If you’re a human who has had any sort of contact with children over the age of six, then you’ve most likely bluffed your way through a conversation about Minecraft. These confusing conversations were probably peppered with phrases like “crafting recipe”, “the nether” and “mods”. Well, gentle reader, fret no more! This introductory primer into the world of Minecraft will allow you avoid making the dreaded “confused parent face”. You know the one…the same face that you yourself looked into when you first tried to explain to your parents how to enter level-1 in Super Mario Brothers (if you are a child of the 80s), how to beat the yellow dragon in Atari's Adventure (if you are a 70s kid) or why Leif Garret was the personification of cool (if this last one is true, then I'm guessing you are probably already a grandparent. Kudos to you!)
You might ask yourself why I feel that I am qualified to tackle this topic. So, let's start off with an introduction. I am a ukulele-playing, Linux-loving, computer-consulting Nerd Dad. I have been playing video games since my father first brought home a Timex Sinclair 1000 computer in 1983. While you were learning how to correctly play soccer or the proper level progression in Chinese jump rope, I was playing video games that my father and I typed ourselves using thousands of lines of BASIC code, carefully copied line-by-line out of Compute! Magazine. While you were deciding who to take to the school dance or which sports ball team to root for, I was playing Bard's Tale on Commodore 64. You should be thankful that this isn't a primer on romance or sports, because those are experiences that I gladly traded for nerd mastery!
What is Minecraft?
Minecraft is a “sandbox game”. That means that you aren't really restricted in your actions in the game and there isn't just one purpose or goal. This is refreshing because kids are free to play the game in whatever way they choose and there isn't a “wrong way” to do so. Some kids prefer to play in “creative mode”, where they can build freely using all of the blocks in the game. Other kids enjoy the challenges of “survival mode” where they are trying to build up a fortress and fortifications to survive the dreaded Minecraft night. Still other kids will play on-line with their friends and play mini-games like charades. There is almost no limit to the ways you can play this video game.
For example, do you want to compete in the Hunger Games? You can do that. Do you want to spend weeks building a fully functional nuclear reactor? You can do that. Do you want to spend months building an epic Beetlejuice roller coaster? You can do that. Do you want to spend years, working with a team, to create an exact replica of Westeros, from Game of Thrones? Yup, you can do that.
Should my kids be playing Minecraft?
This is really the “big question”. Now, I don't want to presume anything about your parenting style but if you have already decided that “screen time” is fine for your kiddo and you don't have an aversion to the general concept of video games then I would say the answer to the “big question” is “Yes…. but”.
As I said earlier, there are many different ways to play this game. One of those ways is called “survival mode”. In survival mode, when the big square sun goes down, some unsavory characters make their appearance. These bad guys take the form of the creeper, spiders, zombies and the possibly misunderstood Endermen. While these monsters certainly aren't graphically scary (imagine them as blocky, pixelated cartoon characters), their sudden appearance can sometimes give you a bit of a fright. Triumphing over these hapless villains is a very satisfying part of the game (and you would do that by building up your house and creating armor and weapons for your character), however, this is also a part of the game that you can skip entirely.
To do so, your kids can create a new single-player game and then either a) set the game difficulty to “peaceful” or b) play the game in “creative mode” where your character is all-powerful and able to easily build whatever you would like. In any of the modes of the game, you can still build whatever you like and can work together to reach those goals. While it is certainly harder to build a giant Bio-dome or cobblestone castle in survival mode, it can also be more satisfying. Your kids can decide for themselves which of these types of play appeals to them the most.
Let's talk more about that concept of “working together”. To me, as a parent, that is one of the biggest draws of this video game. My kids and I have spent many an hour working together to build gigantic medieval fortresses, complicated and automated farms and even massive solar-powered tree houses. In Minecraft, if you can dream it, you can build it. Fully functional player pianos, epic roller coasters or the ice castle from the movie Frozen are all projects that you could tackle in the game. This is a nice change of pace from most video games. Sure, you can compete in Minecraft, but it is much easier to cooperate and I think that style of game play is much more enjoyable.
Crafting is a huge part of Minecraft. Now, I'm not talking about knitting or sewing, but rather the concept of building new items and blocks in the game itself. For example, as you can imagine, a big part of the game involves digging holes. Well, to do that properly you will need a shovel and pickaxe. But, to build those items, you will need some wooden planks. To get those you'll need to “harvest” a tree (usually accomplished by punching said tree).
Huzzah, you now have a wooden pickaxe! But wait, you say it doesn't allow you to mine that fancy iron ore block that you just discovered in your Minecraft world? Welcome to the game, sister. In fact, you can almost define Minecraft itself by describing the process of crafting an item, so that you can craft another item, which allows you to craft one final item that eventually lets you do what you whatever it was that you wanted to in the first place. How is this fun? That's a great question and if I could convince myself that it wasn't, I would be a very productive human being. As it is, I've already taken three Minecraft breaks while writing this article.
Kids love talking about mods. And, this is usually where they manage to lose any adult who was successfully following the conversation up until this point. Mods are user-contributed content that expands and/or changes the basic game. There are thousands of mods that allow you do anything from building a completely automated cake factory to changing the entire Minecraft world to look like Super Mario Brothers. These additions to the game allow kids to play Minecraft in any way that they desire and you can often incorporate several of these mods together (you could build a Super Mario Brothers cake factory, who wouldn't want that?!)
However, managing the mods on your own can be a little technical and tricky for the younger kids and, frankly, their parents. I would highly suggest that parents instead look for custom Minecraft launchers like Technic and Feed The Beast, which allow you to play custom collections of mods (known as Modpacks) without having to build the packs or apply the mods yourself. The beauty of these packs is no matter which collection of mods your children want to play with; some bigger nerd has already created a Modpack collection that includes these mods. There is no need for you to re-invent the wheel. Instead of spending time calling tech support, you and your kids can spend time playing the game.
How to win
I know what you are thinking, “Seriously, Shane, how to do I win this game?”. Ok, I'll concede a small point. While Minecraft is a sandbox game (i.e. a game that you can play in any way you choose), there is actually an end to the game. This “level” of the game is appropriately called “The End”. And, in The End, there is a great big ol' boss that you can beat. This boss is the Ender Dragon. Your kids are definitely going to be talking about this guy and, if they spend some time in creative mode, they might actually try face and defeat this beastie. To beat this fella in survival mode, without a lot of help from your friends, is a pretty daunting task. In fact, I've been playing this game for years and I've only defeated the Ender Dragon once (with a team of 8-9 other players).
To be honest, I haven't really felt a need to do so. I'm much happier building my automated chicken and cow farms so that I can mass-produce stacks and stacks of delicious cake. Because, a) you can play Minecraft however you want and this is how I want to do it and b) who doesn't love cake?