Electron Dance
13Jan/15Off

The Family That Plays Together

minecraft-family-mummy

Since becoming parents, my wife and I have been terrible at carving out special time to spend together. The last two films we watched together in the cinema were: Inception and Guardians of the Galaxy. If you check out IMDB you'll discover these films define a gap of four years.

Although we always talk over the serious events of today and the serious plans of tomorrow during the post-dinner cleanup, we inevitably end up doing things separately to maximise productivity and are rarely free at the same time. And as we exist in a perpetual state of near-exhaustion, if we do attempt to snuggle up in front of the TV in the evening, the warm comfort of another body means at least one of us ends up watching a dream instead of a film.

We just don’t seem to do things together any more. That is until Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) came along.

It all started when our 6-year old son, K, came home one day and asked about Minecraft. He said a friend had started playing it. I greeted this question liked I’d been told a close relative had died, having avoided Minecraft for years. But I knew this day had been coming.

Before K could play it, I had to check it out first, grapple with purchase, installation, configuration and the basics of play. Otherwise when my son would inevitably ask how to do this and how to do that, I would appear clueless, which breaks one of the sacred eight laws of fatherhood.

Yet within days my worst fears were confirmed. I had become a Minecraft addict, precisely the reason I kept my distance all those years. Whenever one activity became boring, there was another to switch to. I rotated through crafting to building to caving to crafting again. I knew The Talos Prinicple (Croteam, 2014) was out and loved the demo but, as I quipped on Twitter, Minecraft is a boot stamping on videogames' face forever.

I set K up in creative mode but it only took a week before he made a demand to play survival mode. It was all my fault. I kept telling him my Minecraft stories of braving the depths and gathering resources, which sounded plenty more enticing than virtual Lego. Everything was awesome, just not awesome enough. “I want to play the Minecraft game where the animals do attack you,” announced the note tacked to the wall. He put it on the wall to make sure no one forgot, to ensure we took it seriously. No nonsense, please, parents.

i-want-to-play-survival-mode

I gave him a brand new world, one throbbing with danger, and schooled him in how to create a shelter quickly before the first nightfall.

The Minecraft contagion then spread to our 4-year-old daughter L. She likes playing games too but her boredom threshold is only 15mm above sea level. I wasn’t sure if it was just “me too”-ism or whether she was genuinely interested, but L made her own Minecraft request through the medium of continuous harassment. No notes on the wall for her, she just kept repeating I want to play Miner-craft until the words echoed through my nightmares. I set her up in creative mode and let her wander around. Both children needed support and I spent too much time swiping the mouse away from them, especially as K's house seemed to be under siege from the armies of evil every night. I wanted them to take more control.

As their Minecraft education progressed, I went from making an ugly home into developing a minecart rail system which would take me to distant places. I started with one line punching a tunnel through Companion, the mountain next to my home. The picaxe tunnelling took awhile, but I was pleased with my achievement. I am easily pleased with my achievements.

minecraft-companion-heart-station

But my wife, who has been on a gaming fast since Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012) dominated her life for a few weeks, had discovered Minecraft was interesting to watch. She’s an explorer-player like myself and when she saw these deep and complex cave systems riddling the land, she was hooked. Whenever I was crafting or building, she would keep asking “Are you going to go in a cave at some point..?” because crafting and building were not the reasons she was watching this particular show.

One night she had waited so patiently to see a new cave that, at midnight, guilt prompted me to go in search of one for her. I think I searched for the better part of an hour and eventually found a decent cave real far from home which I called the Pythagoras Cavern. It turned out to be particularly rich in diamonds, gold and redstone – and also rich in danger. I died down there in a creeper ambush, an incident that genuinely upset me due to the grievous loss of the mined ore I had been lugging around.

Which is to say my wife learnt all about Minecraft from watching me and asking the occasional question. And browsing the occasional Minecraft wiki. And, as I later learnt, watching the occasional Minecraft video behind my back.

Over Christmas, I completed a long extension of the Companion Line to a desert I had found. It took days to build out and drained most of the material we had excavated from Pythagoras. I threw together a makeshift station with a small office which housed just a crafting table, a bed and a chest then set off to explore a nearby cave I called Bracken. I'm always apprehensive about hitting a new cave because you never know how large it's going to be and it’s easy to get lost. Bracken took the biscuit, though. It just kept going on and on, with vast underground canyons that were dizzying to navigate and an abandoned mine infested with poisonous cave spiders. After gathering a lot of ore, wood and string from down there, I pulled the plug and ended our underground exploration. I couldn't handle the anxiety for more than a couple of hours.

