By Holly Parker
Keith Stuart’s 2016 novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, employs Minecraft as a technological utopia where the central characters, Alex and his son Sam (who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder) can “be free of [themselves]” (Stuart 133). This techno-utopia is a space separated from their everyday lives where they can experience adventure within the safety of the game and build an emotional connection with each other, and, I argue, is a space informed by neoliberal regimes (Marantz, 2020) and evolving videogame culture. The novel provides a space for Stuart to unpick the complicated knot of feelings, gameplay and political ideologies beyond viewing gameplay as an isolated experience. This essay interrogates how the novel tackles cultural perceptions of ASD and how Sam’s representation interlinks with the novel’s representation of neoliberalism.[i] It will primarily argue that Stuart’s depiction of Alex and Sam’s performances as avatars both critiques and simultaneously subscribes to aspects of post-millennial neoliberalist society, engaging specifically with dispossession, self-help culture, career-centricity, and the focus on “family” (Crossley, 2016).
It is worth stating that this essay is a development of the paper I presented on Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks at the BACLS WHN 2021 Conference and formed part of my research for a book chapter in Ready Reader One: The Stories We Tell About, With, and Around Video Games, edited by Megan Condis and Mike Sell. This paper also feeds into a broader project researching affect and performance within a corpus of twenty-first century novels. These novels see characters using methods of performance to achieve affects that contrast their anxiety, depression and everyday systems of self-management and this project engages with pervasive conversations around how we grapple with affect and relationships under neoliberalism.
A Boy Made of Blocks opens with Alex, a newly jobless and separated father who struggles to connect emotionally with his son, Sam. Sam has ASD and struggles to navigate the uncertainties and complexities of everyday life – from attending school to requiring perfectly cut cheese and piccalilli sandwiches – but after he becomes engrossed in playing Minecraft, he begins to open up and utilise the space as a site where he and Sam can form a relationship. The pair create “Sam and Daddy’s world” (Stuart 141) and perform as Minecraft avatars. As they play, the characters immerse themselves within the world of Minecraft – a performance zone that is demarcated by the Xboxes they respectively play on – and in contrast to Sam’s “breakdowns” (128) and inability to process the outside world, Alex is able to show Sam how to embrace “adventure” in-game. Later, Sam and Alex take a trip to London after having inadvertently used the video game to prepare Sam for these experiences. Alex also benefits from their gameplay; at the beginning of the novel, he is disconnected from his emotions and unable to process when he is crying or depressed. In real life (IRL), he is burdened by the weight of working a 9-to-5 job as a mortgage advisor until he is made redundant and separates from his wife, Jody, shortly afterwards. He then moves in with his best friend, Dan, and begins sleeping on an airbed in his flat. This series of momentous shifts is important in Alex’s reconnection to his emotions and his son. The game creates a space where Alex, too, can open up emotionally, listen to and appreciate his son, and process childhood grief.
Performativity and Neoliberalism
Throughout the novel, Stuart presents Alex as a product of neoliberalism and Stuart situates Alex’s struggle with a ubiquitous aspect of its ideology: self-help. Alex treats self-help culture dismissively, yet simultaneously subscribes to it and his relationship to self-help culture demonstrates the complexity of life under the naturalised neoliberal regime. For instance, on a trip to Blackwell’s bookshop, Alex buys self-help books on marriage, ASD and even on Minecraft and these books provide a scaffold for Alex to manage all aspects of his life. He narrates:
I get to a small collection of books on autism. I have resolved to read one. Actually read it. We’ve got a few at home – most of them desperate online purchases made after a long day of exhausting meltdowns. Some are overly officious and instructional, treating the condition like a challenging DIY job; some are more like hippy lifestyle manuals, so you end up feeling like you’re the problem for ever viewing autism negatively in the first place. (85)
Alex is openly cynical about self-help books in this passage and references the neoliberal focus on individualism as a source of success or failure. This individualism operates on multiple levels, creating an endless cycle. The consumer purchases the books to instil a sense of agency but, as Alex stresses, “you end up feeling like you’re the problem”, and in turn, purchase more books to fix yourself. His observation also highlights a fundamental part of neoliberal ideologies in its marketability to all: there is a self-help book out there whether you are “overly officious” or enjoy “hippy lifestyle manuals”.
