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So, if you have both children and any form of computer or games device, you probably know about Minecraft. It is more than just another computer game – it’s become a phenomenon. In Life Before Children I was a computer programmer and I made the decision to plunge into the world of Minecraft so I’d be able to talk to my children about what was becoming a major part of their lives. As a parent and grown-up I’ve written this guide so you’ll be able to see what your little ones are up to and make an informed decision about Minecraft.

What is it?

It is what’s called a sandbox game. This means that there aren’t levels, scores or anything to actually achieve. It’s been very accurately described as digital Lego (not by me I hasten to add). It gives the children tools to create their own structures and to shape the world how they want it. It’s a game that’s made by a Swedish company called Mojang and you need to pay for it and register, so unless you have savvy teenagers, you’ll need to be looking over their shoulders for this bit. (If you want extra bonus points with your kids, Mojang was started by someone called Notch, real name Markus Persson.)

As far as I know, it is available in three variants, one for consoles like X-Box and PS4, a version called Minecraft PE for tablets, iPads and phones. (You can also install it on a Raspberry Pi if you want.)  There is also the main Minecraft game which runs on PCs. This one can run on Windows or Mac or Ubuntu machines and is the most advanced and offers the biggest range of experiences. It should install fine but sometimes it needs a bit of tweaking and setting up – it’s nothing too tricky and there are plenty of walk-throughs out there to help if you need it.

Once you’ve got Minecraft installed on your machine, you are faced with two choices:

Creative vs Survival

When you start up Minecraft, your first job is to make a new world to play in and to choose whether it will be a creative or a survival world.

In Survival there are mobs (mobile entities, basically things that roam around, like animals but also includes zombies and skeletons) which are trying to kill you. Much like other games, you have a store of hit points and can make weapons. But there is a mechanism that gives the game its name – you mine for ore and then craft new objects. This is what makes the game so addictive, finding rare ores, and learning recipes. Once you have a crafting table, you can put mined ore (or wood, bone, etc.) down on it in a 3×3 grid pattern. If you get the recipe right, then it makes new things  that you can use. For example, the common recipes are for pick-axes, shovels, bows, arrows, swords, etc. It’s a nice balance between this and trying to survive the night when all the monsters come out!

Creative is the other side of the coin. Here, there are no monsters. Even more importantly, there are no restrictions on the materials you can use. If you need lots of wood and stone to make your dream fantasy castle, you just go straight ahead without any mining and crafting. Here is where their imaginations can really take off.

There is a whole sub-area here, involving something called redstone. It’s not a code-word from a Tom Clancy novel (actually it might be!) but a type of rock that can be placed in the world. The important thing is that it works kind of like electrical cable. It can be made to power things, or used to make remote switches or pistons. Some people have even built rudimentary computers with red-stone logic gates.

The Community

This is what really made Minecraft stand out from the rest – the community of players and their relationship with Mojang. They are actively encouraged to hack the game and see what they can make it do. Even without modifying it (more about that below) the components can be combined together in interesting ways, from working redstone elevators, to entire cities built by groups working together. There are whole websites and forums dedicated to the remarkable creations – everything from cruise ships to vast historical sites and on to whatever can be imagined.

Modifying

Now we get into the meat of Minecraft. On the PC versions, you can modify the game. Mojang let people change the game, as long as they don’t try to make it free to use. Once someone has written a modification, called a mod, they release it onto the internet and users can download it.

There are as many mods as there are people. Some change the game totally – adding spaceships, for example. Others make minor changes, like better torches, or more animals, or camping equipment.

But this is where my children learnt real life IT skills. They had to navigate folder structures, copy files around and wrestle with version numbers. Mods only work for the version number of Minecraft they were written for, so you need to keep an eye on your configuration and which version they were written for. Additionally there are platforms for loading mods – the most common is Forge and it has a really easy installer and generally makes the whole process easier.

Also, sometimes, many mods are combined into a pack, often with its own software to load it in. So when the kids say they’re playing Tekkit, I know it’s a heavily modified Minecraft they’re playing.

Videos, books, etc.

This bit I don’t quite get. People play Minecraft and record videos of it explaining what they’re doing while they’re playing. These videos then get uploaded to YouTube. They have, by all accounts, taken over YouTube. Previous heavy hitters, like Justin Beiber and One Direction are now all behind people playing Minecraft and other video game. I don’t understand the attraction but my children will happily watch half hour videos as long as I’ll let them. I’m so used to the sound of Dan’s (TDM) voice just from walking into the room when they’re watching videos that I refer to him as the babysitter.

One common subject for videos is for new mods to be reviewed and custom maps to be played through – giving the ordinary player a chance to see what else is out there and what’s worth downloading. Also, some of these people, like TDM and PewDiePie have become celebrities in their own right and are making a very good living out of this. There is a whole culture here that the children understand and participate in.

Actually I can start to see the attraction of it – these people are expert players who get further into the game and install more mods and explore more thoroughly than usual players. On top of this, the ones that rise to the top usually have good presentation and script writing skills.

So, is it dangerous?

Well, it is very addictive (I know, I’ve made my own worlds and dabbled with creating mods and videos) so you need to limit your child’s time on it as you see fit. Also, IMHO, I would encourage your child to spend some time creating and exploring and not just watching what other people are doing. If you have the skill, you could help them download mods, and explain why they do and don’t work together.

There are multi-player servers out there which have both collaborative and competitive games on them. These servers do have a chat function and many are unmoderated. While I haven’t heard of them being used for grooming, you must check which servers your children are on, and spend some over-the-shoulder time with them first. Also you must make them aware of basic internet safety if you’re going to let them on multi-player servers as there will be adults there too as well as older children.

Finally, a lot of the mods are downloaded from free hosting sites, so I’ve found a lot of what’s called crapware (no really, go Google it!) onto the computer. When they’re installing mods, I have to educate them how to remove it and how make really sure they’re clicking on the right thing. Some of these sites have adverts with big “download here” buttons, so even I find it tricky to get what I really want.

To sum up

I know I ended on the dangers, but if you keep them safe on multiplayer and savvy about downloads, it is a great place for children. It builds their imagination and technical skills. Equally importantly, it lets them be part of a culture they can discuss in the playground with their peer group.

What do you think? Do your children play Minecraft? Do you join them or leave them to it?

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