I was still unhappy that “help” was a synonym for “stealing the mouse” so, during K’s next Minecraft session, I sought to get LAN play working. After twenty minutes of messing around with config files and the router, I joined K’s world as “Daddy” from my upstairs PC. This transformed K’s play. I took him into a cave and made sure he was safe, pointing out coal and iron deposits. Instead of cowering inside his house at night, K came outside to help Daddy clear the area – felling trees, placing torches, fighting off the hordes. Sometimes running for our lives. K was still not quite at ease with the controls but, as I was in a different room, my wife had to help him out instead. Despite never playing Minecraft, she was already a veteran from our joint late-night explorations.

I wanted to cool off after the tense descent into Bracken, and switched to building for my next session. After finding a temple not far from the desert rail station, I had this idea to rebuild the station to look like a pyramid. My wife watched some of my efforts... but her interest was flatlining.

minecraft-sanctuary-of-sand-station

As I had mastered the art of LAN play, I suggested she could join my Minecraft world to speed things up.

We played Minecraft together for about four hours until 3am. I spent that time digging out and designing a chamber underneath the pyramid station, rapidly turning into a home away from home. My wife tended to the crops and a fold of blue sheep I had been rearing. She also took the initiative to explore some caves alone and picked them clean. Every now and then, I’d hear her come through the door of the station above, throw a few things into a chest then clear off. Once she even said that if I was hungry, she’d put some food in the chest for me.

Since becoming parents, my wife and I have been terrible at carving out special time to spend together. We inevitably end up doing things separately to maximise productivity and we are rarely free at the same time. The irony is when we finally played Minecraft together, we did precisely the same thing in its virtual world.

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  1. It’s a perfect 21st Century family activity! And it must be gratifying as a parent to be able to encourage something like this, not just to fuel your own secret habit but because it really is a valuable learning tool for K and L. For example, they have learned that animals can attack! I didn’t learn this until a dog bit me when I was eight years old, so your kids are well ahead of me.

    I’ve never played Minecraft online, but I’m occasionally captivated by the solo play. I say “occasionally” because my interest flares for a few weeks, during which I play Minecraft obsessively (usually relearning things I’d forgotten, so I never really make much progress), then it wilts and I move on to other things. After a while the open-ness loses a bit of luster for me, but the achievement that is Minecraft is just remarkable. Playing as a family must be a delight.

  2. Little w is huge into Knytt Underground (since you didn’t do a year-end roundup, by the way: Game Of The Year, hands down). “Play the Mi game!” he says, or “I want to do bouncy ball!” Right now I’m stuck in the middle of super-hard secret area which is a bit disappointing for him. Then the other day he saw me finishing English Country Tune and now he sometimes wants me to play that, which I find a bit odd, because it seems like it wouldn’t appeal from either the graphics standpoint or the understanding what is going on standpoint.

    …the problem with Knytt Underground is that by the time his platforming skills are really advanced enough to play by himself he’ll be able to read all of Cilia’s dialogue.

  3. @Steerpike: Indeed, there are some real educational aspects – Minecraft likes numbers and also there are other aspects like why coal is under the ground, why we can’t make it. My children are too young, though, to really handle the PC version of the game, although their mouse/3D space negotiation skills are definitely improving. I believe K’s friends are using the Pocket Edition which I guess is easier due to being a touchscreen game. We’re slow players and I can’t spend time on Minecraft during the week – it’s deadly in terms of getting to bed on time – so we’ve not exhausted it’s possibility space yet. We just visited the Nether for the first time.

    @Matt: I remember trying out Knytt Underground on Nifflas’ laptop while it was still under development and it’s a shame I haven’t had a go since it came out. But there are so many games. It’s ridiculous how many.

    My problem (and I’m sure it’s not just mine) is that the children want to play what the grown-ups play and shy away from kids’ games. I need to research better other options but, for now, Minecraft has destroyed absolutely everything. I assume Cilia’s dialogue is… for adults?

    If you remember my son was really into Full Bore but that game becomes *rock hard*, requiring a lot of sitting and staring at the screen. He wanted me to play it but he got totally bored, pushing me to keep exploring. You can’t keep doing that forever, so the game has effectively been abandoned.