Nevertheless, Stuart shows Alex’s relationship to self-help culture as more complex. Although he mocks the political ideologies of the self-help books, he still “desperately” seeks their guidance. For instance, he browses the book shop and selects a couple of books that ‘sit somewhere between the “you can fix your broken child” and the “hey, man, it’s society that needs to be fixed’ schools of thought”; on his way to the register, he “spots a huge display of Minecraft books […] on a whim, I pick up something that promises to be a complete guide to the game” (86). Almost despite himself, Alex admits that “as I walk out of the shop, I am hit by an unfamiliar wave of optimism. […] I am going to understand Sam; I am going to crack either autism or Minecraft” (87).Alex chooses to purchase self-help texts in a bid to “understand” Sam. He even experiences a sense of “optimism” before he has read the books, as though he has taken control of the situation just through the act of purchasing them. Importantly, Alex’s behaviour is symptomatic of a wider postmillennial manual culture. Paul Verhaeghe’s (2014) provocatively titled article on neoliberalism, “Neoliberalism has Brought out the Worst in Us” argues, “we are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited.” Indeed, the narrative of ‘choosing success’ has helped promote the increasingly successful self-help market. The 2018 Forbes list, ‘The 10 Best Books To Help You Figure Out Your Life’ reports that a concerning 94% of 18-33 years olds ‘had committed to making personal improvements’ and in this list, Forbes specifically recommended John Gary Bishop’s ‘direct, no-nonsense prose’ in Unfu*k Yourself (2017), a text which, according to Forbes, advocates that ‘you are responsible for your own life and you are wired to win’ (Helen Book 2018; Frances Bridges 2018). There are an abundance of tabloid articles and Youtube video guides on DIY, “life hacks”, lock-picking, camping, recipes and everything in between. We live in an age of flatpack furniture manuals and can access advice on everything from “what to wear” to “how to achieve orgasm” and Alex’s experience at the bookshop is part of that cultural subscription. Stuart, however, satirises self-help culture; the books pile up almost comically, and as such, Stuart calls attention to the age of “quick-fixes” and their role in neoliberal success narratives.
Tracking Alex’s Grief
Alex’s reconnection to his emotions through gameplay, then,can be tracked through how he processes grief. At the beginning of the novel, Alex is a self-professed “emotional vacuum”, which appears to stem from his inability to engage with the vulnerability of grief and guilt after the death of his brother George (Stuart 4). When they were children, George dies in a car accident outside their school. Alex confesses, “When George died, everything closed in around us” (92) and this moment is key in Alex’s emotional disconnection. Jody and Alex’s mum suggests that Alex seek therapy to deal with George’s death, since, following Alex’s bereavement, the world has “close[d] in” around him, and years later he is still disconnected from his emotions. Rather than working through this guilt, Alex crafts a process of self-management which manifests in frustration and anger directed at Sam. For Alex, the experience of anger acts as a process of self-defence and sees him construct an emotional wall that prevents him from connecting with Sam.
Alex’s methods of self-management manifest in his physical aversion to school environments. George died outside their school, and Alex’s inability to process his grief is apparent in his response to schools. Alex says, “I always cross the road, I even walk for many minutes out of my way to avoid passing the school gates. Any school gates.” (79). Alex orientates himself away from the site associated with his grief and guilt, managing those affects. Sara Ahmed’s (2010) work defines affects as “sticky”, stating that “affect is what sticks, sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (29). Affects stick to objects, in this case, school gates. Moreover, Ahmed posits that we orientate ourselves toward happy objects, whilst conversely, “those things we do not like we move away from” (32). Alex is orientating himself away from an object that is stuck to grief; what is important here is that Alex also avoids that as a way of managing his grief. If he avoids the school gates, he can avoid the emotion. Alex’s emotional development can be tracked through his relationship with the school gates; as Alex and Sam build their relationship both in-game and off screen, Alex is able to get closer to the school gates. After months of playing, Alex states that he can now collect Sam “fifty metres from the school gates, but I’m getting closer every time” (Stuart 319). Alex’s ability to move closer to the gates demonstrates him processing his grief and shows the therapeutic effect their gameplay is having on him IRL.
