Block party: why do millions play Minecraft?

It’s a humiliating rite of passage for any modern parent: the moment your child teaches you how to play a computer game, not the other way around.

In my case, it was Minecraft, the Quake III cum Lego set that has gone from an unknown indie game created by a Swedish developer in his spare time to rack up more than 33 million sales in only four years.

By and large, PC games leave me cold, but what caught my attention about Minecraft was how infatuated my nine-year-old had become with it. She would spend hours on her mother’s Android tablet, building houses, castles and farms.

What was most extraordinary of all was that she was only playing the demo version: she couldn’t save any of the fantastically elaborate creations she had spent so long crafting. It was the equivalent of building a city out of Lego, dismantling the bricks, and starting again from scratch the next day.

What is it about Minecraft that’s captured the attention of millions around the globe? And not only nine-year-old girls, but grown adults who attend international Minecraft conventions, and the parents of autistic children, who set up their own Minecraft server just so their kids are able to have somewhere safe to express their creativity, with genuinely staggering results.

I’ve delved into the blocky, primitive world to find out.

Staying alive

At first, it’s hard to see the attraction of Minecraft. Starting in single-player mode on a PC, you’re presented with a choice of Creative or Survival mode.

The first gives you all the tools you need to start creating anything your imagination can muster, without any threat to your existence; the latter drops you into a random landscape with nothing but your fists, and gives you ten minutes to scrape together a shelter before zombies appear at dusk to throttle you. Being the happy-go-lucky chap that I am, I naturally opt for the latter.

Within minutes, I’m smashing away at the side of a mountain, trying to build a cave that I can later block up the entrance to and stay safe.

Having yet to gather enough resources to create a torch, or indeed a bed in which you can lie and accelerate through the night, I’m forced to block up the cave door and sit there doing nothing for the next ten minutes of in-game nighttime, lest I go outside and end up in a scrap with a zombie.

Without weapons, this would be like Frankie Dettori picking a fight with Mike Tyson. It has to be the dullest, bleakest opening to a game ever: I’m standing there doing nothing in darkness, interrupted only by the agonised moans of passing monsters. Millions pay for this?

Minecraft

Slowly, however, the appeal of Minecraft reveals itself amid the relentless self-preservation. Dawn breaks, and I begin smashing wood and stone with bare hands to gather materials and make tools, so that I can smash those trees and rock-faces faster.

My hunger bar is starting to dip worryingly, so I punch a passing cow to death and make off with two beef steaks and a hide of leather (don’t worry vegetarians, you can survive on apples and bread if it’s more than your conscience can bear).

I craft a bed, a furnace, and a chest in which to keep my goods, and with torches flickering up the walls, my depressing little cave is starting to feel almost homely.

Before long I’m planting seeds, harvesting wheat and using it to tempt animals into my pen. Well, I say pen; it’s more of a waist-height wall. It’s then I make the startling discovery that cows can jump.

I’m forced to smash more stone and build a bigger pen/dungeon to breed cows in, purely so I can keep the burgers flowing. And all this before dusk, so I can avoid being killed by the crossbow-wielding skeletons that have started to creep onto the horizon.

It’s engrossing and fun of a sort, but if I’m being honest, this constant graft for survival feels a littletoo much like a day job.

The Minecraft business

Minecraft occasionally feels like work, and it’s certainly big business. Aside from the revenue developer Mojang would have earned from 33 million game sales – it costs £20 for the PC and Xbox version, and £5 for the more limited Pocket Edition on smartphones and tablets – Minecraft is an industry of its own.

There are firms making good money from hosting multiplayer Minecraft servers, which allow players to team up to build together or fight one another. A virtual server capable of supporting 58 players simultaneously costs $45 per month from MCProHosting, and the company isn’t short of customers or competitors.

Then there’s the merchandise (official or otherwise), guidebooks and associated goods.

British PC manufacturer Chillblast sells a range of Minecraft-themed PCs, for example. And then there’s the advertising revenue generated from the thousands of YouTube video guides, explaining how to build this or that in the virtual world.

The cloyingly Red Coat-like “stampylonghead” has more than half a million subscribers for his daily 20-minute long video guides, a single episode of which has generated 2.4 million views, earning him a tidy sum, no doubt.

Minecraft even supports its own international convention every year. More than 7,500 people attended the last MineCon in Florida, in November 2013. The first batch of 2,500 tickets sold out in three seconds, according to a tweet from Mojang’s chief operating officer, Vu Bui (@vubui).

Simon White, a 21-year-old software engineering student from Belfast, has volunteered for the past couple of MineCon conferences.

“The one thing about Minecraft is that the community is so unique. There have been so many businesses and lives changed because of one single game,” he told PC Pro. “The community is brought together [at MineCon].

There are panels and talks about different aspects of Minecraft, a gaming area/LAN where people can chill out and relax and, of course, there are the exhibitors, which range from servers to clothing companies.”

The one thing about Minecraft is that the community is so unique

In contrast to my fears about the game becoming a chore, he says it’s the sheer variety that keeps bringing him back – he spent more than 100 hours playing Minecraft in 2013, either in single-player mode or on the Mineville servers.

