There were zombies to the left of me, creepers to the right. I was cowering in a deep, square hole in the darkness while skeletons rained arrows over my head. What I really needed at that moment was a 10-year-old with some serious sword skills. And all I had was a handful of sticks.
I was, of course, a noob about to die inside Minecraft. And not for the first time, either.
Calling Minecraft a game doesn’t do it justice; it’s more like a movement. Available on nearly every device where games can be played, from computers and consoles to smartphones, Minecraft boasts more than 100 million registered players, many of them barely out of kindergarten. Is this due to its stunning 3D graphics, sophisticated plot, and adrenaline-pumping gameplay? No, it is not.
A creeper inside Minecraft. Keep your distance; they tend to explode. (Kobodstro/DeviantArt)
It’s what’s known as a “sandbox” game, meaning that there is no end to it and no overarching goal. You’re largely responsible for bending your game world to your will. In fact, that’s the point of the game.
Minecraft worlds are made up of chunky graphics reminiscent of the earliest video games. A new, untamed world may already be populated with geometrically challenged farm animals and several varieties of monster. You survive by transforming the abundant blocky resources into tools, which you use to gather more resources and make cool stuff.
You can play Minecraft by yourself, with a handful of friends, or connect online with total strangers.
But what’s most remarkable about Minecraft is how utterly consuming it is. When kids aren’t playing it, they’re watching videos of other people playing it, or discussing it online with other avid Minecrafters. That’s one reason why, when you search for Minecraft, you’ll quickly encounter a lot of posts on parenting forums titled “Help, Minecraft has eaten my child’s brain. How do I get it back?”
Obsession isn’t the only concern. Some parents worry about the effect that battling flesh-eating monsters will have on young kids’ psyches; others fret about the effect Internet trolls can have on tweens and teens using the multiplayer version.
I’m happy to say parents have little to worry about — or at least there’s nothing they can’t handle. Here are five reasons why:
1. You can play along. When your kids are little it’s always a good idea (and usually a lot of fun) to play games along with them. That’s especially true of Minecraft. The easiest way to get started is to download the more limited pocket edition for Android and iOS, which allows you and your child to play along together using the same app on separate mobile devices.
But be aware that mastering Minecraft isn’t a 15-minute affair, notes Tanner Higgin, senior manager of education content for Common Sense Media. Once you create a world, you are totally on your own; there are no instructions and no clues what to do next.
When playing the standard game on the full computer edition of Minecraft, “the early stages of Minecraft are brutish and short,” he says. “One of the things people love about it is how mysterious and dangerous it feels early on, as well as confusing.”
Note, however, that many homemade Minecraft videos contain language that would make a sailor blush. Unless you want your minor miners cussing like a longshoreman, you want to turn on YouTube’s parental controls and keep an eye on what they’re watching.
2. You can prevent brain drain. Most Minecrafters will spend all day digging dirt and fighting monsters if you let them. Before they get too hooked, create a contract you both sign that spells out how often they can play and for how long, says Cori Dusmann, author of The Minecraft Guide for Parents. For example, you might stipulate that each two hours spent playing in the virtual world must be followed by at least one hour of playing in the real one.
Remember, though, that a Minecraft world, especially online with other players, is a living thing that exists even when your child isn’t in it. Dusmann adds: “You can’t just say, ‘Turn off that game right now and take out the trash,’ because your child could end up losing things he’s been working on,” she says. “You need to agree on a five-minute warning, or that your child will take out the trash when he’s reached a point where his character isn’t going to die.”
3. You can manage the monsters. Younger Minecrafters may find the idea of monsters that spawn at night and try to eat them a little disturbing. Given that a typical day in Minecraft is 10 minutes long, followed by 10 minutes of terrifying darkness, there are ample opportunities to become someone else’s meal.
That’s why it’s best to start your young’uns in the game’s “Creative” mode, which allows them to explore at will while remaining unmolested by hungry zombies, explosive creepers, or arrow-wielding skeletons. Many players never leave Creative mode, because it allows them to build some amazing structures without worrying about someone or something destroying their work.
Kings Landing from Game of Thrones has been given the Minecraft treatment.
When they’re ready for more action, they can graduate to Survival mode, which comes in three flavors, from Easy (your character can die but can’t be eaten) to Hardcore (if your character dies, you lose everything you’ve ever created).
4. You can banish the bullies. Then there’s the other kind of monster: the human ones you encounter on multiplayer servers who turn into cyberbullies, taunting your kids via in-game chat or destroying things they’ve just created (“griefers”). You have a couple of options. When your kids are first starting out, you can set up your own private server and limit the players to only those friends and family in your home, or the ones you’ve invited (you can find instructions on how to do that here).
As kids get older and want to play in more complex scenarios, you can search for “family-friendly” Minecraft servers, administered by adults who will boot or ban anyone who violates the rules. You can download a list of more than 1,000 family-friendly servers here.
5. It is educational, really. You might think that hopping around a virtual world battling spiders the size of golden retrievers is a colossal waste of time. It’s not. Playing Minecraft helps your child hone his mathematical, spatial, and analytical abilities, says Joel Levin, a Brooklyn school teacher who created MinecraftEdu to help teachers bring the game into their classrooms. Parents can help by pushing their kids to be even more creative inside the game, he adds.
“Instead of just letting them kill zombies or fight in yet one more Hunger Games-style area, parents should encourage their kids to build something they learned about in school, such as a castle, or a colonial village,” Levin suggests.
An ancient Babylonian castle rendered in Minecraft. (SwiftSampson/Imgur)
Along the way, they’ll also learn 21st-century skills like online collaboration and basic programming logic. And if they learn how to make torches from sticks and coal, or the best way to dispatch creepers before their heads explode, even better.
Update: A previous version of this column had an off-hand and inaccurate comment about Tourette’s Syndrome. We apologize, and it has been removed.
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.