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Of Minecraft and Men

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June 6, 2013 by jonmillymiles


minecraft-logoMinecraft has been around for a few years, most of my Uni friends have tried it, bought it, set up their own servers and created roller-coasters – one even created a replica of the Nemesis at Alton Towers. But I have been somewhat sceptical of Minecraft: I have taken a deliberate step away from it and have made this step easier to take by ridiculing it as “Lego for Geeks” and I’m sure that many non-players do the same.

However, a couple of months ago I found the Minecraft Pocket Edition on Google Play with a free Demo version, so I decided to give it a whirl.

I was quite surprised at how it worked and how much more complex than Lego it was. There was a crafting engine that I was completely unaware of, a variety of enemies and friendly non-player characters (NPC’s or mobs) and a secondary level of depth that just cannot be garnered without playing it. It was also incredibly easy to use and by the end of the night I had worlds for all four of my kids on my tablet. What this showed me was the range of appeal that it had – my children are vastly different in interests and skills. But the different modes and settings within those modes allowed them to choose a play style that catered for them: they could tailor it for how they wanted to play.

My daughters jumped straight into Creative mode, this had no bad guys and access to all of the building blocks in the world. They began to build tree houses and underground systems, hobbit hole style caves and expansive buildings. My sons jumped into survival and went straight into killing zombies, skeletons and creepers. My youngest needed a little help and the phrase “Dad??? Can you just make me a…. pickaxe/sword/armour/axe*???” soon became common place. Within a week I had bought the paid version which unlocked more features within the app.

 

*delete as applicable

Time passed… many a tree house was made – my sons had started to build them in creative mode and glass everythings were becoming the fashion. Me… I had had my Fortress and massive underground cavern deleted by a technologically confused six year old who was so mortified that he said that I could delete his map as punishment. My answer to him was simple: then what would we happen? “We both wouldn’t have a level.” was his answer. So I let him keep it, and he hasn’t deleted one since.

So… a couple of weeks ago, as a treat for me finishing my first year at Uni, I decided to treat myself to the full version of the game… on the PC.

To quote a friend of mine… “WOW!!!”

There is a much greater depth to it than I could ever have realised without getting it. OK… I could have watched youtube as there are a stack of Minecraft videos and tutorials on there, but they are all made by people who love it and so I thought that their views would be biased and so I didn’t. What I did find was a world that genuinely created wonder within me, at both what I could do and what I could find.

My kids made a far quicker switch to it than I did (I had problems with using the right mouse buttons for what I wanted to do) and I have died far more times than they have – usually at my own hands and a bucket of lava!!! But then I have the tallest tree house, and a small but functional transit system. But my eldest son is now creating circuits and traps using the redstone logic system, my youngest son and daughter are building roller-coasters and my eldest daughter is farming the animals… like a very blocky Farmville.

Not my daughters farm.

Not my daughters farm.

What is gratifying to see, and this is something that I haven’t seen since the Nintendo Wii bought in the Wii-mote, is that it has levelled the playing field across an aspect of play. My youngest daughter hardly ever games, the reason why is quite clear to me now… she likes to nurture. Jesse Schell highlights this in his book The Art of Game Design: females prefer to nurture and collaborate while males prefer to compete and attain mastery of skills. This is true of my lads too – they are competing with the height of the roller-coasters and their complexity with my youngest designing an “Oblivion” drop where the mine cart is free falling until it hits powered track at the bottom.

McKenzies "Oblivion drop"

McKenzies “Oblivion drop”

What is being demonstrated by all of them is a level of design with intent. They now have the ability to build pretty much anything they want to without the limitations of the number of pieces that you get with Lego. They are able to explore systems and mechanics that of interest to them, my eldest daughter is experimenting with the creature mechanics side where she is trying to get to ride a pig! My eldest son is learning about logic through making circuits that operate traps. My youngest daughter is learning more about how she can use the computer creatively and to a lesser extent propulsion, while my youngest son is inadvertently learning about gravity and inertia.

OK this isn’t a review. I’m not waxing lyrical about this for any particular reason other than to say that sometimes you have to try the things that you don’t like so that you can understand the point of view of those who do. What is more, there is a capacity within Minecraft to allow children in particular to experience complex mechanics that they may not be given the opportunity to. The concept can then be re-contextualised at a later date so that it can be built upon: the principle of constructivist theory.

But there is a second layer of learning here: I only have one computer with the full version on. So my children are now having to learn about sharing (they all have to have a go), time management (the oldest can go on when the others are in bed), mutual respect and personal space (as they crowd each other to watch), communication (explaining ideas and concepts) and praise (recognition when they see something good).

So is there a downside???… well you might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned my wife yet. She isn’t too happy with all of us Minecraft zealots and the arguments that ensue from the kids learning to share a new toy. She’s also not too happy with the noticeable drop in productivity from myself, especially in my domestic duties. Just as soon as Mojang introduces a Hoover to use alongside my pickaxe then I’ll get the carpets done at home too!!! πŸ˜€

On a more serious point, my good lady has highlighted that the level of conversation has dropped off to a somewhat minimal level. This is due to the Cinema experience that is our PC – all of the kids stood around dumbstruck watching another play. But it is also a reflection of our upbringing: my wife was highly social with little interest in computer games while I was highly introverted and happy playing on the computer for 12-16 hours a day.

My overall thought: everything in moderation. As with good game design – balance is essential.

Minecraft is good and it allows my kids to explore on a completely different level, but it should not be at the detriment of other activities. Therefore we are now looking at doing more outdoor activities as a family which should mitigate some of the perceived disadvantages in social areas. However for me it is opening up a new door – the use of Minecraft in education. How can it be used? Where can it be used? Why use it? What will it achieve? And most importantly for me… how can it add value?

Finally a nod to the title with this beautiful video: King and Lionheart by Of Monsters and Men.

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