By Bec Oakley

My kids have been playing Minecraft for years, and we often play it together as a family. Over that time I’ve given a lot of thought to the ins and outs of the game – watching how they play and what they learn, listening to my friends’ experiences with their kids, reading a LOT of articles about the ways people are using the game and whether they’re having success with that.

My conclusion is that playing Minecraft can be an incredibly positive and worthwhile experience for kids, but there are definitely a lot of parents who are either running into problems with the game or questioning whether it’s okay for their kids to play (and they often have good reasons for this).

But in this article we’re going to take a look at some of the considerable benefits that kids can get from playing the game.

Although Minecraft is marketed as a game, it wasn’t long before universities, schools and homeschoolers alike started exploring its enormous potential as a tool for education. Not only is it being used in the classroom to teach language, history and math, but the game itself naturally teaches a wide range of concepts – logic, problem solving, goal setting, science, economics and literacy to name just a few.

In Minecraft, kids experiment, take risks and learn from their mistakes in a fun and engaging environment. I use it all the time in homeschool, for things like teaching social scripts and building Egyptian pyramids and explaining the way car engines work… it’s a really handy tool for me.

Minecraft is not just another video game, where players sit passively staring at a screen as they run around trying to collect points or shoot bad guys. It’s an immersive and interactive playground, where the constant challenges require the brain to work really hard during every moment of the game.

Coming up with solutions to problems leads the player through pretty complex thought processes, the ones at the highest and most complex levels of thinking known as executive functions – memory, planning, attention, organization. I even wrote a whole post in which I analyzed Minecraft using Bloom’s taxonomy of learning behaviours and found that:

“… not only does the game train kids to acquire and retain information, it encourages them to pull all that knowledge together and use it in new ways.”

At its most basic level Minecraft is a very safe game for kids to play. There’s no sex, drugs, bad language, guns or blood. The violence is minimal and not graphic, mostly used for survival rather than combat, and can be totally avoided if you want. Even the most potentially unsafe aspect of the game – playing on a multiplayer server – can be made as safe as