Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Minecraft: A Parents Guide


Minecraft SplashI assume any parent with a school age kid has heard their kids or their friends talk about Minecraft.  It has become a cultural  phenomenon with over 12,000,000 copies sold worldwide and adding up  with about 13,000 additional copies being bought each day.  Those are impressive numbers for any game and there are many more downloads where you can play for free as long as you don't access a server.  In this parents guide to Minecraft I want to explain the basics of the game and at the end let you know some issues you need to cautious about.

My Credentials

I am a dad and my son and I have been playing almost every day since the dawn of beta 1.8 (2011), and his interest only wavers occasionally.  I am continually amazed by some of the creative things he is able to make within such a simple game and some of the YouTube videos we have seen of other people's creation are astounding.   Needless to say I am a fan and often act as an evangelist for the cult of Minecraft.

What is Minecraft?

Minecraft is a sandbox game; this means there are no defined rules and no set purpose.   I usually describe the game as being similar to an empty lot in a neighborhood.   One day the lot is used for a game of baseball, the next it is used to play war, and the next it is medieval kingdom.   The
boundaries and materials in the lot are always the same but the game is different depending on the mood and the players involved.  This leaves a lot of room for exploring and interpretation to the player.   This is a very different concept than most of the video games I have played.   I grew up playing games like Pitfall as a kid and Doom in high school and college.   In these games I had very little control, the levels were set and they were always the same.   Once I learned the rules I could play through the game very quickly.  The adventure was in learning the rules of the game and using those to my advantage.  
One of the reasons Minecraft is so addictive is that you never really learn the rules of the game because there are no rules other than how to chop down a tree and learning crafting recipes (more later).   This keeps the game interesting and it is what baffles most adults because we think in levels and points not searching for diamonds.    

Game play

I know I have said there are no rules but there are some basics. You need to know how to craft basic tools,  gather food, build structures, and defend yourself from the monsters that roam the land.

Game Modes

  • Creative - Monsters are not a problem and the player does not have to search for supplies.  
  • Survival - Monsters, hunger and falling from high places are an issue. The player will need to search for resources. If the player dies they re-spawn either at their bed or the initial point on the map they started the game.  If they are carrying any supplies when they die they have five minutes to return to their death point and reclaim their stuff.
  • Hardcore - Basically the same as survival however if they die the game ends and they can't reclaim their supplies.
  • Adventure mode - A relatively new mode in Minecraft that changes the rules of the game to be similar to a game with classic levels.  The player has to follow rules set by someone else.   The difference is that these adventure maps are not created by the game designer.   Often they are created by other players in creative mode and distributed on-line.

How many people can play?

  • Single Player- If the player selects single player then only one person can play and the game is played entirely on the player's device.
  • Multi player - Many people can play.  There are two different types of Multi player environments. Unless you run the server the game does not stop when your child exits the game it continues until the device the server runs on is shutdown.
    • LAN environment-  One player decides to open their game to LAN.  Once this is done any player at your house can connect to the LAN world.   The original device becomes a Minecraft server at that point.  Or if you are at Starbucks and your child decides to open to LAN then any player in Starbucks can access your child Minecraft world.
    • Online Server - Minecraft has a server version as well.  You can install the server version on any PC in your home and anyone who has access to your home network can access the world.   Anyone can create a Minecraft server can publish it on the Internet and your child can access the game in progress. Go to the beware section at the end of this post to read more.  

Tools 

There are a few basic tools you will need to get started.
  • Crafting table
  • Sword
  • Pick-axe
  • Axe
  • furnace
You will start out with wooden tools, and eventually move to stone, iron, and finally Diamond tools.
Unfortunately you can't get any of these until you get wood.   When you first get into the game you do not yet have any tools so unlike real life you walk over to a tree and hit it (left Click and Hold) several times until you get a wooden block.   Once you have wood you can get started.  Here is a link to crafting recipes and the first steps in the game.

Day night cycle

Minecraft is a world with a day and a night.   The Sun comes out in the morning and sets in the evening.
There are basically four different time events in Minecraft.
  1. Day- 10 minutes long
  2. Sunset - 1 1/2 minutes
  3. Night - Seven minutes
  4. Sunrise - 1 1/2 minutes
For an in depth chart go to the following link.

During the day you usually explore the world, gather resources, or build buildings.  This is because most of the monsters in the game can't spawn in the sunlight, and the player is relatively safe outside.

During sunset they are usually running to the safety of their home or frantically building a temporary structure to get safe.
During the night the player is generally crafting items, smelting ore blocks,  and/or cooking food from the resources they gathered during the day,  

During sunrise the player is generally preparing to go back outside and start the day over again.

You can use the information in the link to help determine rules on how long your child can play.  Basically when it is time for the kid to get out of Minecraft ask what time of day it is and you have some idea of what they are doing and if it a good time to end the game.   But beware your child can craft a bed in Minecraft and skip nighttime.   I was fooled by this several times in the early days of Minecraft.  I would tell the boy to shut down when it got dark and go about my business looking at his screen every so often.   Little did I know that he had crafted a bed and never let it get dark.  

