For those of you who know me, hearing that I’m playing a lot of games should come as no surprise. But my most recent gaming addiction has been a bit of a surprise for me, not just because it’s not a board game, but that it’s one of the most dynamic and useful tools for creativity I’ve ever discovered. My son loves Pokemon, and in our respective journeys through the Poke-world, he happened upon something that really caught his fancy, but it’s not Pokemon related. At least not directly. A couple of weeks ago, he mentioned the game Minecraft (which I’d heard of, but didn’t know anything about) and asked if we could get it. It seems there’s a modified version that adds Pokemon characters and allows you to play out simulations like the stories from from the Pokemon cartoon. I said I’d check it, did some reading, and reluctantly downloaded the game. I didn’t get around to playing it (much to his frustration) for a few days, but I did a bit more reading during that time and fell in love with the story behind the game. When it was originally released to the public, still very much in alpha, it was the product of a single independent game designer. He thought development would be easier while people were playing, and he sent the source code out there for others to develop alongside him. It was such a hit among indie gamers that an api was eventually developed, the game went viral in beta, and he released the first official version in 2011 to an eager community of over 1 million users. While that may seem, I don’t know, boring (unless you’re into game development), when you read about the initial versions and responses to the game, it’s actually quite fascinating. You see, there are no instructions in Minecraft, there were no tutorials in those first months. And while there are tomes of instructions, wikis, mods, tutorials, even youtube channels dedicated solely to gameplay now, the base is still the same. You load the game, your character is dropped into a blocky (think 16 bit) 3D world. You look around at trees or deserts, sheep, maybe a large sea, and you figure out what to do next. At night, depending on the setting, monsters come out and try to attack you. You have a limited amount of life and a hunger meter. Now go.
I was very skeptical. Until I started playing. I found the challenge of building a shelter, looking for food, fortifying, making tools and weapons, and exploring my world to be insanely addictive. After a few days, I asked my friends (whom I’d originally asked about the game — I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to videogaming) if they’d played it yet. One by one, they checked it out… and all had the same experience I’d had. In another week, we had a server running where we could play together. In game, one of us would mine for minerals and materials while another worked with Redstone (allowing players to build simple circuits and machines). One of us built a working farm. One of us crafted better tools and clothing. It’s been three weeks now, and we’re still discovering more and more about the game.
Skip to the homeschool. This week, we were studying Newton and Locke in history and it linked to advances in farming technology. So I thought I’d try something today. Over lunch, I set up a local Minecraft server running on my home PC. I spawned a world, sent my son out of the room, and built a very basic place to start in the game. I stocked a chest with a little food, some wood blocks, and a journal (these are all basic in-game components that can be gathered or manufactured). Then I brought him back and told him his backstory. He’s a young man who’s just left home to make his way in the world. His loving mother sent him with some basic foodstuffs and a few supplies. He’s found a great spot for his home, and he needs to survive. He may not work at night. Now go.
And now, I’m sitting here finishing up this article, watching my son build a subsistence farm in the background. He’s discovered some local pigs, sheep, and cows. He’s just finished a small wheat field, which he’ll use to make bread and feed animals (once he gets them rounded up into a pen). I am answering no questions about how to build, where to build, anything, really. His place still doesn’t have a roof, but he’s figuring it out. And I can see the potential for a lot of future scenarios. Community building with his siblings. Trading with NPC villagers for supplies in an in-game economy. Exploration of historical locations through different mods and seeds. Upgrading his farm with automated functions to speed up his harvesting tasks. Endless possibilities.
We’ll see how shapes up?