The significance of material spaces and memories “stuck” to Alex’s grief shift as a result of their shared gameplay and his grief becomes assembled with happiness and familial love when Sam and Alex attend a Minecraft convention towards the end of the novel and Sam enters as a contestant. Contestants are asked to recreate “the most important building in London” (364) and Sam chooses to recreate the café Alex visited with his brother George. Sam is even awarded a “special commendation” (371) and the recreation of a building of individual “importance” is recognised and celebrated. The concept of “most important” here becomes charged and demonstrates the importance of place and object to Alex, and Sam’s emotional intelligence in recognising this. Sam tells the judges that he built “the café my daddy went to. He was with his brother” and after the adjudicator asks, “is that why it’s important?” Sam acknowledges that “yes, because Daddy always remembers it. It makes him sad and happy. Some buildings are important because they are big, but some are important because they have memories in them” (374). This moment is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, Sam recognises the complicated grief-happiness assemblage that is associated with Alex’s memory, challenging perceptions of children with ASD as less “emotionally intelligent” which I shall turn to in the next section. Moreover, applying Ahmed’s work to A Boy Made of Blocks, Sam’s choice to recreate the café helps Alex process his grief. According to Ahmed (2014), “the time of emotion is not always about the past, and how it sticks. Emotions also open up futures, in the ways they involve different orientations to others” (202). Here, Alex’s grief-filled memory is re-orientated to a happy one. Eva Illouz (2007) observations on the formula of the self-help genre, emotions and neoliberalism offers further insight in terms of interpretating Alex’s re-orientation. Illouz argues, ‘the narrative of self-help and self-realisation is intrinsically a narrative of memory and the memory of suffering. That is, at the epicentre of this narrative lies the injunctions that one exercises one’s memories of suffering in order to free oneself of it’ (54). Indeed, Alex muses that “for a long time on this adventure I was stupid – I saw Sam as an obstacle, something I’d have to work around. But that was wrong. Sam was the guide” (Stuart 375) Sam’s recreation of the café helps reorientate Alex’s emotional connection to the memory. While Ahmed is discussing the potential to attach affects to futures rather than the past, her argument here demonstrates how affects can stick to a multitude of objects – in this case the café – and how those affects can change. Sam uses Minecraft to demonstrate his familial love and empathy for Alex, and he can assemble the café-object with another, complicated happiness alongside grief.
Equally, Sam’s understanding that assessment of ‘the most important building in London’ is predicated upon sentimental value demonstrates how Stuart explores perceptions of “emotional intelligence” and ASD. Sonya Freeman-Loftis (2015) argues that “although the idea that people on the spectrum do not feel emotion is a false and damaging one, it is sometimes true that they express emotion in unexpected ways or that their emotions may not be outwardly apparent to others” (85). In A Boy Made of Blocks, Sam demonstrates his emotional understanding of Alex’s grief through recreating the café and as Alex works through his grief, he also learns to understand and process Sam’s methods and ways of communicating emotion. While Sam’s expression of emotion does not necessarily fit neurotypical models, the novel fruitfully represents Sam’s ‘emotional-intelligence’ and embraces Alex and Sam’s attempts to understand each other.
Minecraft as Performance Zone
Stuart grapples with neoliberalism through his representation of Minecraft. He uses the videogame as a microcosm that focuses on life under neoliberalism, including the key aspect of negotiating risk, within a regimented and safe virtual space. Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir’s work on Minecraft asserts that “the structure of the game world itself provides a framework that places restrictions on the player” (44). Alex’s narration supports this argument: “while everything else was chaos in our lives, we had somewhere that we could escape to and explore – a place that had logic and rules and definite borders. […] We were safe and we could make anything we wanted” (Stuart 360). The escape becomes a sanctuary: a techno-utopia. In contrast to the inherent mess of material reality, the virtual universe is clear and distinct. This is especially important for Sam, as Alex notes, “to Sam, the world is a gigantic engine that needs to work in a certain way” but, Alex narrates, “in this universe, where the rules are unambiguous, where the logic is clear and unerring, Sam is in control” (133). The game, then, provides a “clear” and “safe” techno-utopian space for Sam and Alex to reconnect, where Sam can be in control of his own adventures.
In contrast to the responsibilities and roles both Sam and Alex are expected to perform IRL, the Minecraft game functions as a technological utopia, but a nuanced and complicated utopia informed by neoliberalism. For example, IRL, Sam is expected to conform to the social expectations of life. He is labelled as a child with ASD, as a student and a son and must perform accordingly in these situations, but Minecraft creates a space where he and Alex can escape these social expectations. The requirements of the game are more transparent and consistent than those of real-life, and Stuart embraces the unerring logic and predictability of the virtual world to create a techno-utopia for Sam. Children with ASD are often taught to conform with normalised concepted of the socialised self, and to “fit in”. Catrina Silva et al.’s (2020) study into ASD and “Social Exclusion and Pro-Social Behaviour” concludes that:
current findings indicate that autistic individuals may not be completely shut off from social stimulation, but instead, that they may be distinctively motivated to perceive the reward value in a social context and thereby distinctly motivated to decide whether to act upon it (242).
