If you were to walk into my sister’s house in Los Angeles, you’d hear a bit of yelling from time to time. “Luca! Get off Minecraft! Luca, are you on Minecraft again? Luca! Enough with the Minecraft!”
Luca is my 8-year-old nephew. Like millions of other children his age, Luca is obsessed with the video game Minecraft. Actually, obsessed might be an understated way to explain a child’s idée fixe with the game. And my sister, whom you’ve probably guessed is the person doing all that yelling, is a typical parent of a typical Minecraft-playing child: she’s worried it might be rotting his brain.
For those who have never played Minecraft, it’s relatively simple. The game looks a bit crude because it doesn’t have realistic graphics. Instead, it’s built in 16-bit, a computer term that means the graphics look blocky, like giant, digital Lego pieces.
Unlike other video games, there are few if any instructions in Minecraft. Instead, like the name suggests, the goal of the game is to craft, or build, structures in these 16-bit worlds, and figuring things out on your own is a big part of it. And parents, it’s not terribly violent. Sure, you can kill a few zombies while playing in the game’s “survival mode.” But in its “creative mode,” Minecraft is about building, exploration, creativity and even collaboration.
The game was first demonstrated by Markus Persson, a Swedish video game programmer and designer known as Notch, in 2009 and released to the public in November 2011. Today, the game runs on various devices, including desktop computers, Google Android smartphones, Apple iOS and the Microsoft Xbox. There are thousands of mods, or modifications, for the game, that allow people to play in prebuilt worlds, like a replica of Paris (Eiffel Tower included) or an ancient Mayan civilization.
While parents — my sister included — might worry that all these pixels and the occasional zombie might be bad for children, a lot of experts say they shouldn’t fret.
Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. “They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future,” said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.
Around the world, Minecraft is being used to educate children on everything from science to city planning to speaking a new language, said Joel Levin, co-founder and education director at the company TeacherGaming. TeacherGaming runs MinecraftEdu, which is intended to help teachers use the game with students.
A history teacher in Australia set up “quest missions” where students can wander through and explore ancient worlds. An English-language teacher in Denmark told children they could play Minecraft collectively in the classroom but with one caveat: they were allowed to communicate both orally and through text only in English. A science teacher in California has set up experiments in Minecraft to teach students about gravity.
Mr. Levin said that in addition to classroom exercises, children were learning the digital skills they would need as they got older.
“Kids are getting into middle school and high school and having some ugly experiences on Facebook and other social networks without an understanding of how to interact with people online,” he said. “With Minecraft, they are developing that understanding at a very early age.”
While there are no known neuroscience studies of Minecraft’s effect on children’s brains, research has shown video games can have a positive impact on children.
A study by S.R.I. International, a Silicon Valley research group that specializes in technology, found that game-based play could raise cognitive learning for students by as much as 12 percent and improve hand-eye coordination, problem-solving ability and memory.
Games like Minecraft also encourage what researchers call “parallel play,” where children are engrossed in their game but are still connected through a server or are sharing the same screen. And children who play games could even become better doctors. No joke. Neuroscientists performed a study at Iowa State University that found that surgeons performed better, and were more accurate on the operating table, when they regularly played video games.
“Minecraft extends kids’ spatial reasoning skills, construction skills and understanding of planning,” said Eric Klopfer, a professor and the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Scheller Teacher Education Program. “In many ways, it’s like a digital version of Lego.”
Professor Klopfer suggested that if parents were worried about the game, they should simply play it with their children. He said he set up a server in his house so his children’s friends could play together and he could monitor their behavior and then explain that some actions, even in virtual worlds, are unethical — like destroying someone’s Minecraft house, or calling them a bad name.
But Professor Klopfer warned that, as with anything, there was — probably to my nephew’s chagrin — such as thing as too much Minecraft.
“While the game is clearly good for kids, it doesn’t mean there should be no limits,” he said. “As with anything, I don’t want my kids to do any one thing for overly extended periods of time. Whether Legos or Minecraft; having limits is an important part their learning.”
Many children would happily ignore that little warning if their parents let them.
Last weekend, my sister saw Luca on his computer with what appeared to be Minecraft on the screen. “Luca, I told you, you can’t play Minecraft anymore,” she said.
“I’m not playing Minecraft, mama,” he replied. “I’m watching videos on YouTube of other people playing Minecraft.”