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Sheaves in Minecraft

algebraic geometry

Luca Leon Happel


October 29, 2021


A few days ago, after my introductory class in topology, and right before my class about algebraic geometry, my friend Anastasia and I were asked by fellow topology students about our current topics in algebraic geometry. This then lead to the discussion about sheaves, as they saw my sketch of them in my lecture notes (because I mentioned that I typically only draw geometric sketches of ideas and proofs instead of writing actual sentences like most people).

We talked about this diagram

After some explaining, they seemed to understand the concept somewhat, but I was unable to give them a deeper understanding. I assume this was caused by my inability to relate the importance of this structure to them in a practical way. So after some days, I started to imagine fictional conversations in my spare time where I would try to explain this topic to them again. I especially tried to focus on giving real-world examples of sheaves, which are not exactly linked to algebraic geometry, but, instead convey the idea of tracking data that is connected to open sets. And as I thought about this, I started to imagine video games, which typically provide very natural applications of impressively deep mathematical structures, leading me to relate the game Minecraft to algebraic geometry, or sheaves more exactly.

Minecraft as a game

Minecraft is the most popular game in existence currently. Therefore it is very likely that you, the reader, have heard about it at some point in your life. But here is a quick recap of what Minecraft is and how it works (abstractly).

What is Minecraft?

Example view of minecraft

In Minecraft, you start a game as a digital character in a blocky world. There you start to collect resources by mining different materials (in the form of breaking blocks mainly) or slaying enemies which roam your digital world.

How does it technically work?

Now the interesting part for us at least would be, how the game stores this world and its inhabitants. We know that the blocks are arranged in a lattice pattern which happens to be \(\mathbb{Z}^3\) and because each block can be identified by its type (air, grass, dirt, wood, …) and there are just a finite number of unique blocks, we can store the blocky part of a Minecraft world as a subset \(M\subset \mathbb{Z}^3\times\mathbb{N}\) by using a bijective mapping from the types of blocks to \(\mathbb{N}=\{0,1,2,\dots\}\).

Now how can Minecraft be able to process infinitely many blocks and render them to a screen? The answer is that this would be impossible, because traversing every block in an infinite Minecraft world (which most Minecraft worlds are) would take a very long time, let alone rendering them. This would be impossible to render at a stable 30FPS and the developers at Mojang decided to split the Minecraft world into chunks of \(16\times 16\times 256\) (here we can neglect the last coordinate of our tuples in \(M\), because the number of different blocks is small enough that a computer can traverse them easily).

Examples of chunks - chunkbounds shader Examples of chunks - chunk edge indicator

These subsets of the world \(C_{x,y,z}\subset M\subset \mathbb{Z}^3\times\mathbb{N}\) are called chunks and exist for each \(x,y \in 16\mathbb{Z}, \> z\in 256\mathbb{Z}\) (technically the \(z\) is fixed to \(0\) because Minecraft has a finite height of \(256\) blocks, but we will abstract/future proof a bit for now).

So why are these chunks important for us? How do they relate to sheaves? Well, these \(C_{x,y,z}\) form a basis of a topology on \(M\) if we name the “chunks” not “chunks” but “open sets” instead! This is quite natural because Minecraft creates a union of these chunks (the number of which is free for the user to decide, therefore possibly infinite) and then renders this union of chunks to the screen. This union of chunks would not be considered a chunk in Minecrafts’ code, but we will refer to the union of chunks as “open set” nonetheless because this gives us our topological structure on \(M\). (Bonus: to really prove that the \(C_{x,y,z}\) form a topological basis, one must show that the finite intersection of open sets must also be an open set. The proof is quite trivial but left as an exercise to the reader.)

So we have a topological space on our Minecraft world \(M\), what now?

After having done all of this for the sake of rendering parts of our world on a computer in a finite time, we get some fundamentally needed game mechanics (which are not obviously related to the rendering pipeline) for free!

Like for example when the player wants to go to sleep in the game. Minecraft first checks if the player does not have any hostile entities in the current chunk. Therefore the game must calculate the set of all entities currently in the game world, which are also in the currently inhabited chunk.

For this, Minecraft stores all entities as tuples \(e\in\mathbb{R}^3\times\mathbb{N}\), where \(\mathbb{N}\) again denotes the type of enemy. But now, minecraft also has a functor \(\mathcal{F}: (\frac{\text{open}}{M})\to \mathcal{E}\), where \(\mathcal{E}\) is the category of entities, which has as objects just sets of entities and as morphisms the surjective maps \(\phi: V \twoheadrightarrow V'\subset V\) for \(V, V'\in \mathcal{E}\) and \(\left(\frac{\text{open}}{M}\right)\) denotes the category of open sets over \(M\) created by set inclusion as well.

In tradition to the notation used by my professor Schröer, I will denote the application of this functor as \(\Gamma(U, \mathcal{F})=V\).

A quick recap in simple terms

What we did now, was define a mapping from the open sets in our Minecraft world to the sets of entities. This just allows us to ask the following question using the mathematical/computer language:

Which entities (like zombies, skeleton, player, …) are inside the collection of the following chunks: \(C_{x_1, y_1, z_1}, C_{x_2, y_2, z_2}, \dots\) ?

And the formulation in mathematical lingo would be:

\[\begin{equation} \Gamma(\bigcup_{i\in I} C_{x_i, y_i, z_i}, \mathcal{F})=V \end{equation}\]

where \(V\) is the set of entities we are looking for. We can say as a rule, that for our purposes \(\mathcal{F}\) must suffice the following condition:

  • For each open set \(U\) of \(M\), we have the set \(\Gamma(U, \mathcal{F})\).

But who needs the structure of a sheaf for that? Doesn’t a function suffice?