Monsters


Your kids may disagree but the monsters in Minecraft are very benign but are the most troubling during the first few days in Minecraft.  Below is a list and some basic attributes of each.





  • Zombie - must get close to the player and if they touch the player loses health
  • Skeleton - Can attack from a distance with a bow and arrow. 
  • Spiders - Jump and can attack the player from above.  I have been attacked when I come out of my house during sunrise from above my door.
  • Creeper -  must get close to the player but explodes and can do damage to any structure the player has built.
  • Cave Spiders - Smaller than other spider but fast and more deadly.
  • Enderman - Neutral unless you stare at him.  If you stare at his he can  teleport directly to you and attack.

Positive aspects

Minecraft has many positive aspects and you should understand and respect these since your kids are so involved in the game.  Once the player has survived the first couple of nights the monsters are mostly not an issue any longer, the game becomes whatever your kid wants.
 
  • Adventure/Risk taking - This is especially true for young players.   Most of the games young kids play do not have an element of risk where they can lose everything.   Surviving the first few nights is a "little" scary for the really young but gives a sense of accomplishment to the player.
  • resource gathering - While not exactly real life the player must search for resources to build food when they are hungry and ores if they want Iron or Diamond tools and armor. 
  • Cooperative play - If all of the players are in agreement then they can build communities and share resources.  They learn to segregate duties and someone directs work if necessary.  
  • Disagreements - this may seem an odd topic for the positive aspects of Minecraft I believe it belongs.  Just like any playground eventually kids are going to disagree and fight.   If left unchecked this can turn into a negative element, but if handled correctly can turn into a teachable moment for the parent on how to deal with similar real life situations.
  • Building - With the simple elements of the game the player can build impressive structures and Beautiful buildings.   Building in Minecraft teaches to think in three dimensions, and is an entry into more complicated topics like Auto Cad and Google Sketchup. 
  • Redstone - On the surface redstone ore seems useless in the game, but that is misleading as I believe it is one of the hidden gems in the game.   Using redstone the player can engineer many things.   I have watched videos of guys building replicas of Hoover Dam and with a flip of a switch opening massive doors that will let water flow from the top of the dam with impressive precision.   My son watched a series of videos on how to build a computer in Minecraft while he followed along.  I did not learn most of this until I was in college working a computer science degree.  From this experience he has designed his own Tamagotchi pet in Minecraft that gets hungry and sleepy.   All of this from the basic building blocks of Minecraft.
    Here is a link to Redstone Wiring basics.
    Here is a video of a 16-bit ALU (Computer) designed in Minecraft.
  • Modding - Many players want to take the game to a new level and modify the Minecraft code.   To be able to do this they need to learn to program in Java.  If they are interested in the topic the player basically extends the game and learns a viable skill at the same time.  There are several video tutorials, but you still need a rudimentary understanding of Java to make any real progress.
  • There are many more positive aspects to Minecraft but this post is already far too long

Beware:

As stated in the previous section Minecraft has many good aspects, but it also has several reasons parents need to be cautious.   Minecraft was not originally designed for children so none of the normal Parental controls parents would expect are present in the game.   As a result there is a huge range in the age of players.   Players can be any age from starting when they can use a mouse and keyboard through College and Adults.   And because the chats are not recorded

  • Getting addicted- The game is extremely addictive and the player can easily lose track of time and forget important things like dinner or going to the bathroom.
  • Getting addicted - This is here on purpose.  Kids who play can often think of nothing but the game.  I know several parents who have woken up in the middle of the night and find their kid playing Minecraft even though they went to bed several hours before.
  • Online multi player servers - Minecraft allows multi player servers but it does not manage the server nor is it responsible for the content.  There are absolutely no parental controls so you have no idea who your kid is playing with on-line.   This is one of the main reasons I get in the game to monitor the chat and if necessary have him leave the server.
  • Chat in on-line servers - In multi player servers the players can chat and often in on-line servers there is "a lot of foul language".   If you are not careful you and your child will learn most of the glossary of cuss words.  
  • You Tube videos - While videos are not part of the game and are not created by Mojang they are an important part of the Minecraft culture.  Many times players get ideas from watching Let's Play episodes of Minecraft.  The only real concern is language; many of the video creators are college kids or are geared to college kids not your ten year old.  In Chat they will learn the words in the videos they will learn pronunciations and context.  
  • Creating your own Server -   The only concern is knowledge of what you are doing.    If you want to create a server that only the people in your home are allowed in it is pretty easy.   However, if you want to create a server that allows your kids friends to play remotely then it gets more complicated.   I would not recommend this unless you are very technical and really understand what you are doing.   There are several resources on-line that will walk you through the process but if you set it up incorrectly you may open a security hole in your home network.      

List of kid friendly YouTube Channels

I received several comments that I should add a list of kid friendly Youtubers.  This is by no means an exhaustive list there are many great guys on youtube and these are some of the best.  I am very familiar with Ethoslab, Paul Soares Jr, and Direwolf20, and have heard good things about Vintage beef.