“Originally it was the fact you had complete freedom to do whatever you wanted, and you could make the game/world your own,” says White, describing what attracted him to the game. “One of the main things that keeps me interested is that it’s constantly being updated – almost weekly – so there’s always something new or different to discover.”

A little education

Unlike the other goliaths of the gaming world – Call of Duty or the FIFA football series, say – there’s an educational side to Minecraft, too.

Whether it’s learning the principles of farming, or getting to grips with economics by trading resources with villagers, or programming logic gates by setting doors to open when a certain combination of buttons are pressed, there’s more to Minecraft than hacking at zombies.

Indeed, some of the intricate architecture and in-game objects designed – brick by brick – by children are awe-inspiring. Take this video, in which a child describes how he made a working escalator.

He prototypes different designs, learns from the failure in his early models, adapts the type of piston used to power the escalator, and finally cracks the problem. The kid should be top of every engineering firm’s scholarship list.

Schools aren’t blind to the educational benefits of Minecraft, either. Santeri Koivisto is CEO of TeacherGaming, a Finnish company that sets up Minecraft servers for schools around the world.

The customised version of the game provides special features and tools for teachers, such as a library of pre-built levels and activities, the option for teachers to “freeze” students’ games so they can command attention in the classroom, and – critically – a licensing model that means schools don’t have to pay for 30 individual licences.

A 25-seat licence would cost schools around £250 from MinecraftEdu.com, a fraction of the cost of individual licences.

“There’s a constant stream of [education] events in the UK asking us to be there,” says Koivisto. “One of our guys was going around UK schools in Nottingham and building this [virtual] Nottingham centre. We made some ‘how your dream Nottingham would look’ buildings during the event, and some of the best entries were 3D-printed.”

Koivisto says he’s seen Minecraft used to teach pupils of all ages and abilities, across a variety of subjects, including maths, geography, history and social studies.

“One teacher nailed it,” he says. “After the [Minecraft] class, the key thing he did was ask from the students ‘what can we teach from this game? Write it on a note and bring it tomorrow.’ None of the kids wanted to leave school that day. They all wanted to stay and write the notes.”

Koivisto says the key to Minecraft’s ability to capture pupils’ attention in the classroom is that children don’t regard it as a fusty piece of educational software, but a game they’re happy to play in their own time.

“When kids play an ‘educational game’, it doesn’t deliver the same fun and joy, and then it fails to deliver the interest,” he says.

That’s why his company has steered clear of attempting to influence the future development of the game. “Mojang is focusing on the fun. We’re the people concentrating on the education side. We don’t want to ruin the game. The last thing we want to do is make the game stink like school.”

Autistic arena

Minecraft is also the perfect outlet for autistic children to express themselves. Amanda Osborne’s eight-year-old son Callum is autistic, and instantly fell in love with an “endless world where you can do whatever you want”.

However, she was worried about letting Callum play on regular Minecraft servers because she’d “heard a lot of rumours about bullying and swearing” – rumours that are entirely accurate, in my experience.

Within ten minutes of joining my first online Minecraft server, I found myself locked in a virtual prison as a gang of fellow players built walls around my character and bombarded me with foul messages. It was fairly amusing stuff, but not so funny for a young child that has difficulties communicating.

So Osborne, who already runs her own support website for parents of autistic children decided to set up her own Minecraft server specifically for autistic children. She and her husband Mark now spend “countless hours” every week moderating their invite-only Minecraft world – making sure fights don’t break out between players, ensuring that there’s no bullying, and offering guidance and support to children from around the world.

Minecraft

The couple give me a tour of their Minecraft world one Friday morning. They have to open the server especially for me; it’s normally shut down during the daytime, out of fear that the children will skip school to play. The server has been running only for two-and-a-half-months, yet the scale and intricacy of what the children have built is truly staggering.

There’s an enormous fort where the children are allowed to battle against monsters (player-versus-player combat is banned, in order to minimise disputes); a Tesco-branded supermarket where they can sell the in-game goods they make for virtual currency; a winding racecourse where the children can leap on a horse in the stables and race one another round the steeplechase track, complete with a winner’s podium; and a two-storey school with lots of individual classrooms and lecture halls, where the adults deliver lessons.

Tesco Minecraft

Aside from these communal buildings – all built co-operatively by the children themselves – each child has their own private island, where only they are allowed to build, ensuring that nobody can come along and ruin their creations.

Osborne says the sheer creativity and scale of what the children build regularly move her to tears, but even more impressive than the architecture is the sense of community and belonging the children attach to this Minecraft world, which is evident even without them being present.

She takes me to a room where children who are unhappy for whatever reason can post private messages to adult moderators, and are encouraged to feel better about themselves by answering questions plastered to the walls such as “My talent is…?” or “I make people happy by…?”.

Minecraft

Once they feel better, they walk through to the “happy room” and can leave messages of encouragement of their own. Elsewhere on the map, there are plaques erected for the players of the week, and an enormous statue of Peppa Pig built by the children, with a speech bubble containing the sentence: “We love you CJClow Mummy” – that being Osborne’s in-game username.

In November, she tells me, they even held a fireworks party, for which the children designed and created all the virtual pyrotechnics. For some, it was the first fireworks party they’ve ever attended, “because they can’t go to such events” in the real world. If there’s ever been a more worthwhile purpose to a computer game, I’ve never come across it.

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