I am well on the road to recovery now, thankfully, barring a minor persistent cough. Being sick over the weekend gave me some time to play Minecraft with my housemate Josh, which was both fun and instructive.
Somewhat surprisingly given its blocky look, Minecraft has one of the highest immersion values for a game I have ever seen. The Survival Mode of Minecraft plays much like Robison Crusoe. You find yourself in a vast world (and I do mean vast, over 8 times the surface area of the Earth) with nothing but the clothes on your back and have to, well, survive. You harvest wood from trees (and can sustainably replant them if you're smart), mine deep underground to find coal and iron, build yourself a shelter to protect you at night from the occasional monsters that try to attack you, and that's just a start. Once you have the basics down you can start exploring more leisurely activities, such as creating paintings for your house, designing amazing architectural masterpieces, or wandering the land in order to map it. In a way, it reminds me of the development of art and culture in a society once people have enough leisure time not to worry about imminent starvation, except experienced by one person.
The vast number of different things you can do in Minecraft lets it appeal to many different types of players. Creative types can skip Survival Mode altogether and just build incredible structures in Creative Mode (or enjoy the challenge of building things while simultaneously making a living for themselves); adventurous types can roam far and wide, seeking out new sights or fulfilling that innate human desire to find out what's “just beyond the next hill;” more competitive types can even take up arms against the sea of troubles monsters cause, and, by opposing, end them. (Sorry, waxing a bit lyrical there.)
But the best part about Minecraft is that it is also a multiplayer game, so you can do all of the previously mentioned things, with friends! And that really increases the fun, because you can more easily specialize in doing the things you find interesting or fun, again, rather like real developing societies. In our game, Josh turned out to be the builder and designer, while I ended up being the farmer, rancher, and artisan (I'm a much better farmer in Minecraft than I am in real life, by the way). And that's another reason I think the game is so much fun, is it allows you freedom to play to your strengths. Of course that's not to say that I never did any building (once I had a good farm going I did start some building projects of my own), but I could focus on it when I wanted to.
Many multiplayer games are all about people doing the same thing, together. If you're playing a First-Person Shooter type game, both players need to be at fairly similar competency levels, or it's not going to be much fun for one or both (I have fond memories of playing Halo 2 multiplayer with two of my best friends, where they would be furiously duking it out for the lead, and I'd be piddling along far behind blowing myself up with the rocket launcher).
In Minecraft, by contrast, two players can be at different skill levels and do completely different things, while still having fun. At one point I joked to Josh as we were setting out in different directions “See you in an hour!”, then realized that it was quite likely to be true since we were keeping in contact through Skype but both off doing our own completely different things, and having an absolute blast doing it. And I think that's a big reason why Minecraft is so fun; the ability to play together with other people, without everyone having to do the exact same activities. It's really rather revolutionary, once you've experienced it, and I'm now beginning to understand just why Minecraft has had so much hype about it practically since it began.