ultimately, what he calls his ‘Castle’ -- an act mirrored by the Minecraft player who frequently populates their world with “increasingly elaborate fortresses” (Dooghan, 2016, p.12). As such, the immediate active symptoms of sovereignty is first and foremost a fear of the other -- be it in the form of animals or, worse still for its similarity to the subject, man-eating-men: cannibals or zombies.

Thus, as with Robinson, the subject’s trajectory from survivor to sovereign is one of the most reliably reproducible within Minecraft. This trajectory is part and parcel with precisely the autonomous, agentic, creative subject Minecraft produces through play, those features seen as valuable both by Rousseau, in his reception of the novel, and more modern educational theorists. Such features are, if anything, seen as more proper to games than to novels; the very ludological allegations of medium specificity (or even superiority), the freedom from the ‘linearity’ of fixed narrative, the agency invested in the player that is presumably denied the reader, are all expressions precisely of the player’s sovereignty, inseparable from the individualist conceptions of creativity and autonomy which proponents of educational games celebrate.

The obverse side of this mode of subjectivity is its fear of otherness, the ambivalence that occurs when the splendid isolation of the sovereign is called into question. Thus Robinson Crusoe’s famous encounter with the footprint in the sand, a chapter which begins with an unambiguous assertion of Crusoe’s sovereignty:

There was my majesty the prince and lord of the whole island; I had the lives of all my subjects at my absolute command; I could hang, draw, give liberty, and take it away, and no rebels among all my subjects. Then, to see how like a king I dined, too, all alone, attended by my servants! Poll, as if he had been my favourite, was the only person permitted to talk to me. My dog, who was now grown old and crazy, and had found no species to multiply his kind upon, sat always at my right hand; and two cats, one on one side of the table and one on the other, expecting now and then a bit from my hand, as a mark of especial favour. (Defoe, 2003, p.117)

Thus we find King Crusoe, surrounded by his trusted subjects: all domesticated animals. What follows is a classically Robinsonian description of clothing and equipment, stock and territory, that bears a resemblance to the function of Minecraft’s inventory screen, complete with a clearly described self-image. But it is Robinson’s fear we’re after, the fear that follows out this self-assuredness and self-possession that emerges from sovereignty, and it is in the passages further on that his royal composure is profoundly disturbed:

It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one.… How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man. (Ibid, p.122)

The assurance of being alone, and thus the assurance of sovereignty, and in turn the assurance of self-hood -- individual, singular, making its determining mark on the world -- is what the print upsets. As Derrida says, “having not yet found any trace of human life on the island, having not yet heard any voice other than that of his parrot Poll who echoes his own voice,” when Robinson encounters the footprint it is “as though he had seen a ghost, a vision of a specter (an Apparition).” And the ambiguity that inflects Robinson’s fear of being devoured -- what Derrida calls a “promise” and a “desire” -- appears also in his fear of the footprint, “a sign that is as menacing as it is promising, uncanny, as diabolical as it is divine: the other man. … Who is the other?” (Derrida, 2011, p.47).

This ambiguity is essential, in that it regards the subject’s very essence, its sense of self-sameness, its authority over its actions -- that is, the assurance that it is the author of those actions. Hence Robinson’s attempt to calm himself by reasoning that the footprint is his own:

In the middle of these cogitations, apprehensions, and reflections, it came into my thoughts one day that all this might be a mere chimera of my own, and that this foot might be the print of my own foot, when I came on shore from my boat: this cheered me up a little, too, and I began to persuade myself it was all a delusion; that it was nothing else but my own foot; and why might I not come that way from the boat, as well as I was going that way to the boat? Again, I considered also that I could by no means tell for certain where I had trod, and where I had not; and that if, at last, this was only the print of my own foot, I had played the part of those fools who try to make stories of spectres and apparitions, and then are frightened at them more than anybody. (Defoe, 2003, p.125)

That’s the question that this bare footprint is asking me, as the trace of a man. The other man, the step of the other man -- is it not me again, me alone who, returning like a revenant on the circular path of the island, become an apparition for myself, a specular phantom, a specular specter (the other man as myself, myself as another, I who am an other), but a specular phantom who cannot, who does not know if he is himself, apse, who really doesn’t know -- nor whether he can still look at himself in the mirror? He scares himself. He becomes the fear that he is and that he makes himself. (Derrida, 2011, p.49)

