How much might a poem be worth?
I thought of this while reading about the origins of the Minecraft “End Poem” this week.
If you’ve never played Minecraft — but are aware that it is a thing — you probably know that it’s a famously open-ended game. You can use it as a set of infinite Legos, to build all manner of wild stuff.
But you can also play it as a game with an ending: To reach the realm of the “Ender Dragon”, and kill it. If you manage to do that, the game ends, and then something quite interesting (and unexpected) takes place. A long poem begins to scroll up the screen. For the next nine and a half minutes, you sit there and read what is, in essence, a work of Minecraft literature.
The poem is a dialogue between two entities, who speak to you, the player. It’s a cryptic text, but as the two entities talk (one in green text, one in blue), they seem to suggest that they are an embodiment of the universe, and are speaking to us, the player. While playing Minecraft and living our lives, as these entities say, we humans are merely dreaming a dream — if a quite meaningful one. What’s more, in classic dorm-room whoa-dude moment, the poem posits that we are the universe, and we’re just hallucinating our individual separateness …
the universe said you are the universe tasting itself, talking to itself, reading its own code
The full text of the poem is here, and this is a video of what it looks like scrolling down the screen …
When I first read the End Poem, I quite liked it. I thought it rang the same bell rung by many world religions, or (somewhat) by Socrates in his metaphor of the cave: That a core struggle of humanity is to see outside the confines of our everyday existence, without developing contempt for our everyday existence. Regular life might be an illusion; Minecraft might be an illusion; yet playing both, the poem argues, is a nonetheless meaningful thing, a set of calipers we use to measure our humanity. Pain and grief are part of both games, as the entities note …
Does it know that we love it? That the universe is kind?
Sometimes, through the noise of its thoughts, it hears the universe, yes.
But there are times it is sad, in the long dream. It creates worlds that have no summer, and it shivers under a black sun, and it takes its sad creation for reality.
To cure it of sorrow would destroy it. The sorrow is part of its own private task. We cannot interfere.
The poem was written by Julian Gough; in a 2012 interview, he said the poem’s dialogue riffs on the dreamlike nature of gameplay …
The word “dream” gets used, but it’s really a story about the dream of a game, and the dream of life. It’s dream as metaphor. I love the strangeness that comes when people get so lost in a game that the game becomes the world. Because you do get lost like that. Especially in something like Minecraft, that’s so endless. You’re actually startled to come back into your life at the end of it. So I wanted to play with that moment, where you’re between two worlds, and for a short little period you’re not sure which one is more real.
It’s possible that the End Poem might be one of best-read works of poetry of the last few decades.
After all, the game has sold 238 million copies! Not all players have finished the game — but if even a small percentage has, we’re talking about millions and millions of readers.
They’ve spent countless hours online debating what the heck the poem means, and who precisely are the two characters doing the talking. There’s a thread in a Minecraft forum discussing the poem; it started in 2011 and was still going six years later. Some think the poem, much as the creator Gough mentions above, is a meditation on the dreamlike qualities of life that bleed in and out of gameplay. Others think it’s simpler — that Minecraft’s creator is telling us to to step away from the keyboard more often, heh. Or that he’s just trolling us.
Part of the power of the poem is that it retcons one’s experience of playing the game. You spent hours — hundreds, probably — learning to master the game. Yet it’s only after all that, when you kill the Ender Dragon, that the game offers any sort of philosophical gloss on what’s going on.
Given that Minecraft, the game, has sold 238 million copies, and was worth $2.5 billion when the creator, Markus Persson, sold it to Microsoft in 2015, you might wonder: What is that poem worth?
Well, apparently it’s 20,000 euros.
That’s what Julian Gough got for writing the End Poem. In an absorbing post for his newsletter, he explained precisely how he came to write it — and how the economics of it all went down.
The post is long but quite a page-turner (digitally, a bit-turner? or since it’s a web page, which doesn’t turn, it’s a … page-scroller?) Either way, you should really read the whole thing.
But the tl;dr is, Gough wrote the poem back in 2011 when Minecraft was still in the final approach to its final 1.0 release. Persson — known by his handle “Notch” —had posted on Twitter that he was looking for a writer who could create a work that would run at the end of the game.
A mutual friend recommended Gough to Persson; Gough composed that remarkable piece; Persson loved it, claiming it captured some of his own neo-gnostic thinking about life and games; and Persson put the whole damn thing into the game precisely as Gough had penned it. (Quite literally “penned” it: Gough wrote it by longhand.) Gough was thrilled that Persson “got” his work, and was astonished that it would be included as a long-scrolling component. Artistically, it was a deeply satisfying experience.
Economically, though, things went quickly off the rails. When time came to negotiate payment for the poem, Gough — as he explains — never quite shifted out of hey-I’m-making-cool-art mode into wow-I-better-get-a-legal-pro-to-finesse-a-contract mode. So he got 20,000 euros for the poem. A few short years later, when Microsoft was buying Minecraft for billions, Persson never kicked any more dough in Gough’s direction, despite handing out big bonuses to the full-time staff of Mojang (his firm for managing Minecraft). (Persson also later — on Twitter and in other places — cut loose with posts saying feminism is a “social disease”, arguing that privilege doesn’t exist, and supporting QAnon, proving once again that creators who craft art you admire might well turn out to be utterly dreadful people.)
One could imagine being rendered pretty bitter by this turn of events. Gough, by his own account, frequently was. But ultimately, by the end of the essay, he figures that the real payoff from writing the poem wasn’t economic. It was in having millions of people resonate to its frequencies — many of whom wrote him to describe how much it meant to them, and how it had changed their lives. Lovely, but … wouldn’t it have been nice to also have a bigger payout? Yes; though Gough argues that those riches might have stunted or rerouted his development, and prevented him from being the type of person who thrills to the way readers love his poem.
The extra remarkable thing is that Gough never signed away his rights to the poem. Mojang doesn’t own it, nor does Microsoft. So in a remarkable gesture to his fans (and ultimately to himself), in that email newsletter, Gough officially puts the entire poem in the public domain. Now anyone can use it, any way they want.
I’m happy for Gough. It’s not easy to watch other people get wealthy off something that contains a spark of your poorly-compensated genius. But, alas, it does fit into a long history of literary works that reshaped people’s souls — particularly poetry — but made the authors comparatively little money. Emily Dickinson’s hundreds of poems have been sold over and over again, though during her life she only ever published a small handful. Edgar Allen Poe was paid perhaps $9 for his poem “The Raven”, worth about $468 today; not nothing, but a microscopic piece of the money generated off it in time. Gough may not have riches, but he’s got excellent company.
(Who wants to clap after a tale of an artist who got financially screwed? Ah well. If, nonetheless, you do, behold the “clap” button below — which can be clicked a full 50 times per reader!)