Minecaft, Jeb and Jack’s mum

It has been said, more than a few times Minecraft is addicting kids. What this addiction is ( spending time being creative and learning how to use the Internet to reach ambitious computing goals) is less clear.

This post is for a kid called Jack, who replied to a previous post, saying how he didn’t think he could talk to his mum about Minecraft. So here’s some stuff that looks at why that might be, and what to do about it.

According to ‘gratification theory‘, kids and adults are drawn to media to meet their psychological needs (information, entertainment, social interaction, mastery, control and so on). As games are absorbing, they can act to reduce children’s anxiety and worry too. It sone reason I think teachers should think long and hard before rolling into kid-game-worlds with their subject mastery agenda. Yet it seems they are keen on gamifying their classrooms … regardless of whether this is a good thing or bad – it’s popular.

Some kids might be rich, they might have everything – but still feel alone. Minecraft might help them with that feeling. This is one of numerous plausible situations where a kid might find Minecraft a place to go to sooth unpleasant thoughts and feelings which are not being met by other games or other media such as Facebook or YouTube.

For each kid I’ve seen play or met during playing Minecraft – they are often interested in two things – self expression and social interaction. This is something they feel they are getting -regardless of parental belief of this. To the kid, this is real and concrete as that is how kids brains work.

Several studies have shown that kids watch television and play video games for entertainment, to spend time with family and when they are bored. Minecraft does this, but it also provides self expression and social interaction (beyond the family hierarchies)

More interestingly, kids choose games which suit their mood, where as adults tend to use media (television, video, the Internet) to improve their mood. For parents – young children are experimenting with social interaction, building knowledge and skills where as teens are using it to relax and escape. If she’s in the mood to be creative, she’s in the mood to play Minecraft. This doesn’t mean she’s in the mood to play Dishonoured, or that Dishonored would change her mood. Theres no association between wanting to play Minecraft and wanting to play an R-Rated game, but this doesn’t stop the media inferring it.

Minecraft is perhaps a new (and therefore more noticeable) media. But it’s still a media. Calling it ‘addictive’ serves to simplify games in the mind of adults lacking schemas and knowledge of games. The media is not particularly moral, ethical or interested in child development and is never un-biased or transparent.

For most adults, learning about Minecraft is hard (too hard). It doesn’t have an easily accessed ‘story’. Adults learn though stories not facts. For example, many people know about the story of Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates. They don’t know too many facts.

They probably know about the Facebook guy or the two guys that made Google, yet probably don’t know who Jens Bergensten is. But chances are, their kids know who Jeb is – and of course Notch. In case you didn’t know, Jeb is the lead developer for Minecraft, not Notch.

If you like, Jeb is one of the most important people in the game world – and from all accounts, a very nice guy – someone who I don’t think for a second would be anything less than an amazing influence on my own kids – should they ever meet him. To my kids, Jeb seems real. He’s not like Apple or some game studio – he’s a person, who appears on videos and is talked about all the time. If you like, Jeb is that neighbourhood kid that parents hear about, but don’t know. There is the story of Minecraft, the story of Notch and the ballard of Jeb. See below for a quick intro to what I mean.

So if games are inherently bad or even if good games go bad, then you’d think that those who make them are bad or go bad too. They are presented by the media at least as a type of  anti-culture, like Nirvana or Slayer. Making millions by addicting kids to games. However we still have cigarettes and numerous things we know kill people. For example, if two countries want to war – why to they need guns? Why not just go and do some hand to hand? Well because people like to win – and tools help them win. In the media war on gaming, presenting them as the greedy bad-guy harming innocents in an excellent story.

But that isn’t the story I see, what Minecraft says to kids (to me is) – anyone can have a regular job, and still be in the running to do something they really love one day – and right now you can start making unique things from your imagination.

