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Nadworny: Undermining Minecraft

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I have a confession to make: I am the parent of a Minecraft addict. It’s a growing affliction affecting boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 18. It drives parents like me crazy and makes kids completely oblivious to the world around them. And the worst part is, that in the beginning I encouraged this.

Minecraft is an online game built by a Swedish programmer that lets players collect different elements, like minerals and wood, and combine them to build something. You “mine” for diamonds, say, because you can make a tool, like a drill that lets you, in turn create other things.

Great, I thought, finally a computer game that reinforces positive creativity rather than destruction. You only have to see the commercials on TV for Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty to know what I’m talking about. Building not killing.

So I was happy to find out that many schools were actually using Minecraft to teach city planning or to explore ancient civilizations. The Echo Museum in Burlington is using Minecraft to map out the Lake Champlain basin for one of its digital exhibits.

But oh, how naïve we parents can be. It turns out there is fighting in Minecraft, lots of it. My son and his friends spend hours combating other kids around the globe, using weapons they build, and communicating with each other in real time, on Skype. We Minecraft parents spend hours, it feels like, yelling at our kids to stop playing on the computer, to little avail. It’s a common parental complaint across the U.S., actually.

And when the kids aren’t playing, they’re watching Minecraft videos on YouTube, where top players have recorded their gameplay, sharing tips and tricks. It seems that they watch the videos as much or more than they play the actual games. And companies like Machinama seem to be making lots of money from those videos.

I’ve realized that the outright bans we’ve tried have had limited effect. So I’m taking another tack: I’m starting to teach my son how to code, so he can make games himself.

We’re starting slow with programming tools like Scratch, developed at MIT, and moving on to programming robots with Lego Mindstorm. It’s taking what my son likes about Minecraft, the building toward a goal, and giving him tools and processes to create something bigger.

It’s making him realize how hard it is to create something great. But it’s also starting to give him that feeling of empowerment you get when you create something you can share. Of course he still likes “playing” more. But my hope is that, at some point, he won’t be able to tell the difference between playing and coding.