There are going to be a lot of people getting rather cross about an article written by BBC journalist Jolyon Jenkins about Minecraft, children and parenting.
Titled Should parents ever worry about Minecraft? it includes a number of questions about whether Minecraft is entirely healthy for kids, from addiction and lessening interest in the real world through to the prospect of “children being digitally mugged” by other players.
Jenkins clearly knows that he’ll have critics, referring to “Minecraft’s champions”, “the other side” and “the opposition” in the piece when suggesting how they might try to counter his arguments, setting this up as a battle.
At this point, as someone who writes regularly about children and technology – Minecraft included – I’m probably expected to saddle up and charge into battle, laying waste to Jenkins’ arguments.
Actually, though, he makes some points worth talking about in a much more balanced and less adversarial way. My main response boils down to this: wouldn’t it be better for parents to understand Minecraft rather than worry about it?
Because once they understand the game and what their children are getting out of it, they’ll have a much better base of knowledge to make parenting decisions about and around it – from setting time limits to ensuring it’s complemented by other activities.
Parenting, judging by my experience with my five and seven year-old sons, is about a.) worrying constantly, and b.) trying to make informed decisions about setting boundaries in response to those worries.
Sometimes, those worries spring from the ability of pretty much every child – as far as I can make out – to get addicted to (or at least obsessed by – I share Jenkins’ hesitance to bandy around “addiction” as a word here) pretty much anything that they enjoy doing.
My seven year-old would happily play Angry Birds Star Wars games for hours on the tablet if left unchecked. He’d eat Bear Yoyos until he was sick in order to collect more of the monster cards that come with them.
He’d read non-fiction endlessly instead of stories; have the same album playing every day for a month in the car during the school-run; and watch Disney XD for so long that the programmes would start repeating.
The point is that he doesn’t, because there are boundaries. Tablet time lasts for 15 minutes every evening; Bear Yoyo packets are rationed; stories are read; different albums played whatever the howls of protest from the back seat; and TV time is also carefully managed.
I get lots of things wrong in my parenting – oh yes, c.) parenting is about winging it most of the time, and frequently regretting your mistakes – but the point is that I’m not worried about apps, fruity sweets or music as things, any more than I will be about Minecraft when and if that time comes.
Jenkins makes some important points about the nature of Minecraft fandom: the fact that children don’t just play, but they also watch other people play through YouTube channels like Stampy and Yogscast.
Still: parents set the boundaries here too, at least for younger children – for teenagers with their own smartphones and tablets or computers in their bedrooms, there’s a whole new kettle of worries in store, but they’re far from restricted to a single game.
Cyberbullying? Pornography? The prospect of both in my sons’ future makes my stomach lurch more than any game.
Jenkins’ piece makes some points that few parents would disagree with. “Children should be exercising more than their mouse fingers.” Yes, physical exercise is important (but it’s not an either/or thing with computer use).
“Reading allows you to imaginatively inhabit other minds.” No arguments on that score either (but it’s not an either/or thing with playing games).
These feel a bit like straw-man arguments, but they do point to what parents should really be worrying about, which is the overall balance of their children’s entertainment and activities, rather than about one of those individual activities.
The BBC piece praises the impact Minecraft has had with some children on the autism spectrum – something my colleague Keith Stuart has written about beautifully in regards to his own son – but goes on to question whether this is an issue for other children:
“The fact that Minecraft is such a good fit for some autistic children is, to my mind, a reason why parents of neurotypical children might be wary of it. It’s a universe where the social cues are sparse, communication is limited, and the environment simplistic.”
For me, those limitations are some of Minecraft’s strengths, because they’re what spur children to fill in the gaps from their own imaginations.
However, having bagged a ticket for the game’s upcoming Minecon convention , I’m hoping to hear more there about how Minecraft is evolving on this front, as well as more about what kind of environments and communication children are using it for.
I may disagree with Jenkins’ interpretation, but I’m glad that these questions are being raised: they’re a sign that Minecraft is being taken seriously, which in turn will lead to better understanding among parents.
For now, though, there’s a simpler way for parents who don’t feel they understand Minecraft to build their knowledge: sit down next to your child and watch them. Ask questions. See if they’ll teach you how to play it with them.
This doesn’t mean you’ll avoid having to make decisions about the amount of time your child spends in Minecraft’s beguiling “hyper-reality” rather than the unblocky real world, but it does mean you’ll have a better idea – with less worries – about what they’re up to, and how it can fit into their life. – By Stuart Dredge
Image – AFP