Advice for Parents

I often hear from parents that their kids are spending hours playing Minecraft, and they wonder if that's okay. I tell them that first of all, "there is an opportunity cost for anything kids do, in that the time they spend playing Minecraft is time they are not spending doing other things, like studying, sleeping, or eating" (if I'm feeling snarky I will sometimes add in "they're also not doing drugs, playing hooky, or watching cat videos on YouTube.")

So setting aside the opportunity cost piece, what harm is there in playing Minecraft? Ask them if they're in Creative mode or Survival mode. 

Minecraft Survival has skeletons that shoot at you.

Minecraft has two modes: Survival, in which cartoonish zombies, skeletons and spiders try to kill you, and you have to work to earn the resources you need for your own survival, and Creative, which is like a scaled-down version of Google Sketchup in that anything you can imagine, you can build in three dimensions with blocks.

In Creative mode, where there are no monsters and resources are unlimited, I really can't see any down side to kids spending lots of lots of time being creative and building stuff. If my kid spent hours drawing in a sketchbook, I'd probably see it as a great example of her creativity. Minecraft Creative is kind of like sketching in 3D, or playing with Lego blocks. I think it's great for all ages.

Minecraft Creative mode allows you to freely build with any of the blocks in Minecraft.

On the other hand, Survival mode is a much more complex game involving resource management and real critical thinking and problem solving skills. Kids may need some guidance in planning out what they will take on an expedition, for example, to make sure they have enough food to sustain them, and the materials to build a shelter if they are journeying far from home. This is a great opportunity to discuss what kinds of things we need to survive in a new world. Lots of great tie-ins to social studies curriculum, here!

Because it is generally easier to survive in a group, kids will probably want to explore the intricacies of joining a community to pool resources and fight off a common threat. This is where they will want to explore the Multiplayer aspects of Minecraft and join a server, and that's where the Minecraft experience benefits most from adult guidance. Joining a server is a great way to meet other players from all over the world, in an environment where it is easy to help other people, and your age, race, or country just doesn't matter.

But kids may also run into scammers (people who try to take your stuff), griefers (people who try to break your stuff) or they may want to dabble in doing some of those behaviors themselves. Joining a new server is a process of figuring out what the rules of that community are, what the consequences are for breaking them, and discovering your own role and the value they can bring to that community. 

Kids may try a number of different servers with different rules (in some servers it's okay to PvP, or harm other players, and others are more "family-friendly" and pro-social.) Some servers are Creative-only, and as long as players follow the rules (don't build in other people's areas, build in certain colors or with specific materials, etc.) kids can pretty much build anything they can imagine. When there is no scarcity of resources, it eliminates much of the bartering and trading aspect of the Survival game, which can be a plus or minus depending on how you look at it.

The bottom line is, you don't have to be a Minecraft player yourself to guide your child's (or students') experience with the game. Just recognize Minecraft for what it is: an open-ended sandbox full of possibilities, with many opportunities to solve problems with others and engage in the same kind of critical thinking that adults do when thinking about how best to contribute to society. The learning possibilities expand when kids go online with the game. The decisions kids make can be good ones or not-so-good ones. It sometimes takes an adult to help them figure out which is which. But the best way to experience Minecraft of all, is to have your kid show you how it works. It is an eye-opening experience.

© Douglas Kiang 2017