Many parents think games like Minecraft are a complete waste of time. As a retired Air Force officer and aviator, and having been an engineer, an accountant, a salesman, a systems analyst, a database developer, and now well into my (hopefully) final career as an author (novelist), I can see both the downsides as well as the benefits of letting your kids loose on Minecraft.
You see, even at age 53, I’m a Minecraft player, too. 🙂
It all began six years ago, when my son, who was 11, said he wanted a laptop. He had crafted a few good reasons why, but the moment he said, “Mom’s computer is too slow,” I knew right then that he was going to use it to play games. I have no absolute objection to playing games. After all, I played computer games, beginning with Pong. Before that, we had pinball and literally hundreds of other mechanical arcade games. Looking back through history, it seems like humans have long developed a knack for keeping both their bodies and their brains occupied when they weren’t either gathering food, crafting various items used for survival and enjoyment, or waging war. As for me, I grew up riding bicycles, playing kick the can, hide and seek, soccer, swimming, football, chess, and reading lots and lots of magazines and books. And Batman. Even though I knew it was corny way back then, I still watched Batman, along with Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, and Emergency.
Buying my first computer in 1986 opened up the world of PC gaming, including flight simulators, hacked versions of old Atari arcade video games, card games, a DOS-based version of Monopoly (very cool), and… coding. You might not think of programming as a “game,” but to me, it was indeed a game.
In fact, I learned how to get my computer, a Wyse PC+, to sit up and beg.
The computer came with two 360k floppy drives. After a frustrating month of swapping floppies in and out every time my two-floppy word processor wanted to save data to my data floppy, I replace one of the floppies with a Seagate 30 MB hard drive that used RLL technology.
“Specifically, RLL bounds the length of stretches (runs) of repeated bits during which the signal does not change. If the runs are too long, clock recovery is difficult; if they are too short, the high frequencies might be attenuated by the communications channel. By modulating the data, RLL reduces the timing uncertainty in decoding the stored data, which would lead to the possible erroneous insertion or removal of bits when reading the data back. Run-length-limited codes were widely used in hard disk drives until the mid-1980s and are still used in digital optical discs such as CD, DVD, MD, Hi-MD and Blu-ray. This mechanism ensures that the boundaries between bits can always be accurately found (preventing bit slip), while efficiently using the media to reliably store the maximal amount of data in a given space.” (Source)
I observed that the initial interleave was set to 5 in order for the hard drive to reliably work in the original IBM PC, with its Intel 8088 processor running at 4.77 Mhz. My computer, however, had an Intel 8088 processor that ran at 9.54 Mhz, twice that of the original IBM PC, even then it was less than half as thick. In fact, it fit very nicely into my suitcase, surrounded by soft, cushioning clothes. All I needed at my destination was a monitor…
By changing my computer’s clock rate just a few percent, I was able to re-interleave the hard drive using Spinrite, originally written as a hard drive interleave tool, from 5 to 4, resulting in a noticeable 25% performance improvement. With some tweaking, I managed to push the clock rate just enough to achieve a interleave factor of 3, resulting in a theoretical 67% performance improvement, although testing revealed about a 30% miss rate, resulting in an effective interleave factor of 3 for 70% of the time and 4 for 30% of the time. The net effective performance improvement was 54%, as both calculated and measured.
That’s a win. 🙂
I also tinkered with pretty much all other aspects of my computer, including the graphics card, the fan, I/O devices, installing first a used 300 baud modem, then later, a new 2400 baud modem, and eBBS software, which annoyed my roommates to no end before I bought a second phone line I really couldn’t afford. But the eBBS software brought me into the world of programming, even though I’d taken a mainframe Fortran course (WATFIV) two years earlier. I learned a PC version of Fortran, pretty much mastered GWBasic, and tinkered with Pascal. I also learned all — and I do mean ALL — of the commands of DOS so thoroughly that I rarely needed anything more than my rapidly growing collection of batch programs to tackle any problem with either my own or my friends’ computers. That, a vacuum cleaner, some electrical contact cleaner and Q-Tips, and my copy of Spinrite would fix 90% of people’s PC problems.
So, to be honest, all this actually began about 31 years ago.
But I digress…
In buying my son a laptop, I was hoping he would follow suite, first learning to tweak his own system, then learning some programming so that he could modify his own IT world.
