Things school won’t teach you but this block game will

By: Edmund Wong

‘Minecraft’ is probably the best-selling game of all time. This game, premised on collecting resources, building, and survival in a sandbox voxel world has captured the hearts and imaginations of many a child. That includes me, of course. Since I bought the game 4 years ago, I have clocked thousands of hours slaving away at this game with no bearing on my actual life. However, I dare say that what I’ve learned from it has been extremely valuable and shapes much of who I am today.

The Hypixel main lobby.

When Minecraft is mentioned, those in the loop usually think of singleplayer worlds, survival multiplayer (SMP) games with friends, or even pure, chaotic fun in the unrestrictive, aptly named Creative Mode, where one can choose to blow up everything in sight with unlimited TNT. For 99% of players, these are the preferred and typical modes of play. Most of my playtime, however, was recorded on a public Minecraft server named Hypixel. To put it into perspective, this server could be joined by any player in the world, but they usually have a much smaller concurrent player count of ~70000 people at once. More specifically, this server offers a variety of custom game modes, powered by custom-programmed plug-ins and smart implementations within the game’s limits. The most popular among them is SkyBlock, a typical Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game archetype. This is a type of video game that allows thousands of players to interact with each other in a persistent virtual world. In a MMO, players can create their own characters, customise their appearance and skills, and explore the game world with other players. They can also engage in various activities such as quests, combat, crafting, trading, and socialising.

One of the first things I learned about playing games like these is not just the sheer value of hard work and dedication, but also how other factors are important in the quest for success. Top players in these games – with all their skill levels maxed out, in possession of the most valuable items and near-unlimited in-game currency are really glorified and idolised by the community. They have close connections with game developers, get to become beta testers, and often gain clout easily, becoming popular Internet celebrities by showcasing their in-game wealth on YouTube. Surprisingly though, they have relatively low hours logged on the game compared to other not-as-well-to-do players. So, what are their secrets to success?

For one, rather than spending ungodly amounts of time playing the game and trying to accrue more resources, some of them take advantage of the ‘new update rush’, or what is known in economic terms as the ‘first mover’s advantage’. During new updates, players rush to obtain the newest equipment, defeat the newest enemies and bosses, as well as complete the storyline and content. The new items introduced in these updates are usually highly coveted due to novelty. There is also a certain fear of missing out – if the items turn out to be highly useful or powerful, and are also rare, their prices will increase even more in the future when more people pick up on their value, creating a speculative demand – people want to obtain them as early as possible. Thus, those astute players often go to extreme ends, such as playing the game in the wee hours of dawn to be the first people to obtain these new items, selling them off to the highest bidder. 

This ‘hard work’ pays off, though – the ‘hourly rate’ for the work put in is vastly superior to the regular rate from other activities that accrue in-game currency. This applies in real life too – there will be certain limited opportunities that can pay off massively, such as a leadership camp, CCA competitions or even, in the workplace, certain trends and projects that seem novel and risky. Those bold venture capitalists who invested in large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT are now laughing all the way to the bank with their newfound earnings. It is in the ability to see and act on these valuable opportunities, and in becoming the first mover, where we can achieve even more.

Perhaps I sound like an overzealous, optimistic believer in the American Dream. But there are still other ways in which MMO players achieve ‘financial independence’. In all MMOs, trading is an essential part of the in-game economy. It’s how those players I mentioned earlier are able to sell off their items for obscene amounts of in-game currency. In Hypixel SkyBlock specifically, there is a specialised trading system for commodities, such as potatoes, gold or even fish, called the Bazaar. This functions similarly to a stock exchange – players place buy orders and sell orders for large quantities of an item, and more impatient players can choose to fulfil those orders immediately for a higher relative price. Some players catch on to the price difference, subsisting on creating buy orders, waiting for them to be filled, then flipping them to sell orders to be sold for a higher price. This strategy is known as ‘bazaar flipping’, which is suspiciously similar to something that happens on stock trading platforms today. However, this is horribly inefficient, as many players are unwilling to pay higher prices since they could do other things while waiting for their orders to be filled.

