Does Minecraft cure helicopter parenting?

This post is for parents, who are worried about Minecraft. More than that, it’s about the worry intentionally created by media reports which use Minecraft as a vehicle to their own ends. In short, this piece is why you should be highly suspicious of popular news media reports about Minecraft.

To illustrate this, I’ll use this recent report and discuss it in some detail to illustrate my point. The article poses the complex problem question “Are parents to blame for the popularity of Minecraft?”.

This is a nonsense question, suggesting parents are once again failing children and childhood. Its the same rhetoric which has been hurled at film, music and television — and roundly de-bunked as junk by numerous studies and scholars in several disciplines for decades. In short, media does not cause parents to fail at anything, let alone being a parent. Next we are introduced to a philosophical complex problem in an effort reinforce the media-panic. A better question would be “What makes media popular among children?” because Mincraft is a media text situated among digital-games which are a substantial part of cultural literacy. This is nothing unique about literature being popular in our society.

While a lot of research has been done towards film, TV and music, there is very little which looks at digital games, and none which looks specifically at Minecraft and therefore why Minecraft might be extra-ordinarily popular in comparison to the other media. One thing emerging from most current research is that children multi-layer they media interests. For example, playing Minecraft, making videos about it, drawing pictures, writing, role-playing as well as reading books (Minecraft was the number one purchase in school-book buying schemes in 2013 in Australia). Is Minecraft therefore a ‘cure’ for a complete failure of parents to mediate in the face of media panics and volaorization of technological commodities such as games, mobile phones and tablets as the headline suggests?

It seems highly unlikely, but on the surface, it appeals to the natural fears of parents about the role of technology in the lives of their loved ones. No parents in their right mind would use technology or media in a way which hurts children — unless they are stupid, which is what is being implied by ‘helicopter’ parents.

At the end of this post, I’ve linked to a good discussion of Minecraft’s potential impact on media in the future, for a generation building rather than responding to action games. Again, while really interesting, there are no studies I’m aware of attempting to track or understand this potential. The field of study that is games, media and society is in fact relatively small. The only agreement is that like film and TV, games reflect society. One question we know little about is about how children’s play is altered by an audience. This matters because parents are being positioned here an audience, either supportive or in opposition to conceptions of both video games and parenting. Evidence from sociologists and educators suggests that children who use media with a supportive audience do better in academics and social situations. There’s no reason to think that supportive parenting towards gaming is now a sign of a poor parenting or a cure to bad parenting.

We’re also not sure which parents the writer is talking about, what type of family context is this — and what age are the children. The reason Minecraft is popular, is because of many things, parenting I’d argue plays a very small cultural role, but probably an economic one, given Minecraft is commercially purchased. The title of the piece is therefore misleading in order to be ‘seen’ by meta-search and sensational enough to be amplified by parents and friends of parents whom have previously encountered a deficit debate about parenting and digital games — and have purchased Minecraft. It’s a headline which explores the un-answerable topic of the “death of childhood” which has also been shown to be a myth and de-bunked in the literature.

As if the headline isn’t loaded enough, the article goes on to attempt to connect adult choices towards media (regulation, mediation) to consequential choices they made for their children. From the outset the parent is assumed to be dumb and over-obsessed with supervision, and for a child ‘growing up digital’ this in invasive and harmful. “Growing up digital” (Tapscott) is an argument that has been criticised. Among media scholars, there are counter arguments for this type of technological deterministic view of childhood.  In particular, it assumes there a pre-existing demand by children for Minecraft, and therefore parents are generationally in-capable of being effective parents. The term ‘helicopter‘ parenting is another contested concept, yet laid on here in order to further claim that modern parents are unable to mediate personally or on behalf of their children (saving children from the media is a recurring theme in parental criticism). Clearly many parents grew up with video games and the Internet, the old verse new user lens is seen increasingly as simplistic among scholars, but remains popular in news media such as this.

The claim “more than a quarter of players are under the age of 15” is meaningless. Where does this figure come from? What platforms? Is this active players or licence sales? Let me give you are more interesting figure — 98% of all humans in America, Australia and the UK play digital games. In 2012, In America, 21% of people were under the age of 15, which would make Minecraft’s player base nothing extraordinary at all. In addition, this figure is used to bolster the claim that Minecraft’s “endless nature” is key to this astonishing unremarkable player-base.

This leads into a complex arrangement of types-of-play. Minecraft does have limits, there are technological rules and processes which dictate what play can be. The biggest reason ‘endless play’ should be considered false, is that just about all animals (inc humans) go it, and they do it their entire lives. Play is, by it’s nature an endless human quality, unless some medical issue prevents it.

Perhaps the most spurious element is that this ‘endless play’ is seen as opposite to the current arrangement parents have to allow play to go on, which he calls “one more level”. Minecraft does actually have levels in the game, there are numerous subtle ways to measure advancement. There are many other games which allow auto-didactic exploration of ‘open worlds’. Mincraft’s is a sandbox game, and by it’s nature, allows players to create and manipulate it. To be even more simplistic, Lego is a sandbox game, but the resources are far more limited to the player. As Lego is a toy parents provide children in greater quantity to Minecraft licences, then the so-called arrangement (in terms of play-management) doesn’t break any arrangement. Furthermore, it may be that Minecraft is the only game a parent provides, and this ‘nul’ argument is worth exploring before making such a claim. The arrangements (to use the term) parents make with children over the use of media are very complicated and so far, little research has been done towards this. Even less has looked at children under the age of 15. In fact most game-research has focused on adolescents using lab experiments. Birmingham did some work in the UK with children and families several years ago, but this was limited and focuses on ‘educational games’. It did show something relevant here — the conceptions parents and children have about what constitutes ‘constructive play’ vary between families. It’s hard therefore to ask “Do parents …”  without much further clarification of who is being talked about.

Finally there is a visual aesthetic to the piece, the introductory text is high on claims and low on facts. The invitation made (using the grinning face) is to watch the video-discussion. This video is not made for parents, it’s made for game-audiences and to build further audiences. This tactic is well used by news media to increase circulation and not worry about evidence at all. Children are concerned (the research shows) what their parents think about media in general. Depending on the age of the child, those concerns vary. Given the mode of the presentation, this isn’t aimed at young children. The language is complex and hard to process for young children. Rather than present much in the way of facts, the video resorts to pop-camera work, fast cut-away moments of random footage and of course, slap-stick comedy. By the second minute, it’s pretty obvious this is simply ‘entertainment’.

I don’t have any-problem with pop-culture, but as this appeared on my timeline, it probably has been picked up by one if not more teacher-parents whom I’m connected to in someway. It’s indicative of the kind of cultural-media-leaks which occur when game culture attempts to expand it’s audience, and is interesting to me because of that. As a parent, the video is a roller coaster of unproven claims about parenting and society which should not be taken too seriously, despite the headline. There are many great video’s which talk broadly about digital games (even Minecraft) which talk about the benefits (and problems) of games in our society. As a rule, those which attempt to connect parenting failure to games are hardly worth your time, because there is so little we actually know about relationships between children and adults are being shaped by digital games. One thing we do know, is that up to now, attempts to connect ‘bad parenting’ with other media has been proven to be almost always rubbish.

I recommend you watch Extra Credits for a bit of debate and entertainment on the topic.