The graphics are blocky and reminiscent of the eighties, there's no story, no plot and no real aim, so you'd think it wouldn't be very popular, but you couldn't be more wrong. Minecraft is an enormous success and loved by millions of teens and tweens and even kids as young as six or seven.
If you haven't come across this engaging and even addictive game yet, imagine an immense three dimensional virtual world constructed of square blocks, that contains vast landscapes, forests, buildings, oceans, animals and even zombies. Yes zombies — but only if you are playing in "survival mode". We'll come back to that.
Choose your mode
In "creative mode", the game is like a giant virtual Lego set with materials for constructing not only buildings but an entire world. You can move around in 3D space and place blocks of various material (like wood, stone, glass, water and even lava). You can also remove material, digging out cavernous spaces, mining tunnels and subterranean kingdoms. There are no resource constraints in creative mode. If you can imagine it you can build it, and there are certainly some impressive creations to be seen across the web as people post images and videos of their work.
"Survival mode" is a little different. In this mode, you don't have endless resources on tap. In fact, you start with pretty much nothing and have to "mine" and "craft" in order to survive. You gather timber from the forest and stone from the ground, you can craft these into tools and weapons. It's like a giant scavenger hunt, finding ever better materials to craft ever better tools and weapons and other objects. These help you survive, find food, build castles, houses, towns or anything else you desire, oh and avoid the zombies.
During the day in survival mode, you need to be busy so you are prepared to fend off the monsters that come out at night. You'll need fire for light to keep them from coming too close or at least so that you can see them coming. You'll also want to have built some kind of structure for a bit of shelter and protection. While monsters try to attack you, and you can in fact attack and kill them, there is no gore (remember those blocky graphics) and it's not exactly what you'd call violent, though the notion of whacking even a blocky figure to destroy it may not be something you want to encourage very young children to get into.
Is Minecraft suitable for children?
There are three dimensions that we usually consider when assessing technology suitability for our children. The first is the content itself. Along with monsters like zombies, giant spiders and creepers (all of which are very blocky and not scary) parents should also know that Minecraft crosses into the fantasy genre with magic potions that give special abilities like night vision without needing torches. Most of the content is fairly tame and suitable for kids of ten and older.
Secondly we consider the relational dimension. While Minecraft is a first person, single player game, it can also be played in a multiplayer mode by joining a server. There are public servers where you may play with others you don't know, or you can set up your own server just for you and your friends. Like any virtual world where you interact with others, this opens the door for potential social issues, from exposure to others who may not share your values, to the bullying of others by destroying their creations or luring them into traps where there are monsters. If parents choose to allow their children to play Minecraft on a server, they need to supervise and monitor their children and discuss with them the right way to treat others they come across in their virtual world.
For Minecraft, it is perhaps the third dimension, time, which parents need to be most mindful of. As mentioned above, the game can be addictive for some children and it can become a black hole for time, devouring hours on end. There is so much to create and explore in a world that is endless, with limitless possibilities. Add to this that it is available on so many platforms, including handheld devices, and you may not notice how many hours the game is devouring. And this is where the time and relationship dimensions intersect. Even if the game is played in single player mode, it can have an affect on your real world relationships if it causes the child to spend too much time relating to a screen rather than real people.
Minecraft is a great playground for creativity and imagination, with few things to worry about. That makes it an excellent vehicle to practice having technology conversations with your kids. Get them to show you how they craft different objects and show you around their creations. If appropriate, talk to them about the implications of joining servers where they may not know others, how to treat others online, and the precautions they should take. This will be a great foundation for when and if the tougher conversations arise.