He found a better way — well, a different way — to occupy his time and train his mind.
In reality, aside from changing a few of Windows’ invasive privacy settings while avoiding malware like the plague, there’s not a lot of tweaking one can do these days. Instead, a little more than a year after getting his laptop, he called me up because he wanted to show me his cool new game, “Minecraft.” The problem was, he was in California with his Mom whereas I lived in Colorado.
No problem. Whoever had lead him to Minecraft had also shown him how to use LogMeIn Hamachi so that we could establish a virtual LAN through the Internet. One that was established, I simply watched him play Minecraft through a remote access window on my own computer while listening to him describe it.
It wasn’t until more than a year later, however, during one of his summer visits, that I actually broke down and spent the $26.95 to buy a copy of Minecraft for my own machine. He was enjoying it so much, kept showing me the worlds he was building, and kept asking me to get a copy so that we could play together over my LAN. He pointed out that we would also be able to play together over the Internet, using LogMeIn.
Well, that settled it. Ever since his mom left when he was only five, I’ve busted down every door and barrier that arose in order to spend time with my son. Long gone are the days when fathers weren’t an integral part of the development of their children. These days, fathers change diapers, co-sleep, bottle-feed, play with, nurture, comfort, encourage, guide, teach, and otherwise spend a great deal of time with their 0-23 month-olds, helping answer their question of, “Can I trust the world?” with a resounding, “YES — with caution.” I was the one who helped my son learn how to navigate a jungle gym without slipping and hurting himself, beginning at just four months. He was an early crawler. I was the one who put the double papasan cushion on the floor and let him crawl all over me, catching him when he fell off — but only until he could catch himself, or learned how to take a tumble. I was the one who helped him learn that playing with spiders was a no-no, particularly the black ones with the red hourglass on their bellies. I was the one who… You get my drift. The idea that only “Mother” should be the only one considered in the “Significant Relationship” block of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development is steeped in 18th century stoicism. In fact, it’s rarely been the case either throughout history or throughout the world, and certainly isn’t the normative case today. We Dads love our kids. 🙂
Which is why I agreed to join my son on this journey known as Minecraft. That and the fact that I was laid up following ankle surgery with nothing to do but recover for the next three weeks while my son stayed with me finishing up his summer visitation.
It took me a few seconds to learn the basic controls, a few minutes to get to the point where I could go where I wanted, and a few hours to learn there were realistic dangers like gravity and a bunch of partially realistic dangers known as “mobs.” A few days later I was more helpful than not, and after a couple of weeks, I was working alongside my son digging for ores, processing them, chopping down trees, hunting for food, farming, and building strange, wonderful, and fun structures.
I didn’t start taking screenshots until after he left for the summer and I had another three weeks convalescing. I really didn’t want to spend any time time mindlessly watching TV, but just writing seemed a bit boring. So, I spent my time in Minecraft. A LOT of time.
Here’s one of my earlier creations, in the distance, finished by the end of the summer in 2013. It’s a house designed to look like an Imperial walker. It comes complete with a helipad, fireplace, and interior pool. It’s also connected to the horse barn through an underground passageway beset with traps for the unwary, heh-heh… In the foreground you see the 2014 beginnings of some rather large castle grounds.
In the next screenshot, you’ll see my Skycastle, created on one of my favorite servers set to hard mode. It was difficult enough to merely survive in this environment, much less build. I built this during the winter of 2013-2014. Up there are complete quarters, lookouts in all directions, flowing stream, full ore processing stations, an anvil, a potions stand, and enough wheat, carrots, and potatoes to keep me fed forever.
Well, the Minecraft “me,” anyway.
During this time, my son didn’t lose sight of his friends, parents, or schooling. His mom limited his time on his computer, made sure he focused on his studies, and sent him outside to play with his friends on a regular basis.
As for me, between the Fall of 2013, when I began my first masters, and the Spring of 2016, when I finished my second masters, I continued to play Minecraft as a way of constructive relaxation. During that 2-1/2 years, I doubled up on classes, managing not only to complete two masters degrees, but two concentrations, as well, while maintaining top GPAs so that I graduated at the top of my class. Between all of the honors, veteran, and other cords, stole, tassel and pins on and around my graduation gown during graduation in Denver, one of my professors jokingly remarked, “Good God! Overachieve, much?” I sponded by saying, “What, this stuff? I got this while playing Minecraft,” which left him somewhat perplexed.
