Some would say I’m a little biased, having received my bachelor’s degree in game design, but I firmly believe that games teach us things whether we want them to or not. This can be a blessing or a curse depending on what games you expose your children to in their most formative years.
The debate has been going a long time about whether violent games affect our kids, and I believe that in some ways they do. On the flip side, there are commercial games out there that have the potential to teach them wonderful things. As a mom and a game designer I’ve paid special attention to how the games my kids play shape them and teach them.
Minecraft was originally created by a Swedish indie developer named Markus Persson (later under the brand Mojang), and released as an alpha in spring of 2009. Two and a half years later it was “officially” released as a full version, but is still being regularly updated. It’s available on Android, iOS, PC, Mac, and Xbox. Across all platforms, they’ve sold over 54 million copies of the game.
The graphics of the game are overly simple. Everything is pixilated and blocky in a style that reminds me of games from the 80’s, but the “visually saturated” children of today don’t seem to mind at all. The gameplay is simple to learn. The player can move, jump, hit things, and activate things.
The purpose of the game is to take the world that is randomly generated for you, and change it. Two modes allow for two main styles of play, creative and survival. In creative mode you can fly, you aren’t burdened by health, and everything is at your fingertips. In survival mode there are enemy spawns, health and hunger bars, you must “mine” for resources to use, and you are given limitations.
My son is 13 years old. He’s smart, but doesn’t like to apply himself. He LOVES video games, and spends hours on Halo or Black Ops if we let him. He hates to read, though he reads at a grade level above his own, and he pretends not to “get” math at all. He often doesn’t turn in his homework, and conveniently forgets things at school or home all the time.
Two years ago he came to me and wanted to use his own money, saved from birthdays and Christmases, to buy Minecraft. As a gaming family we have a decent collection of titles, and between my hubby and I we aren’t difficult to convince when the kids want to try a new game. The fact that he came and immediately asked to buy this game with his own money was rare.
Since I allow the kids to spend their money as they see fit, I went online and bought it for him. I knew from the internet game design community that the game was fun and a little addictive, but hadn’t gotten round to playing it myself. Purchase made, I put it out of my mind, and the only time Minecraft came up was when I was trying to get the desktop away from my son to play my own games.
One day, however, I happened to be sitting nearby and watching my son play Minecraft. He loves to talk about what he’s doing, and for two hours I sat and watched him, listening to him explain what he was doing and why, letting him load up different worlds to show me things he’d done. Then he created a new world that we called “Mommy’s World” and he pushed the keyboard over to me.
That evening I bought my own copy of Minecraft. We sat together and played, him on the PC and me on my Mac. He showed me how to do things, explained the spawns and the settings, and told me the different “cheats” that could be turned on. In the few weeks after, I payed even closer attention to him when he played Minecraft.
To my surprise, the child that hated doing homework was researching techniques on youtube. He’d sit patiently through video after video, then go and try the things he’d seen. He pulled up sites that listed item ID codes, and even downloaded apps on his iPhone having to do with the game. He was becoming a Minecraft expert all by himself without any nudging by me.
One day I saw him with the command line open on the desktop and asked him what he was doing. He was trying to create a server so he could host a multiplayer world for the game. My kid that didn’t want to learn anything without a controller, was teaching himself about servers and IP addresses. I was amazed.
When we play together, he amazes me even more. I have a background in construction and drafting, and I think I know a fair bit about putting structures together. He keeps pace with me. Side by side, you’d not be able to tell the difference between a professional creating a house and an 13 year old boy that loves the game.
Minecraft is more than just a fun game, it’s a platform for learning. Kids like mine, even big kids like me, can let their imaginations run wild. They can experiment with their environment and find out how things work. (Lava and water make cobblestone when they meet, my son showed me the cobblestone generator that makes an unlimited supply of the stuff.) They learn patience, diligence, creativity, and innovation.
Through all of this however, the one thing that stunned me the most was seeing him actively researching the game. He was learning to LEARN. He was being passionate about something that was teaching him. He was applying methods naturally that most science classes have to drill into their students. Get an idea, do it, check it out, fix it, check it out, improve it, and on and on.
If I could figure out how to make reading and homework this interesting for him, I’d be a happy mom. In the meantime, I enjoy watching him play Minecraft, and I enjoy playing it with him. I try to sneak in a few lessons of my own here and there as we play, but the ones that he’s taking away from the game itself are so much more valuable.
Thank you, Markus Persson.