Another strategy players employ in these games, using the Bazaar, is timing the market. During new updates or certain seasonal events, specific commodities become extremely useful and valuable. For example, during player-voted Fishing Events, the yield from fishing increases a lot, making it more profitable and beneficial compared to other activities. There are also limited-time items that can be obtained and special creatures that can be fished up. Due to this, there is an increase in demand for specialised fishing gear, such as fishing rods and fishing armour. A major crafting component for this equipment is sponges. (Don’t ask me how that works, it’s a video game.) Thus, during these events, the price of sponges increases exponentially. Smart players will then choose to hoard large quantities of sponges, having bought them at a time when their demand, and thus price, is a lot lower, then selling them off when demand and price is high. This strategy broadly applies to many of the events in the game. Of course, however, it’s not always possible to predict what commodities will be needed in the future. Some players have ‘struck the gold mine’ – having purchased a lot of seemingly useless commodities, only for them to suddenly be in shortage after a key update. That also goes to show how much of a factor luck plays in success. Most of the time, these weird and wacky investments don’t work out, but for the select few they do. Of course, trying your luck in dubious investments is way better in a low-stakes environment like a video game than in real life.

The Bazaar, a centralized hub for trading commodities

Apart from all the rhetoric about achieving success, a common occurrence in MMO games are scams. Ranging from the typical ‘doubling money’ scam to the unthinkable ‘third-party modification that steals your login information’ scam, players go to great lengths to obtain what does not belong to them. For example, scammers often advertise ‘co-op scams’, in which they masquerade as capable players, asking to be given shared access to another player’s shared profile. By playing off the human desire to make friends, these scammers are able to steal the player’s valuable items for their own profit. It’s really appalling and telling of human nature how people are willing to stoop so low just for some digital goods that have no meaning in the real world. 

There is also a darker side to MMOs like Hypixel SkyBlock – the black market for in-game currency. While under Minecraft’s End User Licence Agreement (EULA), the sale of in-game items by third parties is forbidden, many users skirt regulations to post listings online, selling their accounts and items for real money. These illegal activities have already become highly systematic, with vendors using automated computer programs to play the game for them and using cheat modifications to obtain resources at a much faster rate than usual. For example, they might modify the game to break multiple blocks at once, automatically kill monsters or even automate game activities using machine learning programs like Baritone. Often, these so-called ‘in-real-life’ (IRL) traders make tens of thousands of dollars a month running multiple bot programs on their computers a la crypto mining. Other traders with less access to the expensive hardware needed to do so instead choose to find duplication exploits to make copies of high-value items that can be sold both in-game and in real life. 

Apart from being against regulations, though, these severely impede the economy of a game. Bots generating large amounts of in-game currency only leads to severe inflation, and duplication of rare items and commodities causes them to be devalued. Thus, game developers take a very governmental approach – they create programs that monitor for abuse and enforce the rules. For Hypixel SkyBlock, these programs track player input and monitor trade receipts between players to ensure there is no foul play. Action is also taken against offending players, with account restrictions and Internet Protocol address bans. In a digital world where a new identity is created in minutes, though, these policies have proved to be effective only for the small-scale exploiter, and not for the commercial operations that run hundreds of bot accounts.

However, this is exactly why I think more people should try playing MMOs like Hypixel SkyBlock for themselves. With a faux economy and simulation of society, these MMOs serve as a low-stakes training ground to learn about the wider world. I learned how to identify scams by evaluating what sounds too good to be true and training my hunch for suspiciousness. Even if I end up falling prey to a scammer, it’s okay too – I’m not really losing something valuable anyway, and it teaches me a lesson I’m not going to forget anytime soon. Acknowledging how a black market can exist and the factors that drive it, as well as seeing how authority figures try to regulate them through various policies – it’s like seeing the real world reflected through a cartoonish lens. These kinds of experiences show how games really do imitate life. For me, I could even translate the working principles of the Bazaar into actual, academic economic analysis.

What I also found in this block game is that among the suffocating darkness, there are always penetrating rays of light. Sounds cheesy, but a game’s community is what drives it to success. With their own unique flavour of Internet slang, the SkyBlock community can be very welcoming and friendly. They are often found in Discord servers and the game’s forums, offering helpful advice for beginners. Some even donate to help others that have been scammed. Usually, these players also organise common initiatives. Events like movie and game nights, common community goals within the game itself and ‘newbie aid programs’ are quite common. Despite some members of the community being elitist and toxic, most others are just ordinary players looking to have a fun time. In fact, members of this game community often band together to support each other in their in-game endeavours.