Minecraft has an amazing effect on the human brain. In Minecraft, one is tasked with finding food and shelter while besieged with hunger, mobs, and natural dangers like falling from cliffs, drowning, being crushed while mining, and stumbling into pits of lava. All of these things can kill you, which on most servers will send you back to your original spawn point, unless you’ve reset that by building and sleeping in a bed, at which point dying will send you to your bed. That and dying drops all of your stuff, which you must quickly retrieve lest others get it, before the stuff disappears altogether.
But that’s just surviving, the first milestone of Minecraft. The second milestone is thriving. Players thrive when they’ve managed to successfully hunt, build self-sustaining farms, process ores into tools, armor, and fun stuff like clocks and maps, all while building some really cool digs (homes) that are good at keeping mobs and the weather out while actually being enjoyable places in which to “live.”
Throughout the game people team up, not only because two hands are better than one, but for companionship and to exchange ideas. Two people on an adventure of exploration are much more likely to survive, as well. If one person runs out of food, the other will share. One person can build a quick shelter against mobs while the other one hunts for food before the sun sets. Some players are content to gather wood, coal, and various ores while other players have mastered the crafting arts — turning those ores into useful items like tools, armor, and potions.
Some players excel at engineering ingenious traps while others excel at designed various automated structures both for convenience as well as protection. And some players simply excel at designing really neat structures! I like to think of these people as the future architects and designers of our world (the real one).
Minecraft both exercises and trains the brain. In addition to building excellent eye-hand coordination, kids and adults alike learn to prioritize activities. Faced with real-world hurdles like hunger, shelter, finding supplies, crafting tools, hunting, farming, and storing up harvests for times of plenty, everyone who plays with others online also learns to cooperate with others, coordinating their actions, even collaborating to secure wins in various competitions between sets of players.
Finally, there’s the huge aspect of creativity and innovation.
Minecraft is a relatively clean slate, with realistic boundaries. Whether a player wants to just have fun sight-seeing, they’re a griefer (destroys the creations of others), they want to build a house, run a farm, or just create fantastic structures and contraptions, they all have the fairly wide-open freedom to create. One can build simple things, or one can build fantastic structures and contraptions. People have built everything from replications of their city halls to the Taj Mahal. This collection shows full-scale recreations like a full-scale Minecraft version of the U.S.S. Missouri (BB-63), to Hogwart’s Quidditch grounds, to a Babylon 5 White Star class advanced warship, to Japan’s Royal Palace to a massive Rube Goldberg machine, to, well, this:
As you can see, literally, the sky is the limit when it comes to Minecraft and creativity.
And if you’re wondering, no, neither Minecraft nor Microsoft paid me a thin red dime to write this article. I merely wanted to share my lengthy, yet very fun experiences with Minecraft, beginning with a lot of horsing around with my son on various servers, but also including a lot of time I spent honing my Minecraft skills creating various structures and contraptions until…
I really didn’t have much drive to continue.
That’s right: These days, I rarely play Minecraft. Like most human endeavors, most Minecraft players reach certain limits of autonomy, mastery, and recognition beyond which it no longer holds much interest. We’ve moved on to new endeavors. For me, that’s writing my second novel. For my son, it was on to more challenging games, but also onto school work in high school, where he’s doing quite well.
So, should we have skipped Minecraft altogether? Heck no! By playing Minecraft, I have trained all sorts of areas of my brain in many different ways that a non-Minecraft player has never experienced. I found it helped me in my two masters programs and both concentrations, primarily by helping me prioritize various elements of team assignments, and think about the ways various elements fit together in three-dimensional representations. This ability to understand how various elements of a complex situation relate to one another is someone rare, particularly for a 53-year-old. 🙂
Nope. I wouldn’t trade any of my Minecraft time. Alas, it’s time for me to take what I’ve learned and move on. After all, I have a novel to finish, possibly two, and then there’s the matter of finding gainful employment for at least a decade.
Even so, I might pop into one of the old servers from time to time, just to say hello. 🙂