Over the past few years, a small independent video game has been capturing the hearts of players young and old. What started as a relatively basic, open ended program has grown into a complex, constantly evolving game that is infinitely adaptable, and as many parents, myself included, can attest, rather addictive.
My son Xander, now 14, introduced me to Minecraft back in its early, pre-release alpha test days, when he was 11. I’m a gamer myself, but I was skeptical about this new game that he was so excited about. The pixilated building block squares that formed the game, from the landscape right down to the sheep and pigs, seemed simplistic and unexciting, to say the least. But the early release was low cost, and seemed popular right from the start, so after we both did some research, Xander had his own account. It didn’t take long for both of us to see the creative potential in the game, as well as the challenges of obtaining, creating and managing resources -- the mining and crafting indicated in the game title, as well as the farming, building, exploring and other activities that were necessary for survival.
Figure 1 If you can image it, you can likely build it, including this fantastic replica of the house from the movie Up, found in the hub of the Rawcritics server. All those balloons are quite the challenge, given that there are no round blocks in Minecraft.
What Is Minecraft?
At its most basic, Minecraft is a sandbox game. This means it is an open ended game, without a specific goal or constraining guidelines. There are various levels and types of play, adding to the open ended aspect, and offering a level of flexibility, creativity and choice not often seen in video games. This makes it a game that players, and families of players, can easily adapt to their interests, boundaries and styles of play.
Game settings can range from a completely peaceful Creative mode, where all needed materials and supplies are readily at hand and players never die, to a Survival mode that can be set to varying levels of difficulty. In Survival, players must gather resources and craft their tools while staying alive. Various levels of difficulty in Survival range from completely peaceful (in other words, monster-free), to difficulty settings that include a range of monsters, or mobs, such as spiders, zombies and skeletons. In Survival mode, even when set to peaceful, players can succumb to starvation, falls, drowning and other deaths. This ability to set the difficulty level as well as to control the level of peace is one of the attractions of the game to many families.
Figure 2 One of the many ‘mobs’ (mobile entities, basically creatures, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile) to be found in Minecraft. The creeper is basically a living, exploding bush that can do a fair amount of damage. Creepers have become a Minecraft icon.
While Minecraft was originally designed to be played on a computer, and that is where the most complete and the most flexible play still occurs, it has expanded to various other platforms such as the XBox and a much simpler version for tablets and phones. Updates and upgrades are pretty continuous across all the platforms, but especially on the computer version, with new blocks and crafting recipes appearing regularly. This provides new inspirations and excitement, and keeps the game from becoming stagnant.
Appearance and Game Play
The Building Blocks
Minecraft is sometimes described as Lego for the computer, but I find this is far too simple an analogy. It is true that the basic game is comprised of dozens of different types of blocks, but there is far more to it. It is true that there are no curves and that everything is square and comprised of pixels, making it look rudimentary. However, the basic materials can be altered, combined and crafted into far more complex items. These raw materials range from various types of stone to several ores, an array of trees, many edible and decorative plants, and a plethora of animals.
Raw materials can be crafted into other forms. For example, ores such as iron can be mined and then smelted in a furnace, resulting in iron ingots or bars. These in turn can be crafted into such tools and gear as axes, shovels, picks, hoes, swords, armor, shears, buckets, doors, railings and more. Of course the player must first create a crafting table from wood taken from a tree, and a furnace, crafted from stone that has been mined, and said furnace needs to be fueled by charcoal or coal, which also must be obtained. All the while, the player must be sure to find enough food to keep from starving, and if on a non-peaceful survival level, they must create shelter that will protect them from the monsters that appear at night.
Figure 3 In Minecraft, you carry an inventory of items (the bottom portion of the chart), and can store things in chests as well. Here, the top six rows are the riches contained in one chest –iron, diamond, lapis lazuli and gold. In the background is a storage space and to the right, a lurking Enderman, another mob found in the game.
Other components of game play include mining for more resources and farming produce and animals for food and for crafting materials. Cows provide both meat and leather, and sugar canes, also known as reeds, can be used to make sugar for crafting other foods or paper, which can be combined with leather to craft books. The plans for these various combinations and hundreds more are called recipes and can found online, although experimenting with the raw materials can be fun. As well, farms can be planted and harvested, and animals can be bred and raised, some as pets, some for resources. Monsters, when not on peaceful setting, will attack. Therefore defenses, armor and weapons like bows and swords become necessary.
