My nine-year-old son has been pining after Minecraft for years. He first saw it at my parents’ house, where my youngest brother, who is still in high school, played the occasional game. Before long, he was downloading every sample book about the fictional world that he could on his Kindle. (I know, because I get copies of everything he has access to.) He was watching videos on YouTube of other players just working through the game.
He was fascinated. Dare I say, obsessed.
We have a love/hate relationship with video games in our house. The boys love them, my wife hates them. Okay, this is perhaps a slight oversimplification. In the early years of our marriage, I used to play video games a lot, to the detriment of other duties. My wife, being a former computer nerd herself, also knows of their addictive character, and so, steers clear. About eight years ago I decided it was time for me to cut way back on game time, and to instead use the hours wasted in imaginary worlds accomplishing something in the real one. In the time I wasn’t playing, I wound up writing a lot. I never would have succeeded as a columnist or blogger for other publications, nor would I have started OnePeterFive, if I had continued gaming like I used to. There are probably about 30,000 photos I wouldn’t have taken either. Any number of graphic designs, or novels read.
You see, to my mind, video games are just like any other form of entertainment, except for two things:
- They give you a false sense of accomplishment that replaces your need to experience a real one, pushing a dopamine button in your brain that makes you feel like a success when actually you’re in your jammies, covered in chip crumbs, in front of a glowing screen at three o’clock in the morning. This is dangerous.
- The addiction that stems from #1 makes it far easier to play games in much larger quantities of time than you would spend, say, watching movies or TV.
I’ve never spent 8 hours watching television. I’ve never watched more than two movies in a row, max. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent 8 hours or more — consecutively — playing through some particularly engrossing game. The first time I did it, I was shocked when I looked at the clock. But what started out shocking quickly became normal.
After going cold turkey for a few years, I’ve gone back to playing the occasional game, because with as much heavy reading and writing I do every day, I need some mindless entertainment now and then. I tend to collect ones that interest me when they go on sale for 70% off on Steam or Humble Bundle, and then play them once or twice and never finish. Only a few games have really garnered much of my time or attention in recent years.
Minecraft was not on that list. It just didn’t make sense to me. That big, blocky, stupid-looking, pixelated world looked positively dumb to me.
But my boy really wanted it. More than anything. And I had heard about homeschool groups using it to good effect, so there seemed possible that there was something meritorious about it.
The Windows 10 Beta version was only $10, so I secretly bought a copy to try out. I wanted to see what he’d be playing if I got it for him. I had it for a week or two before I even bothered to try it.
It didn’t take long before I got it.
The concept is very simple: you are dropped in an open, procedurally-generated world that is full of the resources you need to build various interesting things and defend them from the monsters that mostly come out at night. You start with nothing but your fists, and you have to begin harvesting wood and stone and dirt and whatever else you can to fill your toolbox with the building blocks of your homestead and further adventures. As time goes on, you’re able to “craft” various items of superior quality — say, tools made of iron instead of wood or stone — and these, with their increased durability, allow you to continue mining for even better materials like precious metals and gemstones. You can fire up a furnace and turn sand into glass or ore into ingots. As your materials become more useful, you’re able to build a better and better home base, which you only really use to protect yourself and your stuff at night until you go to where the real action is: digging into the deep chasms of the earth to find more buried treasure.
The description I keep thinking of for the game is, “Legos, laced with crack.” It has all the fun building elements of the ubiquitous plastic blocks, but it makes looking for the special pieces you need to complete your masterpiece an adventure. The real possibility of losing everything you have ups the anty. There’s nothing worse than dragging a full inventory box of precious items up to your lair, only to accidentally get fried in some lava along the way or crushed by some falling gravel. When that does happen, you only become that much more determined to do it again, but better.
I can see the educational value in a program like this. Like any other building and resource gathering game, it engrosses the mind with challenges of how to locate, use, and refine raw materials to construct something of value. The endless possibilities for what you can build and how you can build it means the only limit is your imagination. Being able to defend your creations from various (not particularly threatening) zombies and giant spiders and arrow-shooting skeletons adds to the fun.
But good Lord, it is addictive.
We wound up buying a Kano for the boy for Christmas this year. The Kano is a build-it-yourself computer kit for kids, at the heart of which is a Rasberry Pi 2. The Kano comes with a hackable version of Minecraft that teaches kids how to code. The boy had the computer built and Minecraft running within 30 minutes, and for the first few days, he was content to hack away at it, exploring the possibility that code exploits gave him over the game.
But he quickly realized that there was no “survival mode” — no night, no monsters — and he was unable to craft materials — combining different items in “recipes” to make something new — so he grew bored. When he gets his schoolwork done, and his chores, I sometimes let him play my copy instead. He loves it, as do all the kids.
Admittedly, so do I.
But there was that one night when I first really got into it at about 10PM after my wife fell asleep. I was reading through a little guidebook we had gotten The Boy for Christmas to go along with it, and figuring out How To Do Stuff. Between the game’s soothing piano music and the relaxing process of building and exploring and coming home and doing it all over again, I fell into a sort off trance. When my wife came down not long before 3AM and asked me what the heck I was doing, I looked at the clock and winced a little bit.
It’s that kind of game.
It’s probably why the guy who made it was able to sell it to Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars. And that after it had already sold 50 million copies.
So if you’re wondering if you should let your kids play it, I think it’s one of the better games for people of all ages. It’s clean, it’s fun, and it exercises the old problem solving muscles in the brain.
But watch out: Minecraft is a drug.