The Making of ‘The Mystery of Minecraft’

The game may not quite be a household name on the level of the most famous video games of all time yet, but it's quietly worked its way into the fabric of society in a way that very few games ever have.

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Reuters / Ints Kalnins

Mojang's offices in Stockholm on January 18, 2013

Most of the time, my job involves me telling my TIME overlords what I want to write about, and then writing it. It is, as I’m quick to tell anyone who asks, a sweet gig.

Every so often, however, said overlords come to me with an idea. Oftentimes, those assignments turn out to be among the most enjoyable ones to tackle. And never more so than in the case of “The Mystery of Minecraft,” a story on the phenomenally popular block-building video game in our new print issue, arriving this Friday. Our managing editor, Rick Stengel, is one of countless parents who live in homes with Minecraft-crazy kids; he threw the pitch my way and I got to explore it for several rewarding weeks.

TIME subscribers can read the article right now. But if you stubbornly insist on living your life outside the boundary of our paywall, don’t be too put out. My compatriots cooked up a bunch of other Minecraft-related items, all of which are yours to peruse, including the following:

Minecraft may be a game about designing, constructing and exploring virtual worlds, but the most fascinating thing about it is the meaningful impact it’s having on multiple aspects of the real world, from education to how cities are planned. My research turned out to be as as far-flung as any I’ve undertook for one piece.

For starters, I visited the Stockholm headquarters of Mojang, the 30-person startup behind Minecraft. I formally interviewed the game’s masterminds, Markus Persson and Jens Bergensten — better known to Minecraft fans everywhere as Notch and Jeb. But I also got to hang out and observe the Mojang team at work, and that was at least as interesting. (At one point, Jeb conducted a meeting with a coworker while playing the company’s on-premises “Theater of Magic” pinball machine.)

By phone and Skype, I also chatted with folks located everywhere from Madrid to Nairobi to Fanwood, New Jersey. And everywhere I went, it seemed, in real life and online, I ran into Minecraft players, parents of Minecraft players and significant others of Minecraft players. The game may not quite be a household name on the level of the most famous video games of all time yet, but it’s quietly worked its way into the fabric of society in a way that very few games ever have.

That doesn’t mean that Minecraft is here to stay — and it definitely doesn’t mean that the odds are high that Mojang’s upcoming games will replicate Minecraft‘s remarkable success. It’s easy to get irrationally exuberant over the potential of stuff like this: a few years ago, a lot of folks thought that the virtual community called Second Life might be a huge, world-changing deal, but it ended up appealing to a small-but-devoted audience rather than the masses.

Still, I don’t think that Minecraft‘s creators have anything left to prove. Even if it’s peaked, it’s shown that a truly idiosyncratic game, with willfully clunky graphics and an absence of gore, can become a creative passion for millions. I’m pretty confident, too, that some of the kids who are currently building stuff in Minecraft will be inspired to build meaningful things in the non-Minecraft world as they grow up, whether they become programmers, engineers or architects. There aren’t many technology products of any sort that have the potential to improve the lives of the people who play them in more than a temporary fashion — and we already know that this is one of the few.

Click here to read editor-at-large Harry McCracken’s full magazine story on The Mystery of Minecraft — including an in-depth trip to the developer’s headquarters in Sweden — available exclusively for TIME subscribers.

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