It might not be a cure for cancer, feed the world or regain flagging western interest in religion, but to many kids, Minecraft at least improves their spatial cognition, co-ordination and fine motor skills and is a social-network in it’s own right. It is far less toxic than Facebook (peer-pressure to create rather than be a target/entertainer) – and leads to the all important positive self-identity and agency all kids benefit from – if parents use it for a media-healthy diet.

Minecraft is not linked to poor general health. You won’t get fat, sick or become stupid playing Minecraft. All kids are notoriously poor at managing time. This is why parenting experts have argued for routines for decades. Negative things such as sleep deficit,  less time undertaking heathy activities, mental health, education problems and so on, cannot be attributed to Minecraft any more than they can be attributed to television viewing – and numerous large studies have shown no association between screen-time and physical activities.

Kids are complicated, unique and individual. There is no A-typical gamer. Kids, like adults can make unhealthy lifestyle choices – when they lack information and experience. They can easily suffer from fear, anxiety and phobias, yet studies have shown there is no constant link between screen time and these things.

In short you can’t blame Jeb for the epidemic in childhood obesity (in fact he’s kind of skinny, but we can’t suggest he’s anorxic’s pin-up) ,. We can’t see Minecraft as the problem for monumentally un-imaginative classrooms, poor school funding, prejudice against people of colour, gender or ability either. But the media can, and does many of these – maybe not the Jeb bit.

Society can do that perfectly well without video games. It might do better with them. As young kids are concrete thinkers, the violence and monsters in Minecraft  (or other games) has far less impact than seeing repeated natural disasters on TV or annual ‘biggest loser’ – which form concrete associations about the world and them. They know they are unlikely to meet a creeper, but the world does tend to kill people with trees and fat people are probably going to die sooner rather than later.

If you are a parent, then take some time to sit down and watch the Minecraft Story. It’s a great documentary. It’s just $8 or if that is too much you can also get it from the Pirate Bay for free (on purpose). You’ll begin to see what kids see in it – the other alternative is to watch Dr.Phil and others recycle fear and moral panic about games … something it seems parents are doing. It’s not a game, its a story which you can be part of. For most parents I’ve shown it to, the people at Mojang are exactly the kind of people many parents hope their kids will associate with – or be like. (I do a parent thing where we watch the film and un-pack it, it’s kind of fun).

And finally, the topic of agression. I accept only this (so far) … because this is what the research says about media violence, and games are a part of that medi – yet have unique properties. This means in all the research, games are the least studied, the least known. In over 30 years of research, there is evidence that media contributes as much as any other studied contributor to community violence. There is  a disproportionate amount of media coverage about violence in ‘game media’ compared with other (television, radio, Internet, film and so on) which has a disproportionate impact on public views. This has been found in hundreds of studies over decades.

In short – in all the various forms of media, games are singled out more often and therefore seen as worse yet wholly unsupported in scholarly research which doesn’t see more games or more game-time as contributing to kids and [insert concern] as being a inevitable convergence. In education, there is a similar problem – that eventually subject-mastery and technology will converge. It’s a convenient idea at best to push an agenda, but unproven no matter how much people will it to be true.

Parents don’t have the kind of ‘knowledge structures’ needed to make sense of video games, especially Minecraft. It’s what they call – you are what you eat. If all you eat is an unhealthy diet of media-hate and opinion, then when she’s busy on Minecraft, all you see is negative.

If Minecraft has raised concerns, then this isn’t a bad thing. It’s like finding out eating Burgers and 10 liters of Coke a day is bad for you. It’s an opportunity to think  about media more broadly – for yourself. It’s something worth doing, so you are more likely to do it. Thinking for yourself is fast becoming a lost-art in a culture addicted to media-feeds on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Surely not! I am so not addicted to social-media. Sure you are … you just don’t have a hand-controller.

  • Talk to kids about what they have seen online (in games, on TV as well)
  • Find out about the factors than enhance negative impacts of media (everyone has a screen in their pocket, the Internet is un-regulated, the media has a commercial agenda, pain and suffering gets human attention – so sells ad-space and so on).
  • There is no evidence that cartoon violence or fantasy (Harry Potter, Bugs Bunny, Minecraft) is harmless yet media constantly uses violence as a way to condition children that it can be used in lieu of being correct, to get your own way and as a punishment for non-compliance with the norm-behaviours. This is often exaggerated in television and film as fantasy telling a morality tale (See any Disney film ever).

