Does Minecraft make your children smarter or dumber?

Fans say the game is not mindless but a playful introduction to real programming

 

‘It’s the one game parents want their kids to play.” This week Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, made a virtue of the company’s decision to buy the maker of Minecraft, a computer game that has more than 100 million users. The way Nadella tells it, acquiring Mojang for €2.5 billion is not so much an investment as an act of civic responsibility.

Minecraft probably absorbed more child hours this summer than any other activity. The construction game has sold more than 54 million copies. It can be played on smartphones and tablets and game consoles: no matter where they are, children can play Minecraft.

Within hours of arriving at a holiday resort this summer our son had found two other Minecrafters, a couple of tablets and a smartphone. They set about building a maritime kingdom from under beach towels.

As parents we instinctively felt that we had to stamp it out. Screen time is bad, right? But over the holiday I discovered that Minecraft isn’t completely mindless.

MINDING MINECRAFT: Dos and don’ts Ossian Smyth is a father, computer programmer and CoderDojo mentor. Here’s his advice on how to make Minecraft work for children.

MINECRAFT-XBOX-ONE_WEBDo view it for what it is: a creative outlet for kids. “In many ways it’s quite old-fashioned, and even looks that way, with very blocky graphics. It’s an innocent game,” Smyth says.

Do get to know it. Appreciate what your child has created, much as you would admire anything else he or she drew or built.

Do encourage them to play Minecraft with other children. “Even if you only have one device, and they are both on it, it’s very collaborative, and they can learn from each other,” says Smyth.

Don’t let them get stuck in the less creative aspects of the game, such as fighting in the “survival” mode.

Don’t let your child spend too much time alone on Minecraft. “Minecraft is very immersive. A child can get habituated to the idea of escape from the real world,” says Smyth.

Don’t leave the girls out. “Around a third of the ‘modders’ I work with are girls, and they are just as engaged and creative as the boys.”

 

Minecraft is a “sandbox” game. That means is doesn’t really have an end. You don’t win or lose. The Minecraft world is made up of 3D cubes that represent different materials: stones and minerals, wood and ores. You choose the kind of world you want – a forest, a coastal environment, or a meadow – select your materials and start building. You can blast away mountains and reroute rivers.

My son, in an effort to rebuild Europe, is blasting away land, digging for iron ore to produce tools and mining coal to light fires. His favourite way to play is with others, where they collaborate on projects using synced devices. One of his friends is building Newgrange. A group in south Co Dublin recently built Dún Laoghaire.

When I asked my son what he likes most about Minecraft I was blindsided by his reply.

“You get to know people in a different way,” he said. “It’s not the same as having a conversation. One of my friends gets really obsessed with each project, and he won’t do anything else until he’s finished building. My other friend loses patience with things, so if we get stuck she’ll say, ‘Let’s just smash it!’ Some people always build a church; some always spend ages on the wildlife.”

Cody Sumter of MIT Media Lab has said that Minecraft’s creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, hasn’t just built a game. “He’s tricked 40 million people into learning to use a computer-animated design programme.”

“I think Minecraft is great,” says Bill Liao, mentor to the CoderDojo network of children’s programming clubs. “It provides the pathways to learning to code. It’s very similar to Lego, only better, because it helps kids learn real programming.”

Perhaps the most ambitious Minecraft project is a UN initiative called Block By Block. Since 2012 the UN has been using Minecraft to get communities in countries such as Haiti, Kenya, Rwanda and Nepal to reimagine 300 depleted and destroyed public areas and redesign them for community use. The pilot project, in Nairobi, is well under way (blockbyblock.org).

So before you beat yourself up about your son or daughter’s obsession with Minecraft, dig a little deeper. You might be surprised what you unearth.

 

coderdojo.com

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