If you're around school-age kids or teens, you've probably heard someone mention Minecraft. This surprisingly complex video game has many interesting aspects, including its own terminology—such as creepers, a creature that can explode, destroying all your work (and you, if you're not careful), and mods, third-party content that can be downloaded to change the game, sometimes drastically.
Minecraft is what is known as a sandbox game, in that it is open-ended, and it doesn't have a story line that players must follow. Indeed, it doesn't have any rules, or even a tutorial. Some people have compared using Minecraft to playing with Lego, in that you build with blocks, but there's much more to Minecraft. Players can choose to play in creative mode, where all the blocks and game items are accessible; or in survival mode, where they need to gather all the resources and blocks in progression. For example, in survival, you need to hit a tree to get wood. Then you use the wood to make a crafting table and pickaxe, use your pickaxe to mine stone to craft into a stone pickaxe, which in turn you use to mine for iron, which you smelt in a stone furnace you must build, fueled by more wood or by coal you also mine.
When playing survival, you also need shelter; a way to defend yourself from the various mobs/monsters (unless your game is set to peaceful), as well as a way to feed yourself, which means starting a farm or hunting for cows, chickens, or pigs. All of these activities require multiple steps, and they add resource management and time management to the game, while still giving the player freedom to experiment and let creativity run unfettered. In the creative setting, you get that freedom without the worry of staying alive (and you have the ability to fly), which often results in spectacular builds, relying on that same creativity and experimentation.
With all these options and so much freedom to play in precisely the way the player prefers, it's no wonder Minecraft is so very popular. The options are essentially unlimited, bound only by the skills and knowledge of the player, which only encourages kids to learn more, in order to build bigger and more amazing things.
A key component of Minecraft, complex and largely unknown to people who don't play the game, is redstone. With the help of various other components, redstone is the Minecraft version of electricity. In many ways, it works like electrical and computer circuitry, and it can be used to make something as simple as a light that's always on, or incredibly complex automated machines and contraptions. Knowing the basics of redstone can help the uninitiated to understand some of what makes players so excited about Minecraft, by providing a glimpse into what's possible.
While redstone doesn't follow all the laws of circuitry, it has plenty of similarities—it needs a power source, the energy flows through "redstone wiring" (like electrical wiring), and it can be used to make logic gates in order to perform specific functions.
Redstone is an ore that can be mined, like the coal and iron mentioned earlier. A grey block with red highlights, when mined it drops (produces) redstone dust. Players use this dust to lay redstone lines that carry a signal from a power source to a device. The dust is also a key ingredient when crafting those devices, from basic lamps to repeaters and comparators that can be used to change and extend the signals.
Redstone is very different from other Minecraft blocks. Using switches, pressure plates, pistons, and other devices, players can wire up automated farms, craft cannons, create coded sequences for unlocking and opening doors, and much more.
One way in which players typically are introduced to redstone functions is through the use of iron doors. Wooden doors in Minecraft open when the player simply clicks on them, but iron doors are considered "powered" and must be opened with a switch. The switch usually takes the form of a button placed beside the door, which opens it briefly; a pressure plate on the floor in front of the door that activates when the player steps on it; or a lever, which acts as an on/off switch when placed next to the door. This is simple Minecraft redstone logic (not to be confused with actual electrical circuitry), as it uses no wiring, and the act of placing a button, switch, or lever on a block turns it into a powered block.
From that point, players tend to experiment with various switches and laying redstone wiring, testing on their own and usually referring to the Minecraft wiki, YouTube videos, and other players help in learning the complexities. Often parents have no clue that their kids are learning some pretty involved wiring, as well as discovering different ways to access information and teach themselves new skills. They learn about logic gates, and how to perform complicated series of steps in order to achieve their goal. Many kids stick to the basics, but others go on to create incredible devices. Meanwhile, older players and adults who have some knowledge of circuitry can build incredibly complex creations.
A commonly found and easily mined ore, redstone is not a very valuable resource, though it can also be used to extend the duration of any effects when added to potions. With just a bit of knowledge and ingenuity, however, the possibilities are unlimited. What follows is just a glimpse of those possibilities—much more, from mining to crafting to building plans, can be found in the "Redstone" section of The Visual Guide to Minecraft.
Cannons: Everyone Loves an Explosion!
For many players, one of the primary uses of redstone is to craft cannons that launch TNT. Using redstone wiring, water and TNT as a propellant, and a block of TNT as the ammunition, cannons can shoot the explosive a good distance and create a fair-sized crater. Building double cannons or ones that fire automatically, playing with various types of ammo (flying pigs, for example), and trying other variations adds to the enjoyment. In a player-versus-player (PVP) game, you can use cannons to storm another person's build. Whether in survival or creative mode, experimenting with cannons is just plain fun.
Complexity: Automated Devices That Perform Multi-Stage Tasks
The most common use for redstone falls under the broad heading of automation. Using redstone, players can construct fairly basic systems to smelt ores and cook food, harvest crops or manage livestock. Simple automatic doors are helpful at times. Using powered rails, players can transport materials from farms and mines to their main base with ease. More advanced redstone users can combine all of these individual components to create a fully automated system; for instance, the system might harvest a crop of potatoes, cook them, and move the cooked product via hoppers and chests to a storage space—all without the player touching anything. The wiring for such systems can be very complex, but it is part of the progression many young players figure out with the aid of friends, books, and online resources.
Creativity: Endless Ways to Build Devices with Redstone
One of the best things about Minecraft's redstone devices is that the limits really are bound only by the player's imagination. Players on our server have crafted extensive temples for others to explore, featuring mazes with automatic one-way and two-way doors that lead you in circles; coded doors that play music when unlocked; paths filled with tripwires that open trapdoors beneath the feet of the unwary, or that activate blocks to push the opponent into lava; secret buttons you can activate only with an arrow; paths that disappear as you run along them; and so much more. Behind the scenes is a maze of redstone wiring and colored blocks that only the designer could unravel. A quick online search for "redstone creations" will lead you to pages of unique designs, many of them simply astounding in both complexity and creativity.
While it doesn't directly or precisely transfer to actual electrical wiring or computer circuitry, redstone comes pretty close, and much is transferable. Where redstone and Minecraft in general really shine as a learning tool is in the ways that players are required to think creatively and learn to access and use information from a variety of platforms.
Without any actual formal guide, instructions, or tutorials, Minecraft is as open-ended as a game can be. It has also given rise to books, online wikis, YouTube walkthroughs and tutorials, and websites devoted to sharing knowledge and projects. Players are able to access information in many ways—information they must evaluate to ensure its accuracy, and that they can use to expand their own skills, to experiment and build on, and to share with others. This is a hidden and often overlooked benefit of Minecraft—the skills players gain in becoming critical thinkers who can access information and put it to personal use, educating themselves and others. In no area of the game is this more true than in redstone and redstone devices.