Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”

Minecraft, the best-selling video game of all time, has two main mechanics: mining and crafting. Players mine resources which can then be crafted into practical items like tools, weapons, and building materials.

While the 16-by-16-pixel base blocks may initially give an impression of low-quality graphics and a loose grasp on reality, several aspects of Minecraft mimic the real world. Most of the land surface, divided by bodies of water, is made up of grass over a few layers of dirt. Beneath the lush forests and open oceans, a thick crust of rock—primarily the fuliginous “stone” around veins of granite, andesite, diorite, and gravel—plunges deep into the earth.

Most ores are nestled in this crust. The most ubiquitous, coal, is an early-game essential, used to craft torches and fuel furnaces. Deep in the belly of the earth hide precious gems: emeralds, useful for trading; lapis lazuli, which grants powers of enchantment; and diamonds, the game’s primary indicator of strong armor, durable tools, powerful weapons, and general wealth.

Two other ores, gold and iron, can be found anywhere in the crust below sea level. Unlike the jewels, these metals are not immediately useful. They must be smelted in a furnace to release the ingot from its stone shell, a process which requires time and fuel.

While not the most impressive, iron is the game’s most versatile resource. Iron ingots are an ingredient in 34 crafting recipes, including the full set of tools, weapons, and armor, decorative blocks, armored doors, and essential components for building contraptions with “redstone,” the game’s approximation of electronic circuitry.

About 0.6 percent of a Minecraft world consists of iron ore. It’s easy enough to find, smelt, and use in quantities sufficient for a casual player like myself, but to automate things with redstone contraptions—from feeding coal into a furnace to creating large-scale farms that rapidly collect resources—the demand for iron skyrockets.

On occasion, iron ingots appear in loot chests, perks of finding the game’s pre-generated structures like villages, temples, and sunken ships. Some villagers will also trade iron tools, weapons, and armor for high quantities of emeralds. Still, naturally sourced iron barely meets the demands of even a one-step-above-casual player. Enter: iron farms.

The most efficient iron farms can collect almost 14,000 iron ingots per hour, while the smallest generate around 320. Most farms fall somewhere within that range, all far exceeding the upper estimation of 90 iron ore in an hour of maximum efficiency mining, not including smelting time. Any player looking to use more than a handful of the game’s features would be a fool to rely on mining at those rates—but what is an iron farm?

Minecraft’s villagers cannot defend themselves, but if they become panicked, an iron golem will spawn to protect them from hostile entities. Iron farms exploit this mechanic by permanently isolating villagers and repeatedly inciting panic, thus spawning iron golems. The iron golems are then funneled into a death chamber, where they leave behind three to five iron ingots and up to two poppies.

They can drop poppies when they die because they can carry poppies while alive. Iron golems give poppies to villager children, a symbol of the peace and protection that the iron golem offers to the village. Most iron farms have a built-in filter that incinerates poppies to prevent a clog in the iron ingot collection system.

The iron farm’s most common method of execution is a vat of lava, but some models entrap other creatures at strategic distances to slay the iron golems. However it’s done, the death is slow: iron golems have 100 health points (to the player’s 20), and their form visibly deteriorates as they lose health. An iron golem with fewer than 25 health points appears physically shattered, its very face splitting from the attack.

Advancing in Minecraft requires vast quantities of iron. Even the simplest rail transport systems and redstone contraptions need dozens if not hundreds of ingots. The anvil, essential for repairing tools and renaming items, is crafted with 31 iron ingots and usually breaks after just 25 uses. The ethical methods of obtaining iron simply cannot meet the average player’s demand.

Smaller iron farms may reduce the carnage, but the essential ingredients remain the same: confined villagers send out a distress call that, against their intentions, send their helpful iron golem protectors toward a slow, miserable demise. Because this is a video game, I’m inclined to say that it’s in for a penny, in for a pound; there’s little point in committing to the terror on a small scale when the returns could easily be higher.

As a personal choice inexplicable to most players, I grind my iron from mining. My redstone contraptions are limited to “cheap” designs that use less iron in exchange for less efficiency. I rarely use decorative iron-based blocks unless they can be traded from villagers. My gameplay would certainly improve from the open horizons of an unlimited iron supply, but even though I’ve resorted to violence to obtain other resources like leather and bones, I can’t bring myself to build an iron farm.

I’ve still benefited from the iron golem mechanic. They spawn naturally around my villagers—who live in safe, homely rooms that meet all of their bodily needs—and occasionally face attack from a particularly powerful enemy. I’ve happened upon an iron golem’s remains after a bitter overnight battle, a few iron ingots and a poppy floating near the shore. I don’t want them to die, yet I can’t pretend it isn’t convenient when they do. And I always keep the poppies.


  1. Geneva Langeland

    This is surprisingly heartbreaking

  2. Josh Parks

    This is delightful. And it avoids my fatal writing flaw, which is a clunky “let’s explain the metaphor!” paragraph or six. 🙂

  3. Avatar

    This was so interesting given that I don’t know a thing about Minecraft! Thank you for guiding us through this little world.

  4. Kyric Koning

    It is a curious and wonderful thing that you impose your own set of rules upon a game. That there are some things that cannot be done no matter where you are, or at the least should not be done. Most people don’t think about that. That you did says much for you.

    Another beautiful chapter for the gaming posts.


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