should preface this post by pointing out that my family has noticed over the past year, with some chagrin, that my 12 year old nephew has steadily withdrawn from family events into the world of his electronic devices. When we’re at his house he’s always locked away in his bedroom on his computer. When he spends the weekend at his grandma’s house he commandeers her laptop (she doesn’t use it anyway) and spends the weekend on that. When he’s over at our house he’s hunkered over his Nintendo DS.
“What are you doing there, dude?” I’d ask.
“Playing Minecraft,” is his answer, without even looking up.
“Yeah? Tell me about it.” Getting his attention is like pulling wisdom teeth.
“It’s nothing, really,” he finally says, when he realizes I’m not going to leave him alone. “You just collect materials and build stuff.”
He probably doesn’t realize it, but he and I have had this exact conversation at least three times in the past 18 months. This is generally the point where I give up trying to make an effort. I can pull wisdom teeth at work, thankyouverymuch.
If you have young people in your life, likely you have at least heard of “Minecraft.” If you haven’t at least heard the word, it’s safe to say you are no longer connected to what’s “cool” these days. Minecraft is a video game, released in 2011, that has reached full-on phenomenon-status on the order of Cabbage Patch Dolls in the 80’s, or grunge rock in the 90’s. Even if your kids aren’t playing it, their friends are – or at least they’ve got the lunchboxes and T-shirts at school. For my part, although I’ve been aware of it for some time, I managed to avoid any personal experience beyond flash glimpses over my nephew’s shoulder.
Then about a month ago a fellow dadblogger posed a question to our dadblogging facebook group “I know Minecraft is a thing, but that’s about all I know. Is this something I need to look into and know more about? Because I’m sure the infection is eventually going to spread to my kids.”
That planted the seed.
A week later I posted on my facebook status “OK. Someone who knows, please give me a good reason why I shouldn’t start playing Minecraft.” I got the sort of responses you’d expect:
“Don’t do it man. It’ll eat up your life. It’s a total time-suck.”
“It’s like crack, man. The first taste is free, but after that you’re hooked. They should call it ‘Minecrack.’”
“OMG. That’s all my kids will talk about.”
If these people were trying to ward me off of the game, how could they not know that their comments were having the exact opposite effect.
The next day I got a private message from a longtime gaming buddy of mine. “Dude, it’s amazing. I’ve got a server set up just for me and a few friends. You should come join us.” (If this was the 60’s would he be inviting me to his private farm where he grows special herbs and mushrooms?) In my previous blog post I mentioned “dipping my toe in a new video game”. That was Minecraft.
Today – two weeks later – is the day I finally came up for air.
This is the post where I attempt to answer the question for the uninitiated, “What exactly is Minecraft?”
To put it plainly, my nephew was right. Essentially, you collect materials and build stuff. But that’s a 12-year-old’s oversimplification born out of a need to get a pesky uncle to leave him alone. I think a better way to describe Minecraft is to say that it is an incredibly powerful platform for creativity which, to my thinking, is enough to explain its white-hot popularity. Think digital Legos on steroids. To a mind like mine, the open-ended creativity is incredibly intoxicating. Now that I’ve been there, I could easily join my nephew in the Minecraft-transe.
Gamers classify Minecraft as a “sandbox” style experience. For non-gamers, that means there are no concrete objectives. There are no princesses to rescue. There are no power-pills and ghosts to chomp. There aren’t even any levels to earn or super-tough boss badguys at the end of a long dungeon crawl. You are simply tasked with doing whatever you want to do. It is the player’s job to decide what he or she wants to accomplish. You’re just plopped down in an environment and encouraged to explore, interact and experiment.
The game is essentially set up as a patchwork worldscape made up of multiple, completely interactive biomes (desert, jungle, plains, forest, etc). Players can scoop up a bunch of sand, or chop down a tree, or dig into the dirt, collect the materials from those actions, and use them to generate something new – say, a tool – which in turn gives you the ability to interact with your environment in a whole new way. Your creativity options just explode from there.
You want to dig down to the depths of the earth, exploring underground caverns? You can do that.
You want to build a city, complete with villagers, livestock and crops (which you have to protect from monsters that come out at night)? You can do that.
You want to build a castle with a mosaic floor in the pattern of a symbol that only the most hardcore Star Wars fans would recognize? You can do that.
You want to build an amazingly intricate subterranean, mine cart roller coaster exactly like the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? You can do that.
You want to construct an underwater base accessible only via a secret passage in your castle that snakes across the ocean floor and resurfaces right by your buddy’s castle? You can do that.
You want to sculpt a mountain into the shape of a skull with lava pouring out of its eye sockets? You can do that too (and that may be my next project).
And all that is only scratching the surface. The game even has its own version of electronic circuits which power and move mechanical bits, giving you the ability to engineer incredibly complex, working machinery. (My castle has a trap door on the floor activated by a lever on the arm of the throne so I can dispatch of unwanted guests as it pleases me. If there were a Rancor in the game I’d put one in the pit below. Alas.) Someone even built a real, functioning, virtual computer, in a totally digital medium, using nothing but the electronics (they’re called “redstone”) components ingame. Check this video out:
In fact, if I was still teaching science, this game makes an ideal introduction to both electronics and quantum mechanics (the universe is made up of individual particles, each particle has unique properties, and particles interact with one another in predictable ways, which makes the world go round).
As with so many things of this nature, when I first became aware of Minecraft I quickly wrote it off as an adolescent’s plaything – especially after observing the effect it had on my nephew. But I’m here to say this game is geared to anyone with a creative mind. If you can think it, you can do it. There is absolutely zero violence. None. In fact there is zero “adult content” in any way shape or form. In that way I can say with confidence that this game is 100% kid friendly.
…ignoring, of course, the totally addictive, all-encompassing tendencies that the game draws you into.
If you endorse your children developing and flexing their creative and problem solving muscles, by all means let them play Minecraft.
If you endorse them turning their lives completely over to a virtual, digital medium, keep them far, far away.