The Hypixel forums have many threads teaching players how to identify and avoid scams.

One notable example is the election campaign of Barry. Within the game, there is an electoral system for mayors, which are fictional non-player characters who take office over the entire game world for a few days. During their term, they will bestow upon players different bonuses, and some even come with their own special events. Barry was one unpopular mayor – he had never been voted in before due to his weaker and insignificant perks. Because of this, a player-started initiative ‘#VoteBarry’ began, partly as an ironic reaction and partly for fun. An influx of Barry-related memes and posts started popping up on the community forums. Many content creators also hopped on the bandwagon, supporting Barry in sections of their videos, and creating a Discord server to coordinate efforts. In the end, Barry won with a landslide victory. Player attention and feedback also caused the game developers to improve Barry’s perks to make him a more viable choice. From this, I learnt that the power of a united community is not to be underestimated. Even in insignificant things like video games, communities can create change and cultivate helpful discourse.

For all its flaws, balance issues, and risks to one’s sanity, I still think MMOs like Skyblock are worth playing to gain an insightful glimpse of a miniaturised version of society. Perhaps we can also learn more about the mechanisms and structures of our own world, and how they present themselves in a virtual one. Video games are not just a hobby or a pastime; they are a powerful form of expression and communication that can shape our cultures and our future.

Animal Conservation: Won’t Anyone Think Of The Animals?

Po when he finds out you don’t donate to WWF. (©Dreamworks)

Written by: Edmund Wong, Euan Loh

Occupying our childhood memories, us Gen Z kids are definitely familiar with the bumbling Po and his heroic, yet goofy antics. But thinking about it, one core message that all of them share – from Kung Fu Panda to Winnie the Pooh and Finding Dory – is that all of them subtly promote the vital awareness about the delicate, vulnerable animals that populate the earth. Many have advocated for animal conservation for a long time, considering how many species are becoming endangered (with some going extinct) yearly. However, what puts these animals in endangerment in the first place? 

The common scapegoat for the existence of endangered species are usually humans, and it’s no surprise – we persecute animals without discrimination. Mass deforestation, urbanisation, agriculture and mining in the name of human development has destroyed vast swathes of precious animal habitats like the Amazon and Bornean rainforests. The reason why this is permitted, is because humans seem to prefer a different shade of green to those found on trees. In fact, some people really love that colour, like Jair Bolsonaro. Under his governance, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose by 75.5 percent from the previous decade despite international pushback and condemnation from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other environmental agencies. 

But it’s not just on land. Even within the offshore depths of the Baltic sea, the incessant humming of oil rigs threaten the adorable harbour porpoises that thrive off the abundance of fish in their breeding grounds. See, even the most harmless of species are brutally cut down by humans in the conquest of… seeing numbers go up on a screen? My, I thought we were better than this.

Just look at the harbour porpoise! It’s so cute! (Photo credit: Wadden Sea World Heritage Site)

Besides the insatiable desire to paint the forests cold and grey with concrete, humans, being the apex predator, also require a lot of sustenance. Simply, we can’t live without food. And because we love food so much (I know I do), some animals that unfortunately reside at the bottom of the food web become powerless insects at the mercy of humanity’s hubris. Let’s look at the devastating collapse of the once iconic Northern Atlantic cod fishery in the early 1990s. ‘Rapid advancements in fishing technology’ was the perfect side dish for ‘overestimations of fishes’ replacement rate’, with an extra ‘lack of legislation’ sprinkled on top – the perfect storm for the destruction of a food source once thought to be infinite. Today, cod populations still remain at low levels, with only a few populations showing signs of slow recovery despite conservation efforts.

Not just that, though, there are other systemic reasons as to why animals are going extinct. Remember how I said animals were especially vulnerable. Some animals cannot survive. We’re talking about the Yunnan lake newt, which went extinct in China in 1979 in part due to exotic fish and frogs in their habitats; the Hawaiian thrush, which went extinct by 1985 in part due to invasive predators; and the Guam broadbill, a bird that went extinct when the brown tree snake was introduced to its habitat in 1983. Of course, I’m neglecting the fact that these new predators were introduced by humans, either accidentally through New World migration, or intentionally as biological control. 