We know being a good role model with your own media use and encouraging alternates – walking the dog, riding a bike, painting, reading and so on have positive impacts on kids. However, if a parent comes home, eats and settles down to an evening of television most days – this is un-heathy for the child. If the parents reads or listens to music and never turns on the TV, this too is un-healthy. If they carry a smart phone – and use it to socialise virtually and exclude the child (under 13s are usually banned) this in un-healthy for the child. If they watched Die Hard and said to their kids “its not appropriate, you can’t watch it”, this is unhealthy.

So before bagging Minecraft – take a look at the totality of media use in the house. Then try watching The MInecraft Story with your kids … you never know, it might be the first step in connecting the kids world and talking about it.

I hope Jack’s mum reads this … he feels like he can’t talk to you … and he wants to.

Why won’t she get off Minecraft?

I spoke to a journalist yesterday at the Sunday Telegraph about Minecraft. Apparently they are wring an article. Almost immediately, I learned they had a son aged seven who was ‘addicted’ to it, refusing to get off when told, which led to family rows.

Sound familiar? It’s something I hear a lot. I’ve thought about writing an entire book on the topic of getting kids off computers and video games, as there seems so much panic over it. I’m not sure what (if anything) will get written into the article, so I thought I’d outline my view here.

Is Minecraft addictive?

Firstly, kids are not addicted to Minecraft. Addiction is a word that is used in a variety of ways, but usually it refers to a compulsive drive to take some substance or engage in some activity that is not good for us. Video games are games of skill like chess or soccer. Success depends on perseverance, intelligence, practice, and learning, not chance. Saying Minecraft is addictive is similar to trying to argue millions of people addicted to soccer and therefore soccer creates the violence and racism on the terraces and so on.

People play games because they are challenging, fun and provide social interaction with other gamers – just like soccer. You might argue soccer is physical and outside. Yes, but in soccer, you don’t have to calculate the dimensions of a pitch or design the worlds most amazing stadium, so please – games are not purely Kinesthetic learning (also known as tactile learning). This is just one learning style in which learning takes place by the student carrying out a physical activity. I might also argue the brain loves a good work out, and few parents worry about chess. There are many learning styles. Humans don’t use or exclude any particular one by choice.

Non-gamers are bombarded by messages from the larger media-culture. Newspapers, radio and print generally assert gaming is a sign of laziness, is “addictive” and leads to many bad-effects. Non-gamers become concerned about video gaming as a result.

Why does mass-media say games are addictive?

The simple answer is that mass-media needs people to spend millions of hours watching television ads, reading  ads in newspapers and so on. This is why we have televisions, magazines and newspapers – they are technological devices to sell us advertising.  But we are not watching and reading like we used to. The death of traditional media (in terms of advertising) is well reported – as is the rise of Internet advertising. The problem here is that games like Minecraft clearly consume millions of hours – which blocks out their advertising opportunity. Worse, they know that ‘we’ don’t need traditional media anymore – we are the news, we are anonymous, we can’t be profiled or sold as we won’s sit on the couch like zombies. We’d rather play with zombies.

When Minecraft is the house-game for kids – then these media messages will focus parents on getting the house back to reading and watching their messages –  to support advertising revenue streams. So parents hear constantly that games are harmful, that gamers are all potential crazed gunmen, isolated shut ins and so on. You don’t want that for your kid do you?

Parents need to play with their kids if they want to understand games (and their kid)

I asked the reporter – “Do you have a Minecraft account and play with your child?”.

The answer was no as it almost always is. I followed up by asking “when  you go for coffee with your partner, have you given your child a smartphone to occupy them why you talk?”. She responded “Yes! – my husband does that!”