Well yes, but actually no

The problem with just mapping open sets of our Minecraft world to sets of entities raises the problem of restricting our open set but increasing our number of entities therein. Imagine the following. You have your Minecraft map and play the game with your character \(p\) inside said map. Now you wish to poll the number of entities that are located in your current chunk (the one your player resides in) and the ones adjacent to your current chunk. This would give you in total \(9\) chunks in which you poll for entities. Because you wish to let your character sleep in the game and the game does not let your character sleep if there are any monsters (which are a subset of entities) near your bed, you need to check if \(\Gamma(V, \mathcal{F})\) has any monster in it (where \(V\) is the chunk the player is in and the adjacent chunks). So now the game says everything is fine because \(\Gamma(V, \mathcal{F}) = \{p\}\), your player is the only entity in these chunks and you can go to bed. But when you wake up in Minecraft to your dismay you are getting attacked by a zombie, because actually there was one more entity nearby. There was indeed one zombie \(z \in \Gamma(V', \mathcal{F})\) where \(V'\subset V\) is just the player’s current chunk. This problem/bug occurred because the mapping which shows entities residing in an open set of our topology did not respect restriction mappings. This means, even if one takes the subset of an open set, the correlating entities in this subset need not be a subset of the entities correlating to the superset. Indeed, in our case we had \(V'\subset V\) but \(\Gamma(V',\mathcal{F})=\{p,z\}\supset \{p\}=\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\)

We can solve this issue by requesting our function \(\mathcal{F}\) must fulfill the following criteria:

  • For each inclusion \(V'\subset V\) there must be a function \(\text{res}^{V}_{V'}:\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\to\Gamma(V',\mathcal{F})\)
  • \(\text{res}^{V'}_{V''} \circ \text{res}^{V}_{V'} = \text{res}^{V}_{V''}\)
  • \(\text{res}^{V}_{V} = id\)

This so far just means, that given some \(\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\) which is the set of entities inside some open set, we can look at smaller open sets’ entities if these open sets are included in the prior open set.

The last problem to solve

So now we have done all of this to formalize our notion of entities inside some set of chunks. But there is still some problem in the example we wrote one paragraph before. We still have not solved the problem that given our knowledge of \(\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\) where \(U\) is some open set (with the player inside) we want to infer that, open subsets \(V'\subset V\) cannot have more entities or ones, that cannot be found inside \(V\).

The problem we are facing is that we are missing the sheaf axiom, which completes our requirements from before:

  • For each open set \(U\) of \(M\), we have the set \(\Gamma(U, \mathcal{F})\).
  • For each inclusion \(V'\subset V\) there must be a function \(\text{res}^{V}_{V'}:\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\to\Gamma(V',\mathcal{F})\)
  • \(\text{res}^{V'}_{V''} \circ \text{res}^{V}_{V'} = \text{res}^{V}_{V''}\)
  • \(\text{res}^{V}_{V} = id\)

which defines a sheaf. The sheaf axiom now states the following:

  • (Locality) If \(\mathcal{U}=\bigcup_{i\in I} U_i\) is an open covering of an open set \(U\) and if \(s,t\in\Gamma(U,\mathcal{F})\) with \(\text{res}^U_{U_i}(s)=\text{res}^U_{U_i}(t)\), then \(s=t\)
  • (Gluing) If \(\mathcal{U}=\bigcup_{i\in I} U_i\) is an open covering of an open set \(U\) and \(s_i\in U_i\) for \(i\in I\) holds \(\text{res}^{U_i}_{U_i\cup U_j}(s_i) = \text{res}^{U_j}_{U_i\cup U_j}(s_j)\) then there must be exactly one \(s\in\Gamma(U,\mathcal{F})\) with \(\text{res}^U_{U_i}(s) = s_j\)

And these basically state, that if there is some entity \(e'\) in \(V'\subset V\), ergo \(e'\in\Gamma(V', \mathcal{F})\), then there must also be exactly one \(e\in\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\) which is then equal to \(e'\) is we restrict our focus back to \(V'\).

In our situation with the zombie before, we had looked at an open set \(V\) which was defined as the chunk with the player \(p\) inside glued together with the chunks adjacent to that one. We said \(\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\) only included the player, because this was the only entity that was mapped from \(V\) by \(\mathcal{F}\), but then we said there was actually one zombie \(z'\) (another entity) inside \(V'\), which we defined as the chunk the player was inside.

This clearly violates our sheaf axiom! Because by the gluing property, we must have \(z\in\Gamma(V,\mathcal{F})\) as it follows from \(z'\in\Gamma(V',\mathcal{F})\) that there needs to be this \(z\) with \(\text{res}^V_{V'}(z)=z'\). So we know that because there is an open set with a zombie \(z'\) inside, an entity \(z\) that looks like this zombie if we restrict our focus to the open set where we found \(z'\) must also exist in any open set \(V\) that includes \(V'\).


This concept might look daunting at first and maybe even useless because of its’ apparent abstractness. But in fact, we are very far away from some abstract useless construct as I tried to visualize in this blog post. In fact, the construct of a sheaf is quite natural as it canonically allows us to track data attached to open sets (or as is the case in Minecraft: track entities in unions of chunks).

This concept can be much further observed though, providing a rich theory not just applicable in algebraic geometry. I will try to publish another post soon where I analyze some art I found particularly interesting using the structures defined in this post while also extending the notions of a sheaf to the ideas of stalks (which in our Minecraft example would allocate the entities in the smallest open set around some point to said point; Or more concretely all the entities in a chunk are returned, if we enter some point inside said chunk) and possibly also the idea of germs.

Until then I wish all of you good luck and fun applying abstract math with seemingly no application 😉.