She goes on to state, though, that “programmes aiming at developing social skills […] have proved to have beneficial outcomes assisting autistic individuals in their daily socio-emotional difficulties” (242). According to Silva et al’s study, the relationship between ASD and emotion ought to be situated within a framework of motivation rather than comprehension : nevertheless, despite the sense of autonomy associated with that argument, the researchers support the continuation of programmes that are “beneficial” to the “difficulties” of autistic figures. The term “benefit” in Silva’s work appears to denote an autistic person conforming to wider social expectations; stereotypically, this may include rituals such as hugs. My observation in this particular essay is not to discuss the (contentious) ethics surrounding these programmes, but to critique the discursive/methodological presupposition that it is beneficial to mould people with ASD into a similar set of normative social-emotional expectations in order to “fit in”. A Boy Made of Blocks does engage with this notion of neurotypical social expectations. Sam is self-aware regarding his diagnosis and is bullied at school for not fitting in. But, when Sam logs in to Minecraft, heopens a space where his role changes, and he can escape the ‘socio-emotional difficulties’ of everyday life.
In A Boy Made of Blocks, then, some of Minecraft’s power as a techno-utopia lies in Sam’s ability to depart from the social expectations of his everyday life. Sam and Alex’s ability to step outside their everyday roles and responsibilities, immersing themselves within Minecraft, is reflective of the concept of dispossession, and again demonstrates how the novel engages with the complexities of the regime. IRL, Sam is held accountable to neurotypical standards. Freeman-Loftis (2015) astutely identifies that “terms associated with autism such as “mental illness” or “mental disorder” present their own problems”, in that “the question becomes “disordered compared to what standard?” and hence the term “disorder” arguably prioritizes the neurotypical way of thinking as normal, natural, and neutral (4). What is important about Freeman’s argument in relation to A Boy Made of Blocks is that its author represents Sam as being repeatedly held to the same social expectations as the neurotypical “standard”. These comparisons affect Sam’s everyday life.
For instance, during a “play-date” with Alex at the beginning of the novel, Sam is approached by a dog. The dog begins “barking and jumping’ and Alex articulates that Sam ‘is shaking with terror and sobbing” (Stuart 25), but the dog-owner does not understand Sam’s reaction. Rather, Alex says, “she’s smiling. It’s that dog-owner smile. The smile that seems to say, ‘I like dogs, everyone likes dogs” (25). Alex asks her, “can you call it away?” but is greeted with disdain and the woman is confused as to why Sam would be “terrified” of the “friendly dog” (25). The exchange ends as:
the woman audibly tuts, grabs the dog’s collar and hauls it back. […] I [Alex] watch her walk off, utterly oblivious to the terror her wretched mutt has caused, oblivious to the possibility this may be about more than a kid who doesn’t like dogs (26).
Sam’s encounter with the dog is significant in relation to neurotypical social expectations and exchanges, and when analysed in comparison with the way Sam deals with in-game encounters. Alex’s interpretation of the dog-owner’s response indicates that Sam’s terror does not fit the neurotypical social model and highlights that this sort of exchange is part of Sam’s everyday life. Inside Minecraft, however, there is no “standard”, or judgement for failing to conform. Rather, as Alex discloses, within the game “it’s as if we are free of ourselves” and Sam is no longer bound to conform to social expectations of material reality (133). Stuart presents Minecraft as a space where Sam can disrupt and be free from ‘socio-emotional difficulties’ (Kenny, Lorcan et al) and expectations of everyday life but can also manipulate and navigate the affective structures themselves: he is free from the fear of dogs, for example, and from experiencing guilt because he is afraid when the lady declares that he should not be. Stuart troubles the naturalised social encounters and expectations through Alex’s narration of Sam’s experience. That is not to say that Sam’s representation is unproblematic – Sam’s voice and feelings are mediated through Alex’s narration and continue a long tradition of mediating autistic characters’ voices that needs to be addressed (Freeman Loftis 29).
Overall, Stuart’s novelutilises Minecraft as a nuanced techno-utopia that helps Alex and Sam reconnect with each other and themselves emotionally. A Boy Made of Blocks appreciates the ever-evolving role of video games in a digital age and its importance in helping form relationships. While Sam’s experiences and methods of emotional expression are mediated through Alex’s narration, Alex’s self-reflection engages fruitfully with cultural stereotypes of ASD. Sam is a more ‘emotionally intelligent’ and complicated character who contrasts often two-dimensional stereotypes of autism, and therefore contributes to the production of a more complex canon of autistic characters. Equally, the novel tackles the difficulty of critiquing neoliberalism from within that very culture and, as such, grapples with the larger difficulties of precarity in postmillennial family, work and social life. Both Alex and Sam benefit from their gameplay, as Alex processes his grief and learns to understand Sam’s methods of emotional expression. A Boy Made of Blocks, then,is a novel that attempts to unpick and critique the aspects of postmillennial society which encourage us to self-manage our relationships and emotions but does so whilst tackling the difficulties of living in a naturalised world of neoliberalism and embracing the inherently contradictory and complex nature of feelings.
