The Lure of the Console (Part II) – Minecraft
Most people who are even casually acquainted with any quirky kids in 2013 have probably heard a good deal of discussion about the game Minecraft. In fact, Minecraft is one of those crazes with an appeal that has expanded beyond the realm of the quirky so really anyone casually acquainted with kids at all has probably heard some talk of it. Among the kids that we see here at Academy MetroWest, its popularity has begun to approach that rarefied air previously occupied only by such venerable institutions as Pokemon and Harry Potter. Over the past 2 years, I’ve seen Minecraft grown in popularity from its niche-position as a haven for the occasional computer-obsessed adolescent to its position today as the go-to activity for just about all the kids I know.
Two kids modeling the latest in Minecraft Fashion
Minecraft has been an omnipresent topic in our group discussions this year. Normally, I pride myself on the fact that I speak the same language as kids and even if I’m not well-versed on the topic du jour, I can at least follow the conversation. With Minecraft though, the kids were speaking a different language. In my office, kids would insist on sharing Minecraft related videos on YouTube each week. As every kid erupted in laughter at each video, I’d inevitably have no idea what they found so funny and would experience a profound sense of befuddlement each time.
Minecraft’s graphics are primitive compared to most contemporary games but worlds can be vast and very complex.
Then curiosity got the best of me and I started asking my kids this question: “What’s so great about Minecraft?” At first, I didn’t get a lot of answers that helped to clarify things for me very much. Working with kids with social skills issues as I do, I got a lot of answers to this “big picture” question that focused on details related to the game (i.e. “You get to kill creepers” or “One time I found this mod that let me add Homer Simpson to the game”) rather than answers that illustrated any larger sense of the game. Most kids viewed my attempts to learn more about the game as the misguided efforts of another pathetic old guy to understand something that was hopelessly beyond his grasp. Finally, I asked the question to a group of 6th and 7th graders and began to get some clarification (i.e. “It’s like Legos but in a video game.” “You can build anything and you can live a different life.”) They got me even more curious and I decided to shell out $27 and download the game. Of course, as always, my thoughts were with my blog readers. I thought that if I learned how to play the game, I’d be able to write something akin to an English:Minecraft/Minecraft:English Dictionary that parents could use to understand and connect with their kids better. Alas, it’s not that simple.
Before I describe my journey (so far) into this brave new world, I’ll give you some context on my own gaming experience. I’m convinced that when it comes to the acquisition of video/computer gaming skills, there are critical periods in our development. My old Developmental Psych. textbook (Introduction to Child Development – by John Dworetzky) defines a critical period as “a time during an organism’s development when a particular influence is most likely to have an effect.” It’s a concept most often used in the context of language acquisition attachment to a caregiver. In my humble opinion, childhood and adolescence constitute the critical period for acquisition of computer and video gaming skills. If you don’t start playing until adulthood, you can probably still get the hang of it, but it’s going to take a lot of work. Back in the paleolithic age when I was growing up, the most sophisticated video games we had were Pong or those simple, hand-held football games. Their “graphics” consisted of flashing dots arrayed like a football team and they bear almost no resemblance to games being played kids today. I played
Back in the dim and distant days of my youth, these hand-held football games were the cutting edge of digital technology.
Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Defender like everyone else did when I went to college. Since then, I have gone through intermittent periods when specific games have sucked me in but I’m far from an expert. I’ve tried to overcome the limitations imposed by my digitally-impoverished childhood but a guy can only do so much, right?
So it’s with that background that I opened my newly downloaded Minecraft game for the first time. After loading the game, I went diligently searching for the rules and instructions. When I couldn’t find them, I assumed that this constituted another instance of my hopeless incompetence as a gamer. Without any guidance, many adults would be left with no alternative other than to bemoan the loss of $27 and face the humiliation of another defeat in the world of technology. I, on the other hand, work with children. While my career choice has led to some minor disadvantages – lack of monetary reward comes quickly to mind – they are more than overcome by the access I have to my charges’ collective encyclopedic knowledge of all things electronic. I quickly learned that the reason I couldn’t find the rules or instructions is that they don’t exist on Minecraft software. To figure out how to play, you have three options. The first is to visit any number of independent web sites such as Minecraftopia or Minecraft Wiki. You can also watch any number of the countless YouTube videos that offer tutorials and new ideas for playing. Or you can do it the old fashioned way by asking a kid to help you. I’ve relied primarily on Minecraftopia and asking kids for help.
The thing that seems to set Minecraft apart from most other computer games is that the emphasis is not on achieving a specific goal or defeating a specific enemy. If you play long enough and obsessively enough, you can finish it but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The main idea seems to be that you can create your own vast and complex world and, to some extent, your own rules. You can play in single-player or multi-player mode although I’ve only played the former.
Though I am FAR from being an expert on Minecraft, I’m sure I’ve never seen a game that was more destined to be a hit among the quirky crowd. The fact that the game doesn’t come with rules or instructions makes it necessary to spend hours digging around on the internet to learn all the ins and outs of the game. While each player can, to some extent, create his or her own world, they also have to use various “crafting recipes” and can also add their own mods or utilize others made by other gamers. The amount of time required to become well-versed in these concepts demands a level of hyper-focus that, while not unique to quirky kids, is clearly one of their strong suits once they find a new, favorite interest. Like all video games, Minecraft is governed by encoded rules that are not dependent on grey areas like context, nuance, and other abstractions. To the extent that you can create your own world, you can also create your own rules, a concept that must hold an irresistible appeal to lots of kids.
Also like all video games, there are potential pitfalls involved with Minecraft. Even in single-player mode, it can be difficult for kids to leave a world in which they set the rules and control almost everything about their world. For kids who see the real world as being unpredictable, out of control, and governed by rules that can seem incomprehensible, there probably aren’t a lot of obvious, compelling reasons to fight through their fixation. In multi-player mode, kids need to deal with some of the same issues of cyber-bullying and victimization found in any online experience.
On the other hand, I’m a big proponent of using a child’s interests as a vehicle to help them learn and to feel good about themselves. If a child can play Minecraft while working within reasonable limits, it can be a great way to connect with others. Again, with no rules or instructions that come with the software and a seemingly limitless number of possibilities for creating different worlds, exchanging information with other kids about the gaming experience becomes almost a necessity. With the game getting so enormously popular among all kids, it also presents a rare opportunity for quirky kids to become sought after by everyone else as a valuable source of information about the game. Creative teachers and professionals are already coming up with ways to incorporate Minecraft into classroom and library experiences as well.
I’m also a proponent of having parents take the time to learn about their kids’ interests. If you are at all a fan of video or computer games, Minecraft is pretty entertaining and will afford you another vehicle for connecting with your son or daughter. I’m not sure how much more time I’m going to devote to the game but I’m glad I’ve taken the time I have so far to learn it. My skills are not advanced enough to write my English:Minecraft/Minecraft:English Dictionary or to speak the language fluently. However, as a tourist in the world of Minecraft, I can speak the language well enough to ask appropriate questions to the natives and learn more about their culture.