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Thursday, October 5, 2023

In Minecraft’s Dream SMP, All the Server’s a Stage

On the morning of the Doomsday War, president Tubbo surveyed the grassy hills of his domain, L’Manberg. His second-in-command, TommyInnit, rested beside him on a bench, nodding stoically. “Listen,” TommyInnit began, pausing dramatically. “I know you had to exile me.”

Gesturing with their Lego-like avatars, TommyInnit and Tubbo were winding up tension in a Macchiavellian political drama that has unfolded over the past year in Minecraft. Last week, over 1 million people tuned in to watch live. TommyInnit said they’d leave the past behind them; he wasn’t mad anymore. L’Manberg’s future was in jeopardy. “It’s got to be me and you versus Dream, just like it always has been,” said TommyInnit.

Dream is the owner of the Dream SMP server, since May the home of a virtual world built whole-cloth by dozens of characters navigating intrigue and betrayal, with arcs and storylines more unpredictable than any reality television. Video games aren’t just pop culture, but material for its creation. And out of that knowledge, a new theatrical tradition has emerged—gunky and psychedelic and stupid and random in that “lol so randOm” way only the internet can be. Some of the most popular online video games have become stages for live theater, broadcast to millions over Twitch and YouTube.

That includes Minecraft, part game and part digital sandbox. It’s like if the imagined dramas kids invented around their Lego sets were manifest and infinitely malleable. Blocks and blocks of colored terrain form perfect replicas of the Spirited Away universe or Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing. Building is the base skill, but there is also a Survival mode, in which players can collect items, craft tools, and fight creatures or each other.

Dream SMP is just that: The player Dream’s survival multiplayer server, where top Minecraft celebrities have constructed an ongoing, mostly improvised narrative over dozens of combined hours of livestreaming. On Twitch, the participants separately go live on their own channels to further the fictional drama through their unique perspectives for their millions of subscribers. Their fans have assembled Thucydidean wikis describing each and every conflict: the BT period (Before TommyInnit), the controversial election between the So We Are Gamers (SWAG2020) and Politicians of Gaming (POG2020) parties, the Second Pet War, right on to Doomsday.

“Stories are usually told in a more traditional way in television, movies, and musicals. What happens here is unique,” says Dream SMP’s Quackity. “To a lot of people, Minecraft is a game where people mine and gather resources. We’ve legitimized the fact that we can tell very interesting stories through video games.”

Dream SMP has a small and exclusive writers room. It’s on Discord. The personalities making up the storyline meet secretly in voice channels to sketch out general plot points: an election, maybe, or a new building. Written declarations of war (“Sometimes you just gotta kill some people sometimes yaknow – Sun Tzu”) or military strategies. Once the livestreams roll, though, things can quickly go off the rails, and often do. Quackity recalled waiting on stage at a podium for the results of Dream SMP’s presidential election. His SWAG2020 running mate, GeorgeNotFound, wasn’t showing up. It turned out he slept through the event.

“We joke about this. This entire Dream SMP lore happened because of GeorgeNotFound,” says Quackity. Abandoned, Quackity made an impromptu political party with a drunk-acting insurrectionist, Jschlatt, to form SchWAG2020. They won with 46 percent of the popular vote to POG2020’s 45 percent.

Role-playing in online video games is about as old as online video games themselves; In the ’90s, players in role-play multi-user dungeons (RP MUDs) prescribed rules of engagement and constructed elaborate storylines through elaborate, made-up characters, all with text. In early massively multiplayer online role-playing games, players would forego the prescribed plot to leverage avatars’ fashions, emotes, and customizable homes toward communal storytelling. But live video platforms like Twitch and YouTube have reformulated private video game role-play into entertainment, and entertainment into business. It is an art form that has become a bonafide viewing experience, a culture machine, closer in lineage to live theater than Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ Fortnite trick shots.

Minecraft SMP isn’t harkening in this new era of performance on its own. It is one piece of a renaissance. In the open-world action game Grand Theft Auto 5, gamers role-play messy interpersonal affairs and hard-boiled mafia narratives, moving their avatars and their vehicles around a sprawling city map. In 2019, at its peak popularity, viewers tuned in for over 17 million hours of GTA role-play over the course of just seven days. Recently, in the 2013 multiplayer survival-shooter Rust, a server run by Twitch streamer collective Offline TV has ascended to full-on reality television. Forming and breaking factions and stabbing each other with spears, dozens of top streamers vectored their personalities off the game to the effect of over a million viewers at its peak in early January.

Games are commodities, and games are art; but they are also artistic media. For players who choose to use them this way, games are the sum of their mechanics and aesthetics, like the underbelly of a piano or the set of a Broadway play. (Some fans refer to the Dream SMP as “Minecraft Hamilton” because of players’ many references to the musical). And liveness matters. The spectator sport is in analyzing how, given the limitations of game mechanics, players coordinate and improvise narratives. Even in a slow, creative game like Minecraft, the artists see limits where others don’t, and don’t see limits where others do.


Those qualities are also what make Dream the best-ever Minecraft player, according to countless videos on YouTube, where he has 16 million subscribers. Dream has held world records for Minecraft Survival mode speedruns, in which he exploits his knowledge of the game to mine materials, craft items, and beat the Ender Dragon, the biggest natural monster in the game, more quickly than anyone else. (In one run, he took a few extra seconds to name his sword “penis.” Some of Dream's speedruns are disputed; he has denied allegations of cheating.) His fame exploded in part due to his Minecraft Manhunt YouTube series, in which he raced to kill the Ender Dragon with just one life while his friends, hot in pursuit with traps and weapons, attempted to thwart him. The game is his art, and the stream is his theater.

His knowledge of Minecraft’s mechanics has given Dream SMP its own moments of high drama. A running storyline there is the “Disc Saga,” an ongoing battle to possess two rare records. TommyInnit once hid his discs deep under a mountain, live on stream but off camera so there was no visual record. As Dream searched around the mountain, he instead turned to sound, analyzing the footfalls and block-mining from his rival’s video. Like that, he captured the discs.

If all the world’s a stage, the internet is doubly so. The immense popularity of video game theater is in part due to its accessibility as free, online entertainment. More concretely though, the internet is the ocean everybody is swimming in—viewers, performers, critics, and everybody in between. The performance is diffuse across the game, across Twitch and its archived YouTube video, streamers’ Twitters (where they whine), their Instagrams (where they flex). The stage has no pit; it appears flat. Dream has never even revealed his face. To his audience of Minecraft players, he is a Minecraft elemental, and they are all enjoying the same tides.

On Doomsday, the battle for L’Manberg raged. Blocky avatars armed with swords bounced up and down across the district’s crumbling turf. Then, suddenly: “What?” yelled Tubbo, flames clouding his vision. Streams of explosives rained down; Dream had secretly installed TNT machines in the sky before the battle. The bricks comprising L’Manberg poofed out of existence. It was now a crater.

Correction 01/13/21 12:05am EST: This story has been updated to reflect that Dream's subscriber count on YouTube is 16 million, not 10 million. We regret the error.

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