  4. Wonderful, and I love the message on the wall. So adorable. K has great handwriting already!

    As a child I used to love playing games with my parents and grandparents (who introduced me to the Spectrum way back). At first, we just played whatever my granddad had got, and of course, games weren’t easy back then. But we got better, and before long we had our own system and were buying magazines and eyeing up the rows of tapes down at the post office. Over the years there were the occasional twitch games we played with my dad (usually racing) and I got my mum to play Golden Axe once (she broke the game), but the real time sink with my parents was on adventure games and to this day I wish I could still while away lazy afternoons with them like that.

    Minecraft however, man, I can’t even begin to comprehend how incredible that must be for a child, especially if you’ve got a LAN setup for family adventures and projects. Amazing.

    Despite sinking a good 10 hours or so into Minecraft, I am yet to play with beasties and survival turned on. I still don’t know what a Creeper sounds like, or what Endermen(?) do. It was bad enough running into a lost pig in one of those dark caves, never mind something that could kill me!

  5. @Gregg: Endermen are terrifying, at least to me. When they’re not aware of you they emit a squeaking sound that’d be kind of cute if you didn’t know what was making it. They teleport short distances and enjoy moving random blocks around with their long arms. Endermen won’t attack you…unless you look at them. If your crosshair ever centers on an Enderman for more than a second or so, it FREAKS OUT and starts roaring and blinking around. Your best bet is to get your back against a thick wall (it tries to teleport behind you) and swing wildly. I have also found screaming in a high-pitched voice can be efficacious.

    When I first tried Minecraft I didn’t know you could play without monsters, so I always play with them on or else the game seems sort of dull. It can be pretty hard under these circumstances, of course, and Creepers (which make a hiss like a fuse burning down, BTW) can ruin the best-laid plans.

    The idea of Minecraft to a child’s mind must be so magical. A basically endless world, full of secrets and vast places to explore. Not only that, but a world they can change and manipulate, where they can build remarkable things and, if playing in a group like Harbour Master’s family, can see other remarkable things their parents and siblings built. The other lovely thing about Minecraft is there’s very little objectionable in it. The game can be quite scary, in the sense of jump scares when a Creeper attacks or when you’re waiting for the worst to happen underground, but there’s no blood or dark themes or anything.

    Its ability to teach logic through proofs, and things like circuits with Redstone machinery, is also amazing. Young kids can explore for the wonder of it while older ones will learn without realizing they’re doing something educational.

    Kids do want to play what their parents play, and these days that’s a problem. When we were all young, most games were pretty light – text adventures and what have you – but you can’t play The Last of Us with an eight year old in the room. It’s rare to find something that works across all ages.

  6. “If your crosshair ever centers on an Enderman for more than a second or so, it FREAKS OUT and starts roaring and blinking around.”

    Sounds like SCP-096!

  7. Yes please to teaching logic/circuits through redstone! That really would be an amazing boon. But I’ve always been too intimidated by them to do anything remotely ambitious circuit-wise.

  8. @Gregg: I do also wonder if Minecraft is spoiling them for other games! I’m looking forward to a time when the whole family is able to work on a Minecraft map together – right now, so much handholding is required, only one parent can be inside with one child.

    The game becomes less terrifying as you go along but it still has its moments. My wife and I were really up against when last week when we took on Bracken as a joint enterprise (finally!). Bloody hell, the spider infestation was really hard. I was so jumpy, because they were everywhere.

    I find the crafting system an inconsistent mess (the craft pattern for a book is kind of ugly, and some of the food crafting is particularly atrocious).

    Hah, the sound of a Creeper is… well, *mainly* silence! It creeps, Gregg. IT CREEPS.

    @Steerpike: Yeah my wife does not like the sound of the Endermen although I find they’re not very difficult to beat. Maybe it’s my diamond sword that does it. Or perhaps my good looks.

    Oh but god damn Creepers. They mess things up so many times!

    We try to limit the time for the children but that also makes the play feel quite truncated all the time. The problem we’ve had for a long time – and we’ve only had variable success managing it – is that ending play can spawn a Grumpy Child. And a Grumpy Child can remain spawned until nightfall.

    @Matt: What I recall from memory is that Endermen were “based” on Slenderman but that SCP entry does seem similar…

    @James: The Redstone stuff hurts my head. I hope to give it a real go at some point.