Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

This won’t be like my usual weeknotes, but the only rule of weeknotes is to write regularly, not to write in a particular way or about a particular thing. To reflect on your week in a way that makes sense to you. So here goes.

One of the things that I appreciate about my dad is that he has followed me into the spaces, communities and topics I find interesting. I like how it gives us a third thing – a point of connection as I wrote about last week – and I guess it also validates my choices and interests, and I have a good enough relationship with him that that affirmation matters to me. More broadly it’s a reflection of his curiosity, open-mindedness and genuine interest in the world, which are things I really value in people.

So as my kids have grown into their teenagerdom and started having their own interests, I have pushed myself to show those qualities too. I’ve tried to enter the world of the GenZer with an open mind and heart. I will never be a part of GenZ, and I’m not trying to be. But like any other community I can watch and engage with that world with curiosity and empathy and a willingness to find the good and novel and joyful parts rather than ignoring it, dismissing it or judging and doom-mongering about it.

So I spend time on TikTok, for example. And I have followed my kids into the world of the Minecraft YouTube and Dream SMP fandom.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably don’t know about these communities, particularly the latter, so a short primer. Minecraft, as you probably do know, is an extremely flexible and creative computer game/environment whose main mechanic is mining and building (with a bit of fighting). Minecraft YouTubers are people who stream videos of themselves playing Minecraft, sometimes alone and sometimes together on multiplayer servers.

One of the most famous of these is Dream, who is best known for his speed runs (you can “win” at Minecraft by defeating the Ender Dragon, but you start from scratch and have to mine and build a lot of stuff along the way) and Manhunt series (where he has to win while being hunted by other players who are trying to stop him). The UK 18 year old tommyinnit is one of the most popular and my eldest’s favourite.

Many of these Minecraft YouTubers are part of the Dream SMP. This is a “Survival Multi Player” Minecraft server (ie one that allows player-vs-player combat) that was set up by Dream. But it has transformed into something else: the YouTubers who play on the Dream SMP have crafted an epic multi-act storyline that even if I could I wouldn’t attempt to summarise here.

Over the past few years they have streamed themselves role-playing on this server, each from their own point of view. The result is like one of those books or films where you have multiple viewpoints on the same scenes and story, but also one in which you can choose which of those perspectives you want to watch from. I am sure this must have happened elsewhere, wherever there are multiplayer servers (the existing multiverse), such as in Second Life or World of Warcraft, but I doubt to this scale.

The fandom around the Dream SMP, and Minecraft YouTubers in general, is massive. I am too old to have been part of online fandoms, but I do think there is a generational shift even from early stage ones, in that these content creators are not only aware of but actively engaged with their fans. They talk to and interact with them while streaming; they watch and appreciate their fans’ art and animatics. The fandom does not just interact with itself, but with the focus of their fandom.

Stepping back a moment, this just intrigues me from a socio-technical perspective. The impact of new technologies is often valued in terms of economics: cost savings, efficiencies, new markets, productivity, innovation. These new technologies (Minecraft, YouTube, and multiple social media platforms) are spawning new forms of entertainment. And as social beings, and their more profound impact is on our relationships with each other, the connections they let us form, the communities they help us build. I love how Minecraft’s openness has enabled this rich, entertaining and joyful space.

The kind of content Minecraft YouTubers create is personal. I am sure they have personas they put on and they certainly have boundaries they keep. Some YouTubers never reveal their real names or faces, and hardly talk about their real lives. But the nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration of a stream means their personalities scream through. You can tell when they are hyper, grounded, bossy, confident, funny, optimistic.

Which is all background and introduction to what I wanted to say.

Technoblade, my favourite Minecraft YouTuber and stalwart of the Dream SMP, has died, aged 23, from cancer.

Honestly it’s hit me hard, and I’ve been trying to figure out why, because I feel somewhat ridiculous for being this upset about a gamer with a silly name, especially because of course like many of his fans I never met or interacted with him. I know it’s a completely parasocial relationship. It’s not because it’s reminded me of the death of another loved one, or of my own or my kids’ mortality. It’s not a general sense of sadness about a young life cut short, or a reflection on deeper societal ills (and goodness knows there are enough of them right now). It’s not even out of empathy for his parents, friends or my own kids’ sadness.

It’s because from watching his videos and those of people he played with, I knew him, to a level not possible with celebrity subjects of parasocial relationships born of TV, film or music. I love his humour, his self-deprecating self-confidence, his kindness, his imagination, the insane depths of his strategic thinking, commitment and follow-through. If you want to get a sense of him quickly, watch the potato wars. Or maybe, if you don’t want to feel his loss, don’t.

I imagine that, around the world, there are millions of parents whose children are in mourning right now. It will seem strange and hard to understand, even silly, because Technoblade was just a gamer and their relationship with him wasn’t two-way but of a form that people who don’t engage with that community may not be able to recognise or relate to. But I really hope they don’t dismiss it. He is someone they – we – admired and liked and cared for and we will miss him being in our lives.

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