Building is a huge part of Minecraft, from the smallest huts to massive cities that expand as far as the eye can see.
Figure 4 The spawn, or starting point, for the Rawcritics server’s build map has developed into a city skyline one highrise at a time.
When playing on Creative mode, it is very different. All the resources in both their raw and crafted states are readily available, and players can focus simply on designing and building without having to worry about dying. This is a good place for most young players, or those new to gaming, to begin.
Beyond the Basics
Modifications and variations
There are no set goals in the basic game (often called vanilla Minecraft). Players can become explorers, miners, farmers, builders or, most likely, a combination of all of these. There are no rules, guidelines or even directions, not even a simple tutorial – it truly is open to the player’s imagination. At the same time, Minecraft has been written in a code that allows players with a range of programming skills to write programs, known as mods, or modifications, to the game. From helpful map programs to texture packs that change the appearance of the game itself, from mods that help carry more resources or allow items to be used more efficiently or differently to those that allow cheating, modifications allow Minecraft to be adapted and changed in pretty much any way imaginable.
Playing with others
Minecraft can be either a single or multiplayer game. Servers are a platform used to bring players together, and can be as simple as one that only players sharing the same internet (such as in a family) can access, or as complex as a world, or worlds that can host hundreds of players from around the world at one time. Again, here there is as much control for parents as they choose. The range of servers extends from simple family friendly building worlds to complex player-versus-player maps to themed servers that host specific games or are based on role playing themes like Star Trek.
The communities that arise around servers, and the aspect of playing with others, is what many parents are most worried about, sometimes with good cause. At the same time, for me, it is one of the most exciting aspects of the game, as players collaborate on builds, sometimes fight each other in player versus player matches, learn resource management and trading and a variety of skills from each other. Parents will need to be vigilant about where their kids play, if they take the step and explore servers, but the rewards can be many.
Figure 5 Servers provide various types of maps, from build to creative to player versus player or PVP.
Another type of community that has formed around Minecraft is that of all the players who share their work, their ideas and their knowledge online. From live games being streamed on channels such as Twitch to tutorials, music videos, animated shorts and game walk throughs on YouTube, the amount of content shared by players for players is astounding and constantly growing. Various servers host forums where players can participate in conversations and further share their ideas, and group calls through sites like Skype allow them to communicate in a more personal way than chatting via text in the game. At the same time, here are other areas where, despite all the amazing things that are happening through this game, parents need to be more vigilant.
Minecraft and Your Family
I have a less common perspective on gaming – I see the creative aspects, the social opportunities, the problem solving and resilience forming components. I love how people are creating, working together, and sharing with each other when they play together or when they are are posting online. At the same time, I recognize that safety is paramount, and that peace within the family is too. In both these cases, I firmly believe that communication and connections are the keys.
Communication is vital in expressing expectations about time spent playing, in listening to what makes the game exciting and rewarding for your kids, in hearing about their builds. Setting boundaries and time limits is part of communicating, as is listening when children ask for a bit more time – some projects they literally cannot walk away from without taking time to close something down, put something away, or let a friend know they are leaving. Fair and reasonable boundaries around this, as well as around house rules for chores, homework and family time make things much smoother. And knowing where kids are playing, should they move to realm of servers, is vital.
When Xander first wanted to join a server, I was completely against it and terrified, but he found one he was interested in, and I sat with him and watched over his shoulder daily as he became part of the community. Eventually I started playing myself, and joined the same server, making friends and also becoming part of that community. If Xander and I hadn’t communicated, he would never have found this server and community, because I would have not been as open to him exploring it. His willingness to include me and let me know what was happening in game reassured me, and my interest in what he was working on helped strengthen my understanding of the game and why it was important to him, as well as strengthen the connection between us.
There is much more to be said about Minecraft, but at its core it is a creative, open-ended game that both engages and challenges kids and adults alike. If you have a Minecraft playing child in your house, I highly recommend sitting down with them and asking for a tour of what they’re working on, or even getting an account and playing along with them. You might be surprised at how much Minecraft has to offer.