“Water and lava make obsidian. And if you make obsidian you can create an obsidian portal!” This is the kind of sentence used frequently in our house among our three boys, aged 9, 7 and 5 as they make their way through their self created worlds in the online game known as “Minecraft.”
“Minecraft”, the game which some have called a computer version of Lego, was originally created by Swedish programmer Marckus “Notch” Persson and later developed and published by the Swedish company “Mojang” in 2009. The creative and building aspects of “Minecraft” allow players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D procedurally generated world. Other activities in the game include exploration, gathering resources, crafting, and combat. Multiple game play modes are available, including survival mode, where the player must acquire resources to build the world and maintain health, a creative mode, where players have unlimited resources to build and the ability to fly, and an adventure mode where players play custom maps created by other players.
In “survival mode” you have to collect raw materials (food, shelter building items) and then “protect” these at night when zombies, spiders and skeletons come and try to take them and kill you… of course, to survive, you have to kill them first. There is no blood or gore, but if you don’t like the killing, you can play in “creative mode.” You also feast on hunted animals. “We have to kill them to get meat,” my seven year old says in a very matter of fact way. “Otherwise we will die ourselves. Sometimes we keep some animals as pets.” (Farm life here in New Zealand is not too far removed from this anyway). My daughter, who is only four and loves cats, was recently delighted to discover a “Minecraft” cat now exists– she doesn’t really play the game herself, but doesn’t mind watching what her brothers are creating using it.
At first glance “Minecraft” might appear to be quite primitive: the chunky square graphics and figures remind me of some of the 1980s games I played as a kid (showing my age here): everything is certainly very SQUARE. When I first saw it, it reminded me of the figures in the Dire Straits music video, “Money for Nothing.”
Every figure and built structure is, however, three dimensional in a way we couldn’t have conceived of as being possible on computers back in the 80s and there really seem to be no limits to what can be constructed. I have seen kids build amazing replicas of real life buildings (sometimes using helpful hints from the “Minecraft books”), and also incredible fantasy structures which could not necessarily exist in reality, such as buildings hanging in mid air or floating on clouds or buildings with vast underground mazes of tunnels.
Recently our seven year old son created an amazingly true to life replica of the church our family attends. The minister then showed this at one of the services, on the screens at the front of the church. I felt it was a good way of linking adults and kids and showing adults the “world” our kids live in, as well as how children view our world (in this case our church).
Critics of “Minecraft” say that there are a number of drawbacks. The game is essentially aimed at children and has been shown to be most popular amongst those in the 5 to 14 year old age bracket (and slightly more popular with boys than girls, although both genders enjoy playing). Some adults also enjoy the game (my husband gave it a go and said, “yeah, it is quite addictive”) and one issue is kids hooking up with strangers on the Internet when “Minecraft” is played interactively. (I have also heard of kids being horrified when their creations have been blown up with TNT by other players). There is an option for blocking strangers so that a child can play only alone or with friends or siblings. “Minecraft” has caused a number of sibling fights in our house, particularly when our eldest son decides to impart his superior wisdom on the game to his independently minded brothers or sister. We limit the “screen time” our children have anyway and they each have one night a week when they are allowed “i-pad time” once dinner, homework and other duties are out of the way. The “i-pad” time of any one child often involves playing “Minecraft” with the others eagerly watching. Sometimes this goes well, whereas at other times there are fights and accusations of “…taking over my i-pad time.” (We’ve even coined the term i-paddies” to describe some of the behaviour in our house). And, of course, there can be issues when Mum or Dad try to tell them that their i-pad time is up “…but I just want to build one more thing!”. When our 7 year old son began playing it, about two years ago, he suddenly began screaming when he found himself stuck in a tunnel which he himself had created, with about 50 pigs he had spawned. (On this occasion he didn’t mind big brother, now 9, coming to the rescue, especially as his Dad and I didn’t know what to do).
Personally, I don’t believe in banning a game like “Minecraft” outright, as this causes resentment and can lead kids to go to their friends’ houses to play the game anyway (and things which are taboo are always even more exciting). And there are far worse things online than this game. On the other hand, I don’t believe in sticking kids perpetually on tablets and then ignoring them (because it keeps them quiet, at least for a while), with the justification that it is an “educational” game. As adults, we still need to set boundaries with our children, particularly in the case of something which has been shown to be as addictive as “Minecraft”. I think it is important, too, to “meet the kids” in “their world”. I’ve heard some parents have complain about “that blooming Minecraft” and how their kids always want to play on it and then always “want to show us stuff they’ve built on it.” Of course they want to show us, they are proud of their creations, just as we were of the lego structures we created. They may be “digital natives”, but children are still children and they still seek adult approval, praise and admiration. If we take the time to look and engage with our kids, while they do activities such as “Minecraft”, we just might be proud of how quickly they adapt to the world around them– virtual and real.
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