There are no mirrors in Minecraft, nor in Robinson Crusoe. The reflection of the self must be found in the other, yet the always-uncanny other -- appearing as ghost or zombie, cannibal or devil -- presents an intolerable problem to the singular self, the sovereign survivor. Minecraft’s zombies are identical to the player’s default appearance save for the green hue of their skin; its simultaneous difference and resemblance challenges the player’s aloneness, singularity and self-sameness. The footprint on Robinson’s island might not even be a sign of threat; it could be Robinson’s own, or that of rescuers. But the terrible foundational fear and fundamental fantasy lies in this very uncertainty, one that emerges in precisely the situation in which the subject is supposed to be most clearly defined, most singular and most sovereign: in Robinson Crusoe an island, in Minecraft a single-player session.

This stranded state is, for Rousseau, a political dream of a ‘true’ democracy in which the subject and sovereign are contained within the same person, “a citizen who is, all alone and immediately, the state itself, the sovereignty of the state-of-citizen, of the citizen-state” one which correlates to “a sovereignty without obstacle and therefore without enemy” (Derrida, 2011, p.21). This total loneliness of the individual, both intolerable and indispensable, is the very guarantee of sovereignty. But the moment the other arrives in this political paradise, the moment intersubjective relations become a possibility, fear and the potential for violence are immediately manifest; in an instant we go from a Rousseauan natural state to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Robinson’s methods for coping are thus predictable (and predictably colonial): he demands subjugation and conversion, or resorts to violence. This, of course, is how he imposes his will on Friday -- liberating him through violence he then demands literal religious conversion and total obedience, a willingness to die upon his order -- but it is also his method for dealing with the English mutineers, once their leaders are executed and they are taken captive:

I then told them I would let them into the story of my living there, and put them into the way of making it easy to them. Accordingly, I gave them the whole history of the place, and of my coming to it; showed them my fortifications, the way I made my bread, planted my corn, cured my grapes; and, in a word, all that was necessary to make them easy. … … I gave them a description of the way I managed the goats, and directions to milk and fatten them, and to make both butter and cheese. In a word, I gave them every part of my own story… (Defoe, 2003, p.218)

Hence even when he agrees to let others colonize his island, and indeed leaves the island under their care, he does so under two conditions: absolutely subjection to him (recognition of his absolute and singular sovereignty) and that they hear his story and thus learn to imitate him. And thus Robinson Crusoe himself uses the story of Robinson Crusoe precisely in order to create more Robinson Crusoes, in order to properly subjectivize them, to make them sufficiently identical to himself, to erase their otherness.

The result of this attempted subjectification, as we might expect, is not a harmonious and egalitarian polity -- Robinson is, after all, trying to bequeath a single island to numerous singular Crusoes -- and when he returns to his island he discovers another story “as full of variety and wonderful accidents as my own part” -- that is, singular and particular enough to perhaps be worth a novel unto itself -- yet one that all the same sounds quite familiar:

I visited my new colony in the island, saw my successors the Spaniards, had the old story of their lives and of the [English mutineers] I left there; how at first they insulted the poor Spaniards, how they afterwards agreed, disagreed, united, separated, and how at last the Spaniards were obliged to use violence with them; how they were subjected to the Spaniards, how honestly the Spaniards used them… (Defoe, 2003, p.240)

However honest their use by the Spaniards, the fact remains that intersubjective relations are deeply fraught whenever the subject is defined in such a singular manner, and the moment this supposedly natural and unprejudiced subject encounters any form of other.


This is not meant to leave us in the position of the fiction-phobes, convinced that novels and games alike will churn out other-fearing maniacs. The relationship between fictional violence and real-world violence is by no means direct. We must, however, recognize that the tradition of realism has bequeathed us a powerful technology, one which is at home in games as it is in novels. We should take this power seriously, and recognize also that technologies can have more than one application, more than one outcome. The story of the sovereign survivor is not the only one that can be told with the techniques of formal realism, and its solitudinous subject is not its sole product. It is not trivial, then, what kind of subject takes shape in the play between reader and page, player and screen. The stakes are the very formation of our persons, as games and books both together shape our senses of self, our expectations of the world.


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