I pointed out the contradiction – games are good when adults are talking, but bad when the child doesn’t want to talk but play. How is a child supposed to work out this rule when it is presented as a contradiction, not a constant. For the players, Minecraft is a constant, so are your game-friends you play with. They understand you and they want to play with you. They know you might quit at any moment – to get ‘logged’ to do some chore or sit quietly while mum and dad have a chat.

Minecraft is not about occupying or filling in time – it’s about meaningful work. I hate to break it to parents, but to a kid, building in Minecraft is meaningful. Perhaps parents are just not used to this. The problem with Minecraft is not the game, nor video games in general. The central social problem is understanding our own (adults) behaviors around them. If parent’s don’t play with their kids, it is unlikely they will gain any understanding of games and their kids who are growing up with them. This is just like the same as noticing they like soccer so finding them a soccer club or kicking a ball around with them. Knock, knock, knock – Penny – your kid likes video games and can probably bend it like Beckham if you bothered to stop yelling long enough to actually understand.

Do scholars believe games are addictive?

Let me say this, as someone who works at a University. Little is agreed upon. The purpose of research is to move understanding forward and to find gaps in ‘the knowledge’ of everything. This means that when you hear or read an academic talk about something, they will invariably do a bit of fence sitting when asked yes/no questions. There is no ‘yes’ games are addictive verdict so far – and to be frank, there is no agreement on what we mean by video-game. I argue that Twitter is a video-game, it has the same basic qualities of games. This is usually met with raised eyebrows and seen as an attempt to avoid the question. But in all seriousness – there are plenty of people who sat zombified on their couch for years watching Doctor Phil and now they play Angry Birds at the same time.

This has nothing to do with Minecraft “addiction” anymore than Doctor Phil is the cause of Angry Bird addiction.

Mike Langlois, who maintains an excellent blog “gamer-therapist” said

“The stereotype presents the gamer as apathetic and avoidant of any work or investment. One thing we know about stereotypes is that they can be internalized and lead to self-fulfilling negativism, and I’ve come to hear gamers refer to themselves as lazy slackers.”

To counteract the stereotype, Langlois points out that video gaming is hard fun, not easy fun. Hard fun is a term that has appeared more than a few times towards education and technology.

“This hard fun would not be possible if gamers were truly lazy or apathetic. And the level of detail that many gamers pay attention to is staggering

To your brain, Mincraft is a form of going outside.

Our bodies are just a way to move our sub-conscious around. We spend most of our lives in our own sub-conscious because our brain likes to do stuff. The brain is in charge, not the body, and the brain is just as interested in solving problems in Minecraft as it is getting hands to move lego-bricks around a table. It soon works out the two-things are related. I can only imagine what would happen if Lego included redstone and pistons in a box. That would be awesome. But as awesome as Mincraft Lego was, it the brain wasn’t fooled.

Sydney is a city where children are often not allowed to play freely outdoors. Certainly where I live, busy roads, the occasional ‘collar bomber’ and so on means kids are more or less constantly directed by adults. Minecraft for some kids is the only realm where they are allowed to roam free and explore. At the same time, most of the parents I know of Minecraft kids understand that like anything kids need a balance in their life, and are not able to manage time as well as adults (some adults).

Parents need to learn not to use Minecraft as stick or candy-cane.

It’s a BAD idea to offer Minecraft time as a reward for ‘good’ behaviour – and a BAD idea to use the removal of it for ‘not good’ behaviour. This is a loop of doom – all it does is break down the trust between kid and parent – which in most cases parents have no idea how to repair. Minecraft is not like a DVD which parents used to use as a techno-babysitter. DVDs are passive loops, the brain likes watching them as they are predictable and expected. Much of the time kids are not actively watching them – they are just zombie-fied on the couch.

