It’s the gaming phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping, but it remains a mystery to most parents. From game basics and how to host private games for your kids, to zombies, griefers and the rise of the girl gamer: read our parents guide to Minecraft for everything you didn’t know you needed to know.
Minecraft is, for most parents, rather like Justin Bieber or Zoella. We know it exists and our children obsess over it but we studiously avoid knowing anything about it.
With over 100 million registered users for the PC version alone, Minecraft is now an entrenched part of many of our children’s day to day existence – if they aren’t playing it themselves, their friends will be talking about it in the playground and you’ll see many a Minecraft cake on the birthday party circuit. It’s estimated that 2-3 million people are logged in at any one time. So isn’t it time us grown ups took a crash course?
THE PARENT’S GUIDE TO MINECRAFT:
1. WHAT IS IT?
Minecraft is a procedurally-generated sandbox video game. But you knew that, right? In non-gamer language, it means that it’s a computer game with (almost) no rules, no script and no levels to complete, in contrast to the ‘linear’ (level or achievement based) games that most of us grew up playing.
The central tenet of Minecraft is that players collect, gather and battle for materials that they then use to build things. What things? Well, pretty much anything they can dream up: from boats and castles to intricate obstacle courses and Taj Mahal replicas.
If they opt for the more complicated playing modes, they also gather and use materials to stay alive, all while they build, play parkour games with their friends and do anything else they like within the reality they’ve created. Think of it almost as a sort of endless digital Lego, but just don’t say that to a 9 year old because, you know, Lego is super lame (and so are you for even daring to equate it with Minecraft).
Unusually for a video game, every single Minecraft experience is unique: the game generates a whole new space to explore every time a player starts a new game.
2. WHAT IS THE POINT?
A pretty common question for those of us who grew up in the linear game era of Chuckie Egg, Sonic and Tomb Raider. Add to that the low-res clunky graphics that make it look like an 80s throwback and many parents are utterly baffled by its appeal.
But it’s precisely this open-ended nature of the game that makes it so popular. It’s a game you play for the sake of playing, which is an intrinsically popular concept with many children, who are hooked by the absence of rules and a pre-determined narrative, which allows them to play however they want. Build a house today, play hide and seek around a castle tomorrow and so on. The game is also endlessly customisable with extensions (known as ‘mods’) and themed game ‘skins’ with new characters that can be downloaded.
3. WHAT CAN IT BE PLAYED ON?
There are three main versions of the Minecraft product:
- The desktop version (Mac and PC): still the gold standard in the world of Minecraft, offering the fullest game functionality. It’s also easiest to control the game using a keyboard and a mouse making the desktop version still the most popular.
- The console version: The next tier down from desktop (but only very slightly, the functionality is pretty comparable) is the console versions for the Xbox and Playstation. One popular unique feature of the console version is the ability to play multi-player games on a split screen.
- The Pocket Edition for iOS and Android: a scaled back version for iPads/iPhone and similar devices. These have the obvious benefit of being transportable but offer much more limited functionality and touchscreen controls are pretty clunky.
(There is also a version for the Raspberry Pi for kids who are particularly interested in hacking the game and re-coding it. But then if your kids have their own Raspberry Pi you should probably stop reading this and see what they’re up to as there’s a good chance they are hacking into next door’s microwave via the wireless).
4. WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT MODES?
Minecraft can be played in several different modes, which impact upon how easily your child can play and what sort of content they will see:
- Creative: entry-level Minecraft where the emphasis is on creative play. Players have infinite blocks/resources, can’t be injured and don’t fight any bad guys. Great for younger kids and new players who need to get used to the game’s controls before embarking on the more complicated survival based modes.
- Survival: playing in survival mode means that players have ‘health’ that can be depleted and they must gather resources like wood and food to stay alive and fend off night time attacks from spiders, zombies and other digital dangers. Players can die but simply return back to an earlier point in the game. They may lose materials but they are never permanently ‘dead’. The survival mode can be played in 4 levels: peaceful (with no attacks from zombies etc.), easy, normal and hard.
