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Minecraft fever

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If you haven't heard of Minecraft, where have you been? Minecraft is the never-ending, addictive videogame that engages kids, teens, and adults alike in a virtual world of Lego-like building blocks.

I have a love/hate relationship with Minecraft. I love the creative problem-solving, the planning and patience it requires, and the simplicity of the squared-off pixel graphics reminiscent of the Atari days. So what's to hate? (Where do I start?) The game never ends. There's no scoreboard, there's no time limit. And my kids are obsessed with it. My son can't speak a complete paragraph anymore without mentioning Minecraft terms like "Nether Rack" or "Diamond Sword". And it makes absolutely no sense to me. You kill sheep to collect their wool to build a house. WHAT? This is worse than the three little pigs! Since when can you build a house out of wool? Goodness, the pig zombies wandering around outside are much more realistic.

We have Minecraft on our PC, XBox, iPad, and iPods. You can "join" friends in your world or download someone else's creation to explore. You can keep it as simple as you like and go lazy on creative mode or go "survival" and actually have to work for your supplies and fight the Creepers (which really aren't as creepy as they sound, they are little green and black square pixels formed into a cube-looking thing.)

In light of the awful videogames available with guns and blood and warfare, or fast cars and pimps and sexy women, this game is almost laughable at how it keeps gamers coming back for more. It's so simple and yet so engaging. And it actually seems more beneficial to play Minecraft than to watch a TV show or play a videogame with less "learning" opportunities. So I let my kids play.

I like the ability the game has of closing the age gap. My 6-year old son can play Minecraft with his 13-year old cousin because they can strategize and plan their next creation or share their treasure or just show each other their latest world. It's more of a level playing field than a game that relies on skill or quick reaction times. It's appealing to us parents because we can play with our kids and rather than drive the same race track 100 times, we can give our input for urban planning and daily survival while our kids help us realize our dreams by helping us build. Who wouldn't want to conceive and then build a castle out of Gold and Glow Stone complete with lava blocks, enchanted tables, and a rollercoaster straight from your bed down to the pool tiled with Lapis Lazuli?

Minecraft is fun, it's imaginative, it requires thinking, but it's also a time-sucker. When my son first started playing the game, I couldn't imagine how he was entertained by such cheesy graphics and slow-paced action. Whatever the reason, he and 20 million other users are hooked. And parents like me need to be sure to find a way to monitor the game playing and find a balance between reality and this virtual world.

I haven't figured it out yet, but I know I don't want to use the game as a reward, or in exchange for reading or playing outside. I know some kids earn a minute of game time for every minute of reading. I want my kids to continue to read because they love reading, not because they are trying to "earn" videogame time. I don't want to completely ban it on school days because I certainly don't want it to consume our weekend family time by "saving" it up for 12 hours of game time on Saturday and Sunday. I also don't want it to become the forbidden fruit. Kids need to learn to monitor their game time just as they need to learn to be responsible for finishing their homework and choosing healthy foods to eat. There is always a balance. Our job as parents is to teach our kids to make good decisions, since we won't always be there to enforce the "right" behavior.

I'd like to know that even when Mom isn't around, my kids will play a videogame for an hour then head outside to play soccer with some neighborhood friends, then finish up homework before they sit down to read a good book. I would like to think they wouldn't spend 6 hours playing Minecraft. But I can't be sure.

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