When my kids first asked me if they could download Minecraft, the only questions I asked were these:
1. does it cost money?
2. what is Minecraft?
The answers are basically, it depends and a game where you build stuff. So I let them download the free version, and watched with interest as they entered this strange CG world that reminded me of nothing so much as all the cheesy low-res video games I loved to play in the 90s. The sigle-player, free version seemed pretty harmless, and I actually remember likening the experience to digital lego to a friend.
You basically wander (or fly) around, alone, building and collecting stuff. And the building that some people do on Minecraft is truly amazing. Buildings, roads, statues and even artwork...it's pretty gnarly.
Sadly, a good friend of theirs was highly immersed in the multi-player Minecraft experience and between them all, they convinced me to buy a license for the full version of the game. A one time charge of about $28, it seemed okay. Looking back now, though, I see it as the real tipping-point in what has become a real problem in our house.
At first, the problems were related to the kinds of "chat" my kids were exposed to from strangers on the multiplayer servers. Swearing, occasional sexual references and lots of aggressive "ima kill u"-type stuff, and my parental alarm bells were going off loudly.
And then there was the friend from school who kept calling my daughters by name on the public server they all played on, despite all the care we took to create usernames that wouldn't give away the fact that they are young girls. And then there were the fights about being whitelisted or blacklisted on servers administered by other friends. The crying jags after logging in and finding someone had "griefed" their base, carefully crafted over hours and hours online. The time when the same girl from school offered my older daughter a diamond (or something), only to kill her in an explosion, right on her "spawning" spot, so that every time she re-entered the game after dying, she would immediately die in the same explosion again, in a never-ending cycle of death. Nice.
And of course the real-world stuff: the bickering matches between both girls over who could use the computer, when, and for how long. The more escalated bickering involving me telling them to turn off the computer and do homework/chores/go to bed.
And then came the last straw. I got up to go to the washroom and noticed a faint blue light coming out from underneath my 11 year-old's bedroom door. I opened it to find her propped up against the pillows, laptop on her chest, "crafting" away. At 1:38 a.m. On a school night.
A talk about trustworthiness, privileges, limits and even addiction ensued. And I considered deleting the game altogether. After a little more thought, though, I decided to keep the account, and set stricter limits on screen time in my family. I think the better life lesson is all things in moderation, including Minecraft, rather than it's all or nothing. We'll see how it goes over the next few weeks. In the end, I may have to pull rank and just delete this addictive, nefarious influence!
In a way I'm actually disappointed at the thought I may have to go that far. You see, on its own, Minecraft has the potential to be a beautiful game with endless creative possibilities. And as in life, most people involved in playing it are there for the same reasons - to have fun and share the creative, immersive experience. But alas, also as in life, all it takes is a few rotten apples to spoil the whole bushel. By that I mean the nasties who take pleasure in prowling around destroying beautiful things others have built, stealing treasures others have collected, and killing other players.
The alternative, of course, is to help the girls create their own server and monitor who is allowed to join them on it. Recently I did this, and many of the problems we experienced before have been eliminated. But the fact remains: this game is highly addictive. When my kids are at home, they are clamouring to be on the computer playing Minecraft. When I tell them to turn it off, I get either "one second" or a ruder, terser response. Homework has suffered. Friendships have suffered. Bedtime has really suffered. But most of all, family relations have suffered.
And that's altogether too high a price to pay for a game.