- Hardcore: like survival, but with one life. And when that is gone, it’s gone. Game Over. World Deleted. Tears Before Bedtime. Not for the faint-hearted.
- Adventure: A combination of creative and survival modes that can be played when using the online multi-player platforms.
5. CAN THEY PLAY ONLINE WITH STRANGERS?
If the device they are playing on has a working internet connection then, in short, yes. Each game format offers access to online multi-player mode, and this can’t be switched off within the game itself.
While kids can play in solo mode offline, one of the big draws of Minecraft is playing with friends online or exploring the vast number of themed servers set up across the world. It is possible for kids to play in ‘closed’ groups online with only their friends (see 6 below), but the most common option for multi-player games is to join one of the public servers, which as the name suggests, are accessible to absolutely anyone.
As all of the game formats have a ‘chat’ function for multiplayer mode (this is text based for the desktop/Pocket Editions but real voice chat for the console versions), once your child is playing they are capable of interacting directly with all other online users. It is, however, possible to switch off the text chat function, if you are concerned. See this simple tutorial on MineMum.
Minecraft servers do tend to be very well moderated as it is widely acknowledged that kids make up a large proportion of the players but talking to your kids about basic internet safety (such as not revealing personal info) is an absolute must. Whether it’s Minecraft or any other game, there is an inherent risk of seeing inappropriate content, offensive language and being harassed when online gaming on an open platform.
If you’re nervous about letting your kids straight into the wider Minecraft community, there are a growing number of family-friendly public servers that you need to apply to join and which have strict rules that players are removed from the forum for breaching. These include Sandlot, Cubeville and Crazy Pig but a quick Google search will reveal plenty more.
How To Geek has a very detailed guide to the open multiplayer servers, what to expect and what to look out for (including everything you need to know about ‘griefers’ or players who deliberately attack or destroy other people’s creations), which is well worth checking out if you are planning on allowing your children to play online with other players.
6. CAN I LIMIT THEIR ONLINE PLAY TO FRIENDS ONLY?
Yes. The quick and easy solution is to join Realms for £8 a month. This is the official server host from game creator Mojang and the service allows you to set up your own private games – Mojang then hosts and backs them up and all you need to do is simply invite the players you want. Realms games can support up to 10 players at a time so are perfect for families or groups of school friends playing together. The only limitation is that Realms is not currently supported for the iOS/Android Pocket Editions so if you kids only play on iPad (or similar) you’ll need to explore the more complex private hosting options below.
If you’re a tech savvy parent, you can purchase a Minecraft hosting package or even host your own server. If you know your Java script from your Op Commands see this article on Geek.com for more details.
In the case of siblings or kids visiting their friend’s houses, they can also play ‘closed’ multiplayer games using your home internet network. They simply connect their devices to the same network and play. The Pocket Edition for iOS/Android is particularly well set up for this. The Xbox console version also allows kids to play up to 4 at a time on a split screen basis. In each case though, they do all have to be in the same space, meaning friends can’t keep working on their epic castle creation together once they go home.
7. IS IT SCARY, VIOLENT OR ADDICTIVE? WHAT ELSE SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT?
Once kids move beyond Creative mode, there is some violent content (killing animals, fighting off zombies) but it really isn’t very graphic at all – one definite upside to the low-res old fashioned interface. I have seen scarier looking things on Ben & Holly. There’s no blood or gore and no hideous sound effects. Kids basically whack things with a weapon until they fall over. Compared with modern games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, this is good old-fashioned fun.
For younger kids though, the threat of attack and losing lives in the Survival modes may be unsettling (and frustrating) and if you want to avoid conflict/violence altogether stick with Creative or use Survival Mode in on ‘peaceful’ setting. Do be aware though that kids are creative – even in these ‘safe’ modes children can push sheep off cliffs or bury cows alive and many will delight in doing so.
In terms of ratings, PEGI rates the desktop game as 7+, the console version is rated 10+ by ESRB, the Apple Store says 4+ for the Pocket Edition and Mojang won’t register an account for anyone under 13. So that’s about as clear as mud. The general consensus seems to be that 7/8+ is the most appropriate starting age for players, particularly for the modes beyond Creative.
