Minecraft players build working hard drives

Players of the pixelated building block game have taken its virtual simulation tools to an unprecedented level: building functioning hard drives that can read and write data.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read

A fully functioning 1KB hard drive built within the sandbox game Minecraft. Imgur user smellystring

Players of the popular open-world building game Minecraft, created by Markus "Notch" Persson in 2009, continue to push the game beyond any reasonable realm of everyday understanding. These players have built working components of computers within simulations running on computers.

Two such users have now revealed functioning hard drives built inside Minecraft that can read and write data. The first, created by Reddit and Imgur user smellystring can store 1KB of data, while a second, larger unit created by The0JJ can store 4KB of data.

That means it's only a matter of time before things start going the way of "Terminator" or "The Matrix," or at least to the point where we're building virtual simulations of fully functioning computers that obey the laws of the physical world.

A read/write hard disk drive with 4KB of storage built entirely within Minecraft. Imgur user The0JJ

Minecraft players have long had a penchant for building computers, or what are more accurately referred to as algorithmic logic units. The virtual mammoth contraptions basically mime the most fundamental elements of a computer, binary logic, to yield an in-game virtual machine that can run calculations. The heart of these devices is a Minecraft component called redstone, an in-game item that can imbue devices with power, be it a lamp or a piston.

Redstone can be ground into a dust and used to power redstone circuits, which replicate real-world circuits and can be used within Minecraft to power mechanisms like bridges, staircases, and, believe it or not, even transistors and diodes. Because redstone functions within the bounds of real-world logic -- a redstone signal can pass through a solid block but never a clear one made of glass -- players can utilize them to simulate even something as complex as a USB thumb drive. Computers, at their most fundamental level, are built on the foundations of mathematical logic, and the same goes for those in Minecraft as well.

In the case of a hard drive, redstone is used to power pistons that simulate the true and false values of binary, which are typically represented as 1 and 0 respectively. The creator of the 1KB drive explains via this animation:

"An animation of the mechanic described above. To store data on a computer, you must use binary code. Binary code is basically a way of storing data using only 1s and 0s. On my hard drive I use solid blocks to store a 1 and clear blocks to store a 0." Imgur user smellystring

Essentially, by rigging up a large number of these pistons to direct the redstone signals between solid and clear blocks in a loop, a user of the 1KB hard drive can store data in binary using solid blocks as a 1 and clear blocks as a 0. But what would that data even look like, and how would you get it into Minecraft?

That's an interesting question and it hasn't been explored quite yet. However, because Minecraft players' inventories are stored as data in the game with discernible sizes, players could feasible load something like a .txt file or even a music file if the hard drive was large enough and there was a way to convert the data into binary code.

"Data can be anything. It could be some text or a picture. You could, in theory, store the schematics for something. Internally, Minecraft stores the contents of your inventory with a little bit of data," wrote the user smellystring, a PhD student in computer science. "Any time you download a file from the Internet, you probably notice that there is a size in kilobytes or megabytes or gigabytes. This is data. Chose any file from the internet, as long as it is 1KB or smaller, and you could store it on this hard drive."

Smellystring also points out that to store the entirety of his virtual hard drive on another Minecraft hard drive, it would require 855 units rigged together, as the map size is 855KB. Storing the contents of his real life computer would take upwards of one billion units, the user posited.

It's mind-numbing stuff for those not well-versed in computer science and logic, to be sure, but it's still a fascinating illustration of what lengths creators and builders can travel when the tool set allows it and the environment is infinitely large.

"One day we will build a full computer in Minecraft, then play Minecraft on it. then the universe will crash," writes Imgur user mkat10z. Turns out, someone has already done that, creating a 2D platformer version of Minecraft that you play within Minecraft on a redstone computer.

It's rudimentary, but it works.