The point of Minecraft seems simple: build practically anything you can imagine. Some kids recreate famous pieces of architecture, others express their creativity through grand designs.
Since 2009, Minecraft has sold over 20 million copies. And if that seems like a typical blockbuster, don’t be fooled — it isn’t. Graphics are boxy and blurry, and sounds are primitive at best.
So why do kids obsess over it?
I gather a handful of 5-to-13-year-olds. I want to know why they love about it and what they get out of it. I expect simple answers. But, I find out, Minecraft is surprisingly special.
First, some basics about the game.
Players begin on any number of randomly-generated terrains — square blocks that make up deserts, mountains, prairie and even clouds. To survive the unknown world, they’ll have to create buildings and items — like say, an indestructible pickaxe or a stove to cook on — which means they’ll need to gather raw materials from the world around them.
When night falls, mobs of monsters — spiders, zombies and skeletons — chase them with a single-minded purpose. Lock up the goods. With sword or bow in hand, they’ll have to fend them off until daybreak, when the sunlight sends them back into hiding. While there’s no blood or gore, fighting monsters and feasting on hunted animals is part of the gameplay. I find out “a butchered pig drops down meat,” 11-year-old Meg tells me.
Minecraft is an open-ended “sandbox” that doesn’t come with instructions, so the gameplay is confusing — but that’s what makes it irresistible. Kids are forced to explore — first in the game, then out of it.
To figure out what to do next, they’ll need to read sites such as Minecraft Wiki, where they learn to build an intricate maze of mine shafts or design their dream house. Slowly, they begin to see what’s possible, and develop skills of observation and perseverance.
John tells me he tries “new moves to learn new things.” Meanwhile, five-year-old Declan says he learns by watching older brother John. When I ask Declan to explain, he rattles off all the tools, minerals, animals and metals — eager to prove his skill.
It’s all a blur to me.
For younger players, such as Mason, the lessons aren’t so clear. When I ask him about the benefits to the game, he tells me the biggest thing he’s learned is that “you need to have a pickaxe.”
To solve tougher puzzles, kids flock to the burgeoning YouTube scene, where gurus such as Jordan Maron, dubbed “CaptainSparklez,” not only give advice and technical knowledge, but also entertain — carving out a sort of stardom.
Eight-year-old Mason tells me he spends nearly five hours a week watching these tutorials.
Through experimenting and working together, kids begin to develop skills in creative thinking, math and geometry, and even a bit of geology. And to complete large tasks, they need to plan a strategy, define goals and work together to execute and see the mission through — sort of like having a real job.
In fact, the Journal of Adolescent Research published a study comparing children that played video games to those that didn’t. “Video game players, regardless of gender, reported higher levels of family closeness, activity involvement, attachment to school and positive mental health,” Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, the authors of the study, concluded. “Video game players also had less risky friendship networks and a more favorable self-concept.”
Even schools are taking notice, with some classrooms integrating the game directly into their curriculum.
“Before Minecraft, I tried to use video games in class, but I always had to change my lesson to fit the game,” Joel Levin, co-founder of TeacherGaming, a company that helps schools set up games, told the Washington Post. “Minecraft was the first game that came along where I could change the game to fit my lesson.”
But Minecraft has potential pitfalls, too.
“Someone not only killed [my son’s] Minecraft avatar, but also stole all of the items in his inventory,” Beth Blecherman told Mashable. “It’s a cruel world out there. Just like explaining to your kids why they have to safeguard their items in real-life, the lesson applies to Minecraft, too.”
Thirteen-year-old Chase tells me he’s heard of muggings, but confrontations usually stop at arguments. Players squabble about “where to place a block or what material to use,” and in extreme cases, someone might put dynamite on a creation to “blow it up for fun.”
Chase says avoiding trouble isn’t hard — he simply plays with kids who “like to play the same game I do.”
But Minecraft can rile up families, too. Twelve-year-old John, who plays with his siblings seven-year-old Lilly and Declan, says he regularly gets into fights with Lilly, usually when he’s trying to teach her.
“I know a lot about the game,” she sharply replies. It seems she doesn’t need help.
Parents, rightfully, worry about the effects of video games on a child’s developing brains. But kids, of course, aren’t so concerned.
“I do think it’s addicting,” 13-year-old Kayla says, but Chase quickly jumps in with a positive spin. “Sometimes, I need to stop playing it before I get to bed — that’s when I think about what I’m going to do the next time I play,” he adds. “But overall, I think it is good for you because it helps your brain become more active since it’s a thinking game.”
Good recovery, Chase.
The success of Minecraft is largely due to its open gameplay — kids don’t play just one mission, they choose from many activities. Meg says she likes to play hide-and-seek with friends, while Chase prefers to build “really cool castles.”
“I definitely think Minecraft is a freak thing,” Markus Persson, the game’s creator, told the New Yorker. “There’s no way you could replicate it intentionally.”
Regardless of the task, teamwork is a key part of the experience. For Lilly, the thrill is in the discovery. She takes pride in telling me the time she and her brothers found a jukebox in an abandoned mineshaft, and then, exploring further, stumbled upon a CD to play on their adventures. Meanwhile, Kayla says she regularly talks to friends about the game and checks Instagram for the hashtag #Minecraft to join the community.
That thriving subculture lets kids experience all things Minecraft. They connect online on forums, and offline at conferences and summer camps, sharing their love of the game and even collaborating on real-world items.
I realize the mystery of Minecraft’s near-hypnotic effect boils down its flexible gameplay and engaging community. And in the end, I see that Minecraft gives kids valuable lessons in life — such as how to avoid muggings. ♦