From a recent BBC article titled Minecraft videos – why are they so addictive?:

The game, said the researchers, becomes “less about open-ended play and more about working to complete the never-ending stacks of buildings.”

Spoken like someone who hasn’t spent much time with kids playing Minecraft. I’ve run a MC server for my niece since January of 2014. There are around 15 of her friends who play regularly on the server. “Never-ending stacks of buildings,” would bore them to tears.

In addition to stacking blocks, Minecraft has:

  • Redstone: A set of blocks and items that can be used to create (electrical-like) circuits.
  • Server Commands: A complex set of commands that can be used to manipulate the environment, spawn creatures, and move the player around.
  • Command Blocks: Special blocks that can have commands stored in them, and are triggered by Redstone.

The Minecraft server I run also supports something called mods, which extend the standard functionality of the game, and in the case of my server, allow the kids to create multiple worlds within which they can transport themselves and create different types of play environments.

There are two world types that go far beyond stacks of blocks. The simpler of the two are arenas. They’ve built an arena with a community-established set of gameplay rules. You can compete alone or as a team. The arena master controls the spawning of enemies and the difficulty of the game.

It is fascinating to watch a new arena master learn how to balance difficulty. Make the arena too hard and no one wants you to be arena master (a job that is appointed in impromptu elections). Make it too easy, and everyone gets bored and moves on to other areas of the game. There are complex social dynamics at play. As the sole adult on the server, I’ve spent plenty of time counseling 7 to 12 year olds on the subtleties of not abusing your friends when the opportunity presents itself. They learn quickly.

The most advanced world type, and the one that really blows my mind, are the “adventure” worlds. They combine structures they build with command blocks to create interactive adventures. You press a button and you’re transported to the inside of a cottage. From there, a stream of messages orient you, and you’re tasked with some objective: solve a puzzle to escape the house, locate an item hidden near by, find tools to fight off an incoming wave of zombies, survive long enough to reach a far away destination. The possibilities are endless, and the kids exhaust them all.

Minecraft is so open-ended that the types of play are no more bounded by the game than outdoors play is bounded by the laws of physics. My advice for parents would be to spend some time learning about what is possible and guide your children in the direction of activities that go beyond the mundane. Talk to them about the social dynamics they encounter online. You may be surprised at how complex it all becomes.