Chill. It turns out that Minecraft builds up brain cells instead of dissolving them.
Minecraft isn’t about bloody broadswords and burning rubber. It has no complex story lines or gorgeously rendered images of alien soldiers. Instead, it’s filled with people, animals, trees and buildings that look as if they were built from digital Legos. And in a way, they were: The Minecraft universe is made up of blocks representing materials such as dirt, trees, stone, ores and water. Players mine and then use these blocks to craft the shelters, tools and weapons they need to protect themselves against nightly attacks from monsters called “mobs.”
Along the way, Minecraft’s young players learn things like computer coding, engineering, architecture, urban planning and math.
“I just love the programming aspect. It allows you to change the game itself,” says Aiden LaFrance, a 10-year-old from Raton, New Mexico, who has been playing Minecraft since he was 6. Aiden’s latest project is a portcullis — the defensive gate that protected medieval castles — that rises automatically when a character walks in front of it. He details his work on YouTube, complete with an explanation of how double-piston extenders and a torch tower make it work.
“I would love to be a programmer,” says Aiden. “I see Minecraft as helping me get there.”
Minecraft offers two basic ways to play. In survival mode, you mine raw materials like trees and coal, and then craft shelter and light so you withstand the mobs’ nightly onslaught. Creative mode lets you build without limits so you can devise architectural whimsies like flying castles or interactive constructions such as booby traps for capturing the bad guys.
Kids pick up more advanced computer skills through Minecraft’s “command blocks” — code that changes the rules of the game. That can be anything, from altering the weather to generating an invincible flying squid.
Swedish developer Mojang released Minecraft in 2009. Since then, the game has attracted more than 100 million registered users. So far, more than 70 million copies have been sold for Windows PCs and Apple Mac computers, Xbox and PlayStation game consoles, and mobile devices running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems.
Microsoft was so impressed it bought Mojang in 2014 for $2.5 billion.
Today, educators use Minecraft to help teach everything from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to language, history and art. But it’s the kids who showed the way, turning Minecraft into a constructive tool by publishing tutorials, sharing designs and code, and helping each other online.
“Minecraft caught everybody off guard,” says Johan Kruger, a programmer known in the Minecraft world as Dragnoz. His YouTube tutorials are watched by more than 129,000 subscribers. “Before anybody knew its power or that it could be educational, the kids already took over and owned the world.”
Minecraft-literate kids often run rings around parents wanting to keep up. That was definitely true for Aiden’s parents, Garrett and Liz LaFrance, who incorporated the game into Aiden’s home-school studies. “He ended up teaching us most of what we know about Minecraft,” says his mom.