A mother once expressed to me her confusion about her son’s Minecraft obsession.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “He spends hours on that game, but there’s no point, you can’t win, and the graphics are terrible.”
Her feelings are understandable. I’ve even heard some kids express similar sentiments. After all, we live in an age of state-of-the-art games and everyone these days is at least a little bit of a gamer. Video games are no longer restricted to teenagers and geeks. Games now enjoy a wide audience of players from nearly every demographic in the developed world. Even the least-likely gamer will casually play a game app on their smartphone or handheld device while stuck in a waiting room or airport terminal. Games are all but omnipresent.
With so many options available, why does Minecraft, with its crude pixels and simple features, enjoy such a devoted young following?
While the answer remains elusive to the average parent, geeky adults who pioneered the early years of gaming understand implicitly. Back then, we played the some of our first games with no documentation. Game graphics were universally terrible and sometimes even text-based. It didn’t matter. Even the most well-documented games we played without the advantage of online support. If the game had a glitch, we worked around it. If we were stuck, we had no walkthrough to Google. Games were an exercise in creativity and problem-solving in a way that riveted our nerdy young minds.
Sure, we’d go to the roller rink and mash buttons on Donkey Kong or Q-Bert with the cool kids, but we weren’t really engaged. The games that dug deep into our geeked-out brains are the ones that had us thinking, and I mean really thinking, about how to solve that next puzzle or overcome that next obstacle. We had notebooks with game details and maps drawn on graph paper, without which our games could not be conquered.
It was glorious.
That gaming experience is difficult for today’s kids to replicate. Games are now market-driven and gameplay is spoon-fed to consumers to be as user-friendly as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. As a busy adult who likes to play games, I have a new appreciation for a well-designed game that I can easily pick up, play, and finish in a reasonable amount of time. I’m in my late thirties and I’m a mother of two for crying out loud. I don’t have time for adventure notebooks and extensive map-making.
But the geek gene isn’t gone. There are still kids who crave that kind of multi-layered challenge. For them, a game like Minecraft is a sandbox of infinite possibilities. It offers them something that no polished modern game can offer; to play in a world where secrets can be created or destroyed by clever players. It is impossible for everything in Minecraft to be documented, because new content is constantly being generated by its fans. It is a perpetual wellspring of creativity.
I’m certainly not alone among grown-up geeks who understand the appeal and value of Minecraft. Last year, a school in Sweden created a mandatory Minecraft class for thirteen-year-old students. Domestically, homeschooled students have been using the game to learn about everything from ancient history to economics with Minecraft Homeschool. I expect to see more open-ended games like Minecraft to appear on the scene in the future that will appeal not only to the young geek crowd, but to a wider audience of students as well.
“Well,” I told my friend, “It’s kind of like books. Or Lego blocks. There’s no point, you can’t win, and the graphics are terrible, but it’s amazing what they can do in the hands of creative and curious people.”