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In the last few weeks, I have had several encounters with people who have expressed strong disapproval of the game Minecraft, seeing it as somehow harmful to their children-- or at the very least, as a mindless distraction from more important things. I disagree. Full disclosure: Minecraft has been a huge part of my life, courtesy of my son, for two years. I play the game with him. We went to Minecon 2013. I jokingly refer to our approach to home learning as the Minecraft Curriculum.
And, um, our cat is called Mojang... after the makers of Minecraft.
So what’s going on? Why are kids so into Minecraft, and why is it such a source of parental anxiety?
At a party a few weeks ago, a parent of another boy told me that she had “very strict time limits” for her son’s “screen time”. Screen time is a really unhelpful expression. It could refer to watching cartoons, playing a game online, practicing typing, writing a novel, sharing a family movie night, learning trigonometry on Khan Academy, reading a book, looking up a history fact on Wikipedia, or Skyping with a friend. Why lump all these diverse activities together? Let’s pay attention to what our kids are actually doing."
A middle-school teacher recently told me that a number of parents had said that their kids were “obsessed” with Minecraft or “addicted” to the game. These words carry a huge amount of judgement and fuel parental anxiety. But come on: Minecraft is not a drug and most avid Minecraft players are not add.... They might miss it if they couldn't play, but I doubt they would have withdrawal symptoms. And as for obsessed, why can’t we just say that they love to play it? That they enjoy thinking and talking about it? That they want to get better at it? After all, if a kid loves dinosaurs, math or violin, we call it a passion.
Another mom recently shared her worry about her son “thinking too much” about the game. But I think this can be because it is a hugely complex game with many layers and great potential for learning. Thinking is a good thing, right? It’s not a problem. Kids learn through play, and computer games have real benefits.
Over the past two years, I have seen unbelievable learning come from my son’s involvement with Minecraft: learning how to get mods, host a server, down-load plug-ins and make mini-games; creating adventure maps with attention to aesthetics and story lines; developing an interest in modding and coding in java; starting a YouTube channel; making and editing videos; learning about digital animation; making websites... the list could go on for pages. The learning is broader than computer skills: My son has developed skills in searching for information online, speed reading, fast typing and accurate spelling- all through play, which is, after all, how kids learn best. Perhaps most importantly, the game encourages creative thinking and problem-solving. The persistence and determination that I have seen kids show in trying to to understand and resolve a complex issue in the game is impressive.
Minecraft is always changing and growing, largely part to the enthusiastic and madly creative community that the game has given rise to. There are mods for kids who love interior design, kids who love horses, kids who like explosions, kids who like dirt bikes, and kids who like Dr. Who. There’s even a quantum physics mod.
A friend whose son just started playing joked that she wonders when she’ll she him again. It is true that the game can be consuming! But here’s my suggestion: Get your own account. Play the game. Seriously, embrace your kid’s interest and join him right there. Play together. If you don’t like battling monsters, then build cool stuff together. Or play on one of the Minecraft minigame servers—my son found one a few days ago that I loved: a Minecraft version of Pictionary! Find cool links, watch YouTube videos together, listen with real interest when your kid shows you what he has made. Minecraft won’t gobble up your kid.
Another parent, after I mentioned how much fun my son was having with Minecraft, asked, "Don't you think he should be playing with friends?" But for my son, Minecraft has led to many new friendships. A shared passion is a great foundation for a relationship to grow on. Minecraft has provided hours of cooperative play and many opportunities to deal with conflict and negotiate shared projects.
As I type this, I am listening to my nine year old and two of his friends Skyping together while navigating an adventure map. In a couple of days, we're hosting a Minecraft party and the living room will be full of kids happily playing together. Yes, kids should play-- and they are. It has brought my son--and our whole family-- many hours of great enjoyment.