What is Minecraft?
Whether you believe that or not, there’s no denying the fact that kids love the game, and educators are increasingly embracing its capacity for promoting learning. Some have even said we’re raising a "Minecraft generation". Since my fourteen year-old son has been obsessed with the game for some time now, I thought I’d pick his brain about what exactly is so compelling about the virtual world and what he thinks about the idea of Minecraft in the classroom.
Why Kids Dig Minecraft
When Will first introduced me to the game a couple of years back, I have to admit, I was underwhelmed. I really didn’t quite get why he (and so many of his peers) were enthralled in a game with very basic graphics and what appeared to be a pretty old-school interface when there were so many other alternatives. Turns out, Will and his friends could care less what the game looks like so long as it’s fun.
In a nutshell, the players use blocks of materials; wood, stone, bedrock, iron ore, sand, etc. to build things. The entire virtual world or "Overworld" is essentially 862 by 862 blocks on the Xbox 360 and Desktop Editions, and 256 by 256 blocks on the Pocket Edition. Once you reach the end of the Overworld, there is basically an invisible wall that you can't interact beyond. Now there is also an "alternate universe" called The Nether, but we'll get more into that later.
So the real question is: what’s fun about Minecraft? When I posed this question to my son, he told me what he liked about the game most was how unstructured it is. There are some rules, but they’re loose rules, and they can be broken. In some “modes” (there are several), there is a way to “win,” but according to Will, beating the Ender dragon isn’t that big of a deal. In fact, he prefers “Creative Mode” where he can build structures using Lego-like blocks and collaborate with friends on new projects.
There’s also a “Survival Mode” in which players have to mine for supplies to survive, but if you die, no biggie, you can be re-spawned.
After talking to Will for a while about why he loved the game, I realieed it came down to this: Minecraft is a game that allows kids to explore and discover freely without a whole lot of rules or the pressure of fabricated competition. Will says he finds it relaxing and enjoys getting in the Minecraft “zone” after a long day of school with—you guessed it—lots of rules and fabricated competition.
The game is available on PC, Mac, XBox and iOS (iPad, iPhone, etc.)
Those of you with kids who play Minecraft will hear their children talk about such things as "Zombies," "Creeper," "Witches," "Villagers," "Skeletons," "Iron Golems," and of course the scary "Enderman."
I'm not going to go into details on all the content as I've found there is far too much to talk about here in a single article. You can find out all about the creatures and objects in the game here on the Minecraft wiki (just search at the top for the thing your child mentions that you've never heard of).
As I mentioned before, there is alternate universe in Minecraft called "The Nether," described as a "hell-like world." This alternate sandbox can only be accessed using a "Nether portal." The interesting part about the Nether is that travel on it is on a 8:1 ratio of the normal world. So traveling across the Nether and back to the normal world allows someone to get from one place to another much quicker in the normal world, assuming you can make the Nether portals.
If a player dies in the Nether however, they respawn in the Overworld and lose everything that they had in inventory as it's left in the Nether.
Creating/Surviving a World of Their Own
As I mentioned, there are several different “modes” on Minecraft, but the two most basic are “Creative Mode” and “Survival Mode.” In Creative Mode,” players have every available resource at their fingertips including all assortment of wood, stones, decorations, and even potions. By combining these resources, they can create an infinite number of tools, houses, and contraptions. They’re even able to experiment with “Redstone,” which is basically electricity in the Minecraft world.