While there is much debate around the terms used surrounding autism, I am using the terms ‘autistic’ and ‘ASD’ throughout the chapter to denote Sam’s autism. Locan Kenny et. al’s 2016 survey into the terms used to describe autism states: ‘Examination of the figure clearly shows that people use many terms to describe autism. The most highly endorsed terms were ‘autism’ and ‘on the autism spectrum’, and to a lesser extent, ‘autism spectrum disorder (ASD)’ for which there was general agreement across groups.’ However, Kenny et al. acknowledge that ‘Community members disagreed, however, on the use of several terms’ and ‘‘When participants were asked to choose which one term they would use to communicate about autism, the results revealed little consensus between and within groups.’ A Boy Made of Blocks engages with cultural perceptions of ASD and uses the term ‘autistic’ throughout, so I shall follow the language of the novel. See: Kenny, Lorcan et al. “Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community.” Autism, vol. 20, no. 4, 2016, pp. 442–462 (447).
Holly Parker, “Affect, Minecraft and Neoliberal Techno-Utopianism in Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 1, n.pag. Web 29 April 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.05
About the Author
Holly Parker is an Associate Lecturer and PhD researcher at the University of Lincoln. She has a book chapter on A Boy Made of Blocks in the edited collection Ready Reader One: The Stories we Tell About, With and Around Videogames, ed. by Mike Sell and Megan Amber Condis, under contract with Louisiana State University Press. She also works as a guest editor for Alluvium. Her current research focuses on affect and performance in twenty-first century fiction, forming an interdisciplinary study across affect theory and performance studies that rests on the cultural backdrop of neoliberalism and postmillennial digital culture.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
––. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Duke University Press, 2010.
Bishop, Gary John. Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life. Blurb Inc, 2017.
Booth, Helen. “How Self-help Is Getting a Millennial Makeover (And How to Use It to Live Your Best Life).” Stylist, 2 June2018, https://www.stylist.co.uk/books/best-self-help-books-anxiety-wellness-depression/130168. Accessed 30 October 2018.
Bridges, Frances. “The 10 Best Books To Help You Figure Out Your Life” Forbes 31 January 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/francesbridges/2018/01/31/the-10-best-books-to-help-you-figure-out-your-life/,Accessed 30 October 2018.
Crossley, Stephen. “Realising the (Troubled) Family: Crafting the Neoliberal State.” Families, Relationships and Societies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2016: 263–279.
Fanning, Colin and Rebecca Mir. “Teaching Tools: Progressive Pedagogy and the History or Construction Play.” Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities, edited by Nate Garretts. McFarland and Company, 2014. 38–57.
Freeman Loftis, Sonya. Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.
Greenwald Smith, Rachel. Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Hsu, Hua. “Affect Theory and the New Age of Anxiety.” New Yorker, 18 March 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/25/affect-theory-and-the-new-age-of-anxiety. Accessed March 2019. Web. 12 May 2021.
Illouz, Eva. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Polity Press, 2007.
Kenny, Lorcan et al. “Which Terms Should Be Used to Describe Autism? Perspectives from the UK Autism Community.” Autism, vol.20, no. 4, 2016: 442–462.
Kitchen Sanctuary. “My Favourite Way to Cook Potatoes! Easy Fondant Potatoes Recipe.” Youtube, 12 Dec. 2020, youtube.com/watch?v=QQZbosDqLA&t=1s&ab_channel=KitchenSanctuary.
LockPickingLawyer. Youtube, youtube.com/c/lockpickinglawyer
Marantz, Andrew. “The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism: Big Technological Shifts Have Always Empowered Reformers. They Have Also Empowered Bigots, Hucksters, and Propagandists.” New Yorker, 30 September 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/the-dark-side-of-techno-utopianism. Accessed 22 May 2020.
Silva, Catarina et al. “Acting on Observed Social Exclusion and Pro-Social Behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Autism vol. 24, no. 1, 2020: 233–245.
Stuart, Keith. A Boy Made of Blocks. Sphere, 2016.
Verhaeghe, Paul. “Neoliberalism Has Brought Out the Worst in Us.” Guardian, 29 September 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/29/neoliberalism-economic-system-ethics-personality-psychopathicsthic. Accessed 24 Feb 2022.