Let’s now talk briefly about the definition and goals of animal conservation. Animal conservation is the practice of protecting and preserving wildlife and their habitats. It aims to minimise threats that animals face in perfectly natural habitats with no protections such as habitat loss, poaching, climate change, pollution, invasive species and inbreeding. Usually, the objective of conservation is to allow species to live in habitats that closely resemble their natural surroundings, albeit with monitoring by rangers and animal specialists.

Why do we care so much about animals, then? And some of them look absolutely adorable, so that’s a plus. On a more serious note, animal conservation is important for maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance, to prevent disruptions in key food chains that can cause way greater harm to multiple species as a whole. It also aims to protect human health and well-being, by ensuring we continue to have nutritious food sources untainted with black tar and microplastics. Finally, animal conservation is also important to preserve cultural heritage and ethical values, which is a fancy way of saying we get to have the moral high ground. Oh, and preserving cute animals means people are willing to pay to see those animals. 

Now, if the teary-eyed tapir on the poster around the street hasn’t convinced you, maybe you’ve been now. So, what can we do to help? While grand schemes like national parks and protected zones seem very ambitious and out of reach, the unfortunate reality is that liking animals more than green paper means you probably won’t get enough green paper to save those animals. However, pooling those pieces of paper together definitely can. That means supporting conservation organisations that work to protect wildlife and their habitats through research, education, advocacy and direct action. Here’s some donation suggestions:

  • The well-known WWF, with its very own branch in Singapore. With targeted protection initiatives for over 150 distinct species in all parts of the world in tandem with local governments, and having constructed millions of square kilometres of nature preserves, they are still in need of funds: their flagship project – the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program. In fact, there are a lot of perks to subscribing to WWF’s donation program, including curated newsletters, magazines and a cute pair of whale socks. Obligatory:
  • re:Wild, formerly known as Global Wildlife Conservation. With a targeted focus on more exotic species like the Zanzibar Red Colobus and the Javan Rhino, their conservation efforts are nothing to scoff at. It’s also recognised as a 4-star charity by Charity Navigator, if accountability and transparency’s what matters to you.
  • Mossy Earth, a relatively new initiative that has more of a focus on restoring habitats for animals than protecting existing ones. Their main selling point is their mobile app, outfitted with live updates and panoramic shots of their current projects, as well as active social media communication channels where progress updates are posted. Of course, that’s if just donating isn’t enough to placate your desire to feel good.

Besides these conservation conglomerates, there are also local initiatives that are worth more than just a passing interest. The National Parks Board’s active efforts to preserve our local species like the Oriental Pied Hornbills and the multiple offshore coral reefs (like the Pulau Semakau Coral Nursery) is definitely the driving force behind the beautiful patches of natural green that seem to weave themselves seamlessly into the heart of our city. And it is no further than our larger neighbour, Malaysia, where we have the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Sabah as well as a new tapir rehabilitation centre at Kenaboi Forest Reserve, which is a stone’s throw away relative to the various sites that international organisations pledge to aid. Maybe you could pay them a visit sometime.

The long-tailed macaque, a common sighting at the roadside of MacRitchie Park. (Photo credit: National Parks Board, Singapore)

Generally though, whatever falls under the umbrella of green practices is what flies for protecting the cute monkeys you just saw in that picture above. Things like reducing your environmental footprint by using renewable energy sources, recycling, avoiding single-use plastics, choosing sustainable products and eating less meat helps to relieve the pressure on all species as a whole by lessening environmental pollution. And of course, respecting wildlife and their habitats by following ethical guidelines, ie. avoiding feeding or disturbing animals. That’s why we have a $10000 fine for feeding the monkeys. 

Finally, for those who are keen enthusiasts of these fauna, you may consider taking up a more active role to protect them from human greed. Volunteering or donating to wildlife sanctuaries, rehabilitation centres or conservation projects that care for injured or orphaned animals and reintroduce them to the wild are some of the options that are out there, which can be enhanced with technical and professional expertise within these fields. And, they pay well, too, especially amidst the digital transition where organisations like NParks find themselves wanting of those related expertise.

In conclusion, animal conservation is a vital issue that affects not only the biodiversity and ecosystem of our planet, but also our own well-being and future. By taking action to protect endangered species and habitats, we can help preserve the natural balance and beauty of life on Earth. And also, we get to see more cute pandas. That’s what really matters.