In Survival mode, there’s a bit more pressure. The player is introduced into a randomised world of forests, deserts, oceans, and other landscapes. They have no supplies and must watch the dashboard carefully to monitor their health and hunger in order to avoid imminent death. Each “day” lasts ten minutes, and monsters such as creepers, zombies, and skeletons come out at night to attack. Nothing is easy in Survival Mode, monster attacks included. Instead, staying alive requires that the player explore, discover, and problem solve. For instance, in order to build a pickaxe to mine more efficiently, the player must first punch down trees to harvest wood, mine for ore, build a craft table, and build the tool themselves. To eat, one must not only hunt for meat (the primary food source in the game), but they must also build a furnace and add fuel for cooking. As I watched Will demonstrate these basic tasks, I asked him how he knew to do these things (e.g., build a craft table or make a furnace) as there are no clear instructions for game play. He told me that many of these tricks can be discovered through good old-fashioned trial and error, but if that doesn’t work, players can turn to the Minecraft Wiki or various YouTube channels for answers. This has it's problems as outlined below and that is one of the many reasons BuddyVerse exists, to demonstrate and teach the principles and methods used in Minecraft to create and play in the kid's Minecraft world.
When I asked Will to show me the most impressive thing he’s built on Minecraft, he was a bit apprehensive. Though he’s been playing the game for a couple of years, he admitted that to create some of the amazing structures you see online, you have to have a lot of talent as well as quite a bit of time on your hands. Nonetheless, I was pretty impressed with the town he and a few friends created together. It’s complete with a farm, treehouse, and playground.
Are There Any Dangers?
Although Minecraft has deservedly gained a reputation for being one of the more educational games available to kids, it’s not without its dangers. Kids will be kids after all, and some use the platform to build things that parents may find graphic or inappropriate. For instance, Will admitted that many public servers are rife with “penis statues” and other potentially disturbing images. Not surprising considering the number of tween boys on the platform, this is where BuddyVerse fits in. (See: Who & What is BuddyVerse)
Other players become what the Minecraft community has dubbed “griefers” who go around tearing down other players’ creations. Will found out the hard way that the Minecraft community takes griefing very seriously. What he thought was innocent playing around one afternoon after school actually got him booted from a friend’s server, and much drama ensued. After a peer-induced probationary period, Will was allowed back on the server, but only after he vowed to never “grief” again.
There is also a chat feature on Minecraft that allows players to interact with one another. This, of course, brings into play all of the risks of any other social network such as cyberbullying and online predators, not to mention exposure to profanity. To avoid these risks, Will only plays on a BuddyVerse server other kids. Most of them are family friends, but the group includes a few trusted friends from school as well. We’re also careful about which YouTube channels Will watches for inspiration as many of these players are adults and use adult language. Through trial-and-error, we’ve found a couple of YouTubers like Ethos Lab who avoid profanity for the sake of their younger audience.
Our biggest issue, though, has been the amount of time Will spends on Minecraft each day. As creative as it is, I want to ensure that he’s not missing out on other important activities such as outdoor play and real, face-to-face interaction with peers. When he first discovered Minecraft, it was a struggle to lure him out of the virtual world he created on the platform and back into the reality of chores, homework, and family time. When I discovered he was staying up past his bedtime to log on to the server, I knew we had to rein it in. Now, we allow 30 minutes to an hour on weekdays, depending on homework and extracurriculars, and two hours per day on the weekends. Communicating what these limits are has been helpful and eliminated a lot of frustration for the both of us. If Will knows going into his session that he has 30 minutes left as opposed to an hour, then he can plan his gameplay around these time restrictions as opposed to being forced to stop in the middle of building a complex structure.
Will Kids Embrace Minecraft in The Classroom?
I can see many cross-curricular applications for Minecraft in the classroom, but honestly, I wondered if it would ruin the game for kids. After all, the quickest way to strip the appeal for tweens and teens is to turn the game into a class assignment, right? Not necessarily. When I asked Will what he would think if his teacher gave him a Minecraft “assignment,” he grinned brightly and said, “Bring it on!”
From the perspective of both a parent and a educator, I feel confident recommending Minecraft as part of your child’s screen time allotment. Although there are risks (as with any online platform), I’ve been able to manage them with a few simple tweaks and a lot of ongoing conversation with Will about just exactly what’s going on in his virtual world.
Do your kids play Minecraft? Are their teachers using it in the classroom?