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There is a rabbit staring up at me, and I swear it's pleading for its life with its huge, square eyes.

"You have to kill it," my son says.

"Why do I have to kill it?"

"Because otherwise you'll starve."

With a silent apology to the deity of virtual rabbits, I swing my pickaxe at its head. That is, I stab frantically at the W and Q keys. I click the right mouse button repeatedly. My avatar on screen spins helplessly and falls off a ledge. The rabbit, smug now, leaps away.

My son grabs the laptop from me, shaking his head. "You are not ready to play this game. Okay, we'll start again." In the cruel fashion of life's crushing wheel, I am reminded of all those times I rolled my eyes at my own mother when she sat confounded by the buttons on her cellphone. I have reached that stage in life: Clueless Mother. It's not the stage where roses are thrown at you from the front row, in case you were wondering.

Still, I feel as if I'm learning the password to a secret society, because the game my 13-year-old is trying to teach me is Minecraft. If you have children, it's entirely likely that your kids are also Minecraft obsessives. If you read the business pages, you might know that Microsoft bought Mojang, the Swedish company that makes Minecraft, for $2.5-billion. It seems an extraordinary amount of money to spend on a bunch of rag-tag Swedish programmers and their deliberately lo-fi games, but really what Microsoft is buying is invaluable: the hearts and minds of millions of kids who spend, cumulatively, millions of hours every year hanging out with each other online, building virtual worlds, killing rabbits and trying not to be eaten by monsters.

The game's website wonderfully encapsulates the laid-back ethos of the game's creator, Markus (Notch) Persson: "Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks." It is, in the same way bread is about putting flour, water and yeast in a bowl. This is more canvas than game. There is nothing to win. The player is "spawned" in a world that looks like a low-rent video game from the 1980s, and must build tools and shelters while avoiding slaughter by rampaging zombies and creepers. But people, being people, don't stop at just shelters: They build spaceships and cities and the Taj Mahal and, in one magnificent case, recreate the entire Earth in pixelated blocks.

But first, I must try not to be eaten by zombies. "Shut the door," my son says urgently. "Shut the door!" It is my first night in Minecraft, and on your first night you must make a shelter or the beasts outside will get you (this is a deliberate metaphor for life, Markus Persson told The New Yorker last year – most newbies don't survive their first night). With my son's help – okay, with absolutely no input from me – we have carved out a bit of rock, and the zombies are safely at bay.

"We're like cavemen," my son says, "except we've got a nice 21st-century door." It occurs to me that we are having the best conversation we've had all week. I have learned, for example, that my son had to watch "literally kajillions of videos" before becoming adept at the game. As I watch his fingers flying Horowitz-like over the keyboard, I decide it's not the best time to discuss the difference between "literally" and "figuratively." And he's the one holding the pickaxe.

After much fumbling, I amass an inventory of treasures that includes two sticks, a raw pork chop, and a hammer. Much like my real-life wealth, in other words. My son is remarkably patient, more patient than I was when I taught him about shapes and numbers, the danger of traffic and the joys of swimming. Still, there is no question that I'm here as his guest, an adult interloper in a children's world.

Minecraft isn't just a game, it's a meeting place. Adults play it as well, but kids use it in a specific and interesting way, as a place to chat, interact and work together. They use it the way we would have used the telephone, or the mall, or the record store – as a refuge and sanctuary from the annoying realm of adults. A place where they can, for once, control their own worlds.

It's time to give him back the controls. But first, we talk about how Mr. Persson left Minecraft after the Microsoft deal, apparently distressed by his critics and by the unwanted fame the game had brought him. We talk about how literature and myth are filled with characters who are destroyed by the things they create. We talk about how cool it is that Notch Persson built this thing in the first place, just because it was fun, and managed to bring happiness to so many people along the way.

"The thing I like about it is that it doesn't really have a goal," my son says. "Well, you can try to find diamonds, but that doesn't matter. It's just about building stuff and making a life."

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