How I learned to stop worrying and like 'Minecraft'
Her sons love the best-selling computer game, and now even teachers extoll its virtues
When Minecraft was first mooted in our house by my then seven-year-old son Luca, it was viewed with as much suspicion as a strange man in a raincoat lurking near the playground. "You will lose your children to it. Don't let it into the house," was one (slightly hysterical) comment from a colleague of my husband.
And so, despite his best efforts – and Luca has the campaign persistence of a seasoned politician – the game remained taboo for many months while his classmates became mini-experts. But gradually, as I listened to other mothers, I learned that Minecraft is not one of those 'blow everything in sight sky-high' type of games and has none of the gore of other first-person shooter games.
Minecraft is a so-called 'sandbox' game, which means that rather than playing to a prescribed set of rules, the creator gives the players certain tools and they have to discover for themselves what to do from there.
The creator was a young Swede called Markus Persson who quit his job to build his own game. Today, almost 15 million people worldwide have bought the end result – Minecraft.
Persson set out to create an experience where each individual component felt fun, and went on to include a multiplayer mode so players could work together, and then a "Survival mode" to make the world feel dangerous.
Minecraft also looks like a virtual Lego world because everything on screen is in pixellated form, rather than the sophisticated graphics of other games.
There are no instructions and no real goals, and game reviewers have suggested this lack of order is the key to its cult-like popularity among children. They are used to a world they do not understand and for which they did not draw up the rules. Adults, perhaps not so much.
Essentially, the game involves mining for different elements such as iron, copper and obsidian and using them to build 'stuff'. But it is complicated by the presence of sinister 'mobs', including 'creepers', 'zombies' and 'Endermen', which mainly attack at night. Night falls fast in the Minecraft world, I discovered, and it is wise to have a shelter built before it does.
My initiation to the game is a blundering mess, much to the amusement of my guides, my three nine-year-old sons Harry, Luca and Jack.
Almost immediately, I dig too deep, ending up in the pitch black and have to claw my way back out, only to discover that night has fallen in the last 10 minutes and I am at the mercy of ominous-looking cave spiders and other nasties.
'Stay still and that monster will think you look like a tree or bamboo," urged Jack. "How does he know and is he sure?" I wondered. Jack also advises me to dig wider to allow the light to come in the next time.
There is a certain reality to the game that I like. You have to get food or you will lose energy and die, but there are plenty of cows and pigs around.
However, speaking as a vegetarian, the choices are fairly limited.
Even the promising "mooshrooms' turn out to be a kind of cow.
Fortunately, there is no bloody slaughter involved if you 'eat' a pig and even if you kill a 'mob', the screen simply turns red, which is a lot less disturbing than the vivid images of severed limbs in some games.
The game is certainly not devoid of violence and my three seem to spend a great deal of time acquiring various varieties of TNT (from fire TNT to nuclear) and using it to create massive explosions. But at least no human gets hurt, just the monster-like baddies.
Luca tells me he thinks Minecraft is the best game ever "because you get to build stuff and I like building stuff. And you get to blow up stuff and everything is square and if it was round, it would not be so good."
When I ask them what they have learned from the game, Harry tells me he learned that diamonds are expensive, which I consider to be moderately useful. He has also noticed that the trees in Minecraft "have leaves even if it's snowing". So the game has flaws, after all.
After a few sessions with my sons, who were ridiculously delighted at their mother's unexpected interest in gaming, I learn that there is an ultimate goal of a kind.
You are supposed to gather the materials to build a portal which you then pass through to kill the Enderdragon – obviously. Of course, I never get anywhere close to this, wandering around and digging aimlessly, which is fine but not really my thing.
The problem-solving aspect of the game has long attracted the interest of psychologists and educators. One school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-olds last year and several schools in the United States have included the game in their curriculum.
Andrew Miller, educational consultant and online educator, (see andrewkmiller.com) says: "Because Minecraft has such open possibilities and potential, the teacher can choose how he or she wants to use it. Just as the student has the ability to be creative, the teacher has the same." He admits that aspect can be overwhelming but there is an educational tool for using Minecraft.
Jason Levin, aka "the Minecraft Teacher", founded MinecraftEdu.com and discovered that students go beyond their assignments when the game is introduced to the classroom. Students have made entire cell structures, or created the equivalent of a living, breathing book report of the Lord of the Flies island.
The game has many dimensions – you can play it in single or multi-player mode, on public or private servers. Some parents of children with Asperger's say the game has helped their children socialise in a medium in which they feel more comfortable.
From my short-lived experiment with the game, I found that its survival mode encourages players to take into account real-life limits such as resources, food and tools and to use what is at their disposal to get where they want to go.
Just like Lego, creative users can build three-dimensional replicas of famous buildings, spaceships and much more – the only limit is their imagination. They can learn about minerals and volcanoes, flooding and minefields.
For me, the ultimate acid test is the sound I hear coming from the room where my three are gathered around my iPad taking turns at playing. When they are engaged at one of the more combative games, there are frequent verbal fights and the occasional outbreak of fisticuffs as frustrations and tempers rise.
Generally with Minecraft, there are urgent words of advice as they collude together to defeat the 'mobs' and progress through the game. And every now and again, they explode with laughter, having filled the entire landscape with clunky pink pigs or after blowing half the world away with stockpiled TNT.
It is that laughter and sense of collaboration, even if it is unclear where they are heading, that has convinced me that Minecraft is okay.