15368073760_ff30b0a22cIf you have an elementary or middle school student, or perhaps even a high school student, you very likely have already heard of Minecraft. Since its original release in 2009, over 106 million copies have been sold, and that total grows by 53,000 every day. Minecraft has 40 million unique players every month.

Chances are, if you have a kid who plays Minecraft, you probably have one who plays it a lot (or would if you let them). The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently changed its recommendation on screen time for children; however, when it comes to Minecraft, playing the game is a bit different than most video games.


Understanding Minecraft

If you already have a Minecraft player in your house, perhaps you’ve peeked over their shoulder and seen a blocky, low-resolution world and wondered how something that looks so, well, lousy is completely absorbing their attention. Unlike a lot of video games, Minecraft doesn’t have a complex story or great graphics. Instead, it is a world filled with people, animals, and trees made up of blocks sort of like digital Lego bricks. Minecraft is a big digital sandbox made up of blocks of dirt, trees, stone, ores, and water. Players mine and combine these blocks to create new materials and items that they use to build shelters, tools, and weapons to protect them from the nightly attacks from mobs of monsters.

Survival mode in Minecraft can be fun, but younger children are more often interested in building things and exploring. You can still play without the fear of Creepers killing you in the night by playing in creative mode. Creative mode lets the player play without worrying about damage or hunger and lifts a lot of the limits of the game (e.g., you can fly).

Once they move beyond the basics, players can let their imaginations run wild and create worlds with transporters, rain that falls up instead of down, or build a 100-foot statue of themselves. Along the way, they’ll learn some computer programming, engineering, architecture, urban planning, and math. In fact, the education potential of Minecraft was one reason Microsoft purchased Minecraft developer Mojang for $2.5 billion. Minecraft Education Edition, a version with features to handle a teacher and many students at once, is now being used to teach math and more in many schools.

You can find Minecraft on just about any platform that can play games. There is a pocket version for iOS and Android, versions for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and 4, Wii U, as will as other consoles, and the oldest and most full-featured version that runs on Window, Mac, or Linux. When playing online (which we’ll talk about later), the Pocket edition, Windows 10, and console versions can connect with each other, but not with the PC/Mac version. If your child has friends who are already playing Minecraft, they will probably have a preference for which platform they would like to use.


Online Play

Online play is not a requirement for Minecraft, but it is a significant part of the Minecraft community. Your child can play in single-player mode with a world of their own where they can build to their heart’s content. If your child wants to play online, there are four ways to do that:

  • On a computer, after creating a single-player world, you can choose to “Open to LAN” to enable other players to come into the world. Those players would need to know your IP address and the port to connect to your server. Each player connecting will need their own Minecraft account, so if two of your kids want to share a world, they will each need their own account if they want to play together.
  • You can install a server on another separate computer to keep the world running all the time. The server software is free, but again, each player needs their own account.
  • Minecraft Realms is a subscription service that runs a server for you for $9.99/month. Only one person needs to have a paid subscription, and then they can invite as many friends as they want and play with up to 10 friends at the same time. Once a friend is on the approved list, they can play in the world anytime whether your child is online or not. As mentioned above, the Pocket/Windows 10 version is not (yet) compatible with the PC/Mac version online, so you’ll want to get the version that your child and their friends use.
  • Your child can go and play on public Minecraft servers. Note that while the previous three ways of online play provide you with some level of control over the world, public servers do not. In fact, many of these public servers may be running modified versions of the game that you wouldn’t really think of as “Minecraft” that could have kids shooting each other with guns, fighting zombies, or even playing something like Pictionary. These public servers also can expose your child to a chat channel full of strangers.

Keep in mind that if your child is playing online, even in a Realms world that only their friends can play on, you will still want to pay attention to their behavior in this space. Most parents would be concerned if their child were being a bully or causing trouble on the playground, but might not take their child messing with their friend’s pretend online world as seriously. You will want to treat your child’s online behavior the same way you would at a playground. Running around in anther child’s Minecraft world and destroying things is exactly the same as running around the playground and kicking over other kids’ sand castles, though the Minecraft castles probably took ten times longer to create.

As noted above, public servers can expose your child to various modified versions of Minecraft. Such “mods” are not necessarily bad, and if your child wants to run a mod on their world, discuss what it is and what it does. Many simply allow for more complex interactions with the world and allow or aid in building more complicated things.

You will also want to discuss how to be safe online with your child. PTA’s Smart Talk is a good place to start for help with both online behavior and limits to screen time. Make sure your child understands that the common sense rules about strangers also apply to being online—don’t tell anyone your real name, don’t share how old you are, and don’t say where you live.


Other Resources for Parents

If your child has really gotten into Minecraft, they are probably going to start watching YouTube videos of what others are doing in the game to get new ideas for their game. Common Sense Media has put together a list of 12 kid-friendly Minecraft YouTube channels with additional information on who will get the most from them.

If you have a child who is just starting out or is running into problems, you should probably know about the Minecraft Wiki. Created and maintained by the Minecraft community, the wiki can help you or your child get started, find information about specific objects, walk through tutorials, and more.

MineMum is a website run by an Australian mother with the tagline, “Minecraft Help for Desperate Parents.” Whether it is figuring out how to throw a Minecraft-themed birthday party, installing a mod, dealing with ten common problems, or finding offline activities for kids who love Minecraft, MineMum is there with grownup-friendly answers.

Finally, consider getting a Minecraft account for yourself and joining your child in their online world. It’s a chance to connect with your child doing something they love. You’ll be able to build and explore together. It will also give them the chance to be the teacher as they guide you through the world.

Image ©2014 by Bago Games under Creative Commons license.