The video game Minecraft crept into my son's life the way I suspect these things usually do: His older brother got him started.
It quickly became the first thing my five-year-old wanted to do when his big brother and sister, nine and 11, stepped through the front door (they're my step-children, my son's half-siblings). They would have played for hours, if it were allowed. (It wasn't.) And when they weren't here, for me it became a constant battle with my son, who went from innocent manipulation ("I feel like playing with something that's rectangular; hmmm, can you think of anything?") to all-out tantrums when Minecraft time was over, or denied altogether.
Ask him about his day at school and he has nothing to say, but he can describe at length the dangers of exploding creepers in Minecraft and the benefits of playing in Survival versus Creative mode. It's like he's speaking another language.
Like so many parents, I worry. I've read the articles. I have a library full of parenting books. I kept him away from TV altogether for the first two years of his life. How did I let this happen? Sure, Minecraft is not some super-violent shooting game, but I have seen for myself how addictive it can be.
For the uninitiated, Minecraft is an indie gaming phenomenon, selling more than 33 million copies since its initial release in 2009. It's a sandbox construction game, with no characters, story or set goals. Players can explore, mine materials, build, farm, cook and fight off monsters, and they can play a pocket edition on a mobile device, or the computer version on public servers – which, despite his urging, my son has not been allowed to do.
If I'd let him, he would play all day. Every day.
Was he going to grow up to be an anti-social World of Warcraft recluse? Or is gaming now just a fact of a kid's life? And am I the one who needs to stop obsessing?
Cori Dusmann has mined this world, and offers help. Her new book, The Minecraft Guide for Parents, not only explains the game to adults who lack (ahem) computer-game fluency, but also argues that it offers benefits. Dusmann, a "haphazard but avid" gamer, slowly went from taking parental interest to becoming drawn into the game herself after her son, Xander, then 11, began playing.
"He really patiently coached me through. It was a really great bonding moment for us," says Dusmann, a childcare provider in Victoria, B.C. "You don't have that power struggle. … You can sort of be equals and it's okay. And I think that's actually a really valuable experience for kids to have when they see grown-ups stumbling and they learn that grown-ups make mistakes as well."
Dusmann has found Minecraft to be full of worthy challenges and educational opportunities. She says it helps kids learn to work toward a goal, use their imaginations to create structures and scenarios and solve problems when the stakes are high. Even some teachers, she points out, are using the game in classrooms. She'd rather see kids interact with technology than sit, slack-jawed, in front of the television.
But I kept thinking: What kind of actual skills and knowledge my son would be acquiring if he were applying that intensity to the real world, rather than this virtual, blocky one?
Dusmann listened to my concerns, and countered by saying that Minecraft allows kids to freely explore the virtual world the way their parents ran around the neighbourhood unsupervised. And she claims it can also open up communication between parent and child: Kids are more chatty when they're doing something else, rather than being quizzed face to face.
It's an interesting take, but I'm not sure I buy it (although I would love to). I'm not the only one.
Raffi Cavoukian, the B.C.-based children's entertainer who had kids singing along to Baby Beluga long before they were battling zombies, says virtual exploration is no substitute for exploring the real world.
"Really, if you think about the early years, [the time] goes by so quickly and these kids need a grounding in the real, three-dimensional world of wonders that they're here to explore," says Cavoukian, author of Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Be4 it Re-Forms Us.
"Interactive does not make it better for the child," he adds. "It makes it more potent a seduction. And what you don't want for a little kid is device dependency and addiction from a young age."
He worries about the time kids are spending on the game: "What do you really have at the end of your three hours?"
He doesn't criticize Minecraft specifically – he understands the game to be comparatively benign – but he worries it could act as a sort of gaming gateway drug: "It's a minefield."
Cavoukian scolded me gently in our conversation, saying there's no reason for a five-year-old to be online, period.
Some positives have come from my family's Minecraft experience, not the least of which is a bonding experience between half-brothers who only live in the same house part-time. Do I wish Minecraft had never entered my son's world? Yes – at least at this age. But I know there's no luring those blocky sheep, chickens and pigs back through the flung-open barn doors. Now I have a situation to manage.
The other day, I joined up with my son on multiplayer. We sat next to each other, each of us with an iPad. Minecraft is definitely not my thing, but I loved the new experience of having my son take on the role of teacher. Afterward, we read books and played with Lego. I realize I'm not going to win any Mother of the Year awards, but we both laughed – and learned – a lot. Sometimes parental survival means getting creative.