Minecraft is not a babysitter

Amazingly, Minecraft is given to ‘occupy’ kids – in fact computers generally are used to keep kids busy. The problem is that Minecraft is not telling your kid a story – it’s not Willy Wonka you are sitting them in front of – it’s Anonymous – and Anonymous will teach them many things. I like the Anon analogy as Minecraft has some great people and projects for kids on the web, and also it has people whom I would not want my kids to go near – not because they are weirdos – but because the time I allow my kids to game – I want to make sure it’s productive and educationally beneficial. I don’t leave that to chance, I make the effort to find out – in just the same way I find out about local sports clubs, guitar tutors or books. Games are not external to parent-domain anymore — after all — you bought the game.

Minecraft is not just a game – its a sub-culture that spills out into YouTube, music, forums, blogs and art.

Of all the games available right now, Minecraft has qualities which allow kids to explore and imagine on an epic scale. Most significantly, there are few rules to learn – reasonable proficiency is achieved in hours. Not because the game is ‘easy’, but because the mechanics are such that a player is engaged in very very fast cause/effect feedback loops. Most of the time, when you die, it’s funny, even ironic – a result of you not thinking hard enough – not random chance.

Is Minecraft educational?

I give a flat yes to this, and in my view Minecraft (used in a game-sensible-model) is as educational as any other technology we’ve added to classrooms – if not more. It can be used to unlock things in kid’s minds that lead to deep learning that isn’t about to achieved with an IWB or Wiki. If we are going to debate this, then also debate whether school – as it is commonly provided – always educational too. Many think not, including numerous scholars such as Henry Jenkins, John Seeley Brown and Sir Ken Robinson. Can I show teachers and parents it is – yes. I can and I do.

Technology at school (which has avoided using games like Minecraft) has not improved outcomes with technology (yet). School leaders in my experience have almost no knowledge or understanding of the power of games – and for no more reason that that – have failed to make any serious effort to fund them, or back teachers who do. Technology has not had any real impact youth unemployment and disenchantment.

If school prepares you for life – what kind of life?

The Hunger Games or the games industry? – One reason kids around the world are learning to code is that they can get access to hero-code poets like @Notch. These people blog, tweet and do accessible random stuff. They are more real than the teacher in many ways. Minecraft is a visual programming language. It blows my mind that in Australia, the dominant programming language taught (cough) at age 16-18 is Visual Basic 6. Learning to use Unity, Unreal, Cry-engine … not going to happen. So why teachers and parent winge when kids start to learn to code in Minecraft is brain-missing. Yes mum, your six year old is engaged in computational thinking and is writing code with those blocks. Playing to learn is well researched in education as a damn good idea.

Computer and video games in Australia is one of the biggest growing sectors of employment. Over $1billion dollars of employment. If school kids are not learning about games at school – where do all the people who work in this industry learn? Where to parents learn.

Minecraft is perhaps the start of a kids interest in their future job – the fact it looks like cubes ignores the cognitive development that is happening with that technology – which in my experience as a parent of kids of a similar age – does not happen at their school.

Minecraft might just be the game that stops your child becoming illiterate – not addicted to something that will make them lazy or ignorant.

Getting parents to understand games

The problem is not school or Minecraft. It’s a social-problem where there are almost no places for parents to go – with kids to learn about games and how to use games in the home to assist the overall development of the child. There is some research on Minecraft, but most parents doing read academic stuff – and there are a few books emerging, but again, they tend not to be bought by parents.

This is why I have tried to create events where kids and parents can come together to talk about games, play games and un-pack what is happening. That is very very hard – as school systems don’t work weekends and venues are expensive … but each time we do – parents discover a side of their child that society has been previously hiding. Amazingly, these things are well attended and have a very positive effect on parents, as we unpack and explain what is happening ‘live’ as their kids hang out and play.

Minecraft is good … you just have to understand how good. I’ll be running one at Macquarie University in the summer holidays – it will be free, so come along if you’re a parent and learn how to put games in kids lives in a positive way. I’ll also be running Minecraft for schools workshop in the next few months with Dr. Bron Stuckey. Addictive learning – yes please. Controlling kids? No.