Parents should also be aware that siblings playing in the local multiplayer game can attack each other and destroy each other’s hard earned creations. So the greatest risk of exposure to violence is probably them taking it offline and grappling on the living room floor.
Is it Addictive?
It is well documented that Minecraft can quickly become all-consuming for many children (and adults). Whether it is the hyper-real nature of the online world it creates or simply the open ended nature of the game that seems to hook them so deeply is unclear, but we all know parents who struggle to get keen Minecraft players re-engaged with real life and out of the door to school. In truth though, other games (or online experiences like YouTube) can be equally addictive to kids and setting clear boundaries on screen time and encouraging kids to use gaming time productively and safely is a parenting challenge that isn’t specific to Minecraft.
Minecraft on YouTube
One often overlooked parent-pitfall is the plethora of Minecraft walk-through and How To videos on YouTube. Minecrafting kids seemingly can’t get enough of these but don’t assume that all are suitable for children. Minecraft is also played by millions of adults, many of whom create videos of their creations and gameplay, complete with some fairly choice expletives and combat scenes. Keeping an eye on which Minecraft channels your kids are watching is well worth it (particularly as they are liable to stumble across all sorts of other content if left to browse YouTube unfettered).
8. IS IT EDUCATIONAL?
The million dollar question. Your 8 year old will tell you endlessly that it is (and that Angry Birds is to be embraced as trigonometry), and certainly many schools are using Minecraft as an educational tool; not just for computer science but for topics as diverse as history, English and maths. But the jury is still out as to whether hours of undirected play will really assist their school grades.
As far as computer games go, there are definitely a number of learning opportunities – the game encourages (and rewards) creativity, patience, logic and problem solving. The structure of the game also allows inquisitive kids to get to grips with basic programming through adding mods and entering commands to alter gameplay.
Certainly, if parents are prepared to learn a little about the game and play alongside their kids, it can be utilised as a learning tool. Even just taking the time to encourage your kids to tell you about their experiences and creations can help. If you are interested in trying to channel their Minecraft time into something productive check out the vast resources at MinecraftEdu (aimed at teachers but easily used at home too).
9. DO MANY GIRLS PLAY IT?
The cult of Minecraft has long been perceived as being populated by boys aged 7 to 15. Ask an 8-year-old boy if any girls he knows play and you’ll probably get a resounding ‘urgh, no way!’ but the truth is actually quite different. While it is difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy (as Mojang don’t collect player gender data), it was estimated a few years ago that 1 in 3 players was female, and this has likely risen as Minecraft continues to evolve as a mainstream activity.
It has taken Mojang a little while to cotton on to this though – it wasn’t until earlier this year that they introduced its first female avatar, Alex, into the game’s default options. Although the game’s founder has always maintained that the game was ‘genderless’, they appear to have realised that the original avatar, who is called Steve, and sports a light stubble, wasn’t perhaps as gender neutral as they had hoped.
10. WHO OR WHAT IS STAMPY LONGNOSE?
The internet superstar you’ve probably never heard of. Meet 24 year old Joseph Garrett (aka StampyLongNose or Stampy Cat) who, from his bedroom in his parent’s house – no stereotype there, then – started a YouTube channel showing videos of him and his friends playing Minecraft. Fast forward to 2015 and his channel is one of the top 10 most viewed in the world, with more subscribers than One Direction. His core audience is 6 to 14 year olds, with a 60/40 split in favour of girls, and his videos receive over 30 million views a week. His video advertising income is estimated to be more than £200k a month. Ever wonder if you’re in the wrong job?
With huge thanks to J & O, the 8 year old boys who took the time to teach a boring grown-up (and a girl at that) the intricacies of Minecraft.Want to level up and find out how to actually play Minecraft? Need to know what a Mod is? Or a Creeper? Head over to Minecraft Wiki or the brilliantly comprehensive Australian site Mine Mum. Kate Douglas-Hamilton is Mr Fox co-founder. A recovering lawyer, she now writes about food and kids technology. She (proudly) lost many months to Tomb Raider and considers herself a Super Mario Kart bandit. She has one son, aged 3. Find her on Twitter @katedh.