In the first few minutes of attempting to play a recent game of Minecraft on my iPhone by myself, without my children coaching me, I manage to spawn two chickens, smash some bricks, place some cake on the ground and fall into a hole.
Basically, I don't really know what I'm doing in this pixilated world that lets players build mansions and create environments from blocks of materials. But my children, tweens and a teen, know their way around the game, as do the millions more people who have played this game on their mobile devices and on desktop computers since it was introduced for the PC in 2009. And I want them to help me understand it so I can understand what parts of this layered game are appropriate for their ages.
“Listen to your gut, and don't doubt yourself,” advises Charlotte Lankard, licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice and a columnist for The Oklahoman, in considering which games in general your children should play, not just Minecraft. “I think they can be great learning tools ... as long as kids have a balance and some limits. This is a techy world they're living in and they need to know how to negotiate it.”
Minecraft is an open-ended game referred to as a sandbox game, where, like as in a sandbox, your imagination is the most important tool you have as you dig around and create. It can include dragons, monsters and weapons, but it doesn't have to.
Nearly 11.2 million people have bought the desktop Minecraft game since its release, according to minecraft.net. At that website, players can get the full desktop version for $26.95 from the Swedish independent game company Mojang. Versions of it are also available on Xbox360 and Apple and Android mobile devices.
The tweens and teens I know who play this game have loved it, and the worlds they're creating are elaborate and interesting, with rooms and pets and waterfalls and anything they can imagine using the block-like tools they have. They also join friends for adventures on different servers.
I see a lot of good in Minecraft for the creativity it requires, but I also became concerned about it when another player attacked my daughter's Minecraft character in multiplayer mode. The player wanted to buy some of her extra items (not with real money) and when she “teleported” to him to make the exchange, he stole her items and set her character on fire. Because of the cartoony, pixilated look of Minecraft, the fire wasn't as graphic as some of the more mature games that people play. She restarted the game.
My daughter won't encounter this anonymous player again, nor did they exchange any real-world information or money. She wasn't traumatized and told me when it happened, which led to some productive discussions about online games. In some ways, I thought of her experience as a good life lesson that we all need to be wary about online activities.
Marty Loberg, a licensed professional counselor with Transforming Life Counseling Center in Edmond, said in his practice he hears concerns like this among parents worried about the all-consuming nature of games like Minecraft. He works with them to maximize the strengths of the game — the creative energy and innovation it requires — and minimize weaknesses, such as the violence or the addictive nature of it.
The best way to do this, Loberg said, is to sit down with your children and understand what it is they are playing. Many times, parents use the time their children are playing games as a chance to get caught up on their own life tasks. But he recommends asking them to demonstrate the game in order to decide whether it fits in your family. Be cautious of hurtful, bullying and threatening type of language, he added.
“Parents need to be very involved and open dialogues” about these worlds, Loberg said. “If they don't understand the context, some of these phrases can be very, very scary.”
On the flip side, “you don't want to create undue paranoia,” he added.
Although I don't understand my children's enthusiasm for Minecraft, their discussions about it with me and each other have made me want to learn more. The Minecraft phenomenon has spawned YouTube channels with millions of views, merchandise and online Wiki information groups devoted to the game.
My own children — between 9 and 14 — and their friends have not waded as deep into the Minecraft world as that and they reassure me that would rather be swimming or spending time elsewhere than in Minecraft. But it's been a nice diversion that they have enjoyed together. Now they've taken the time to pull me into the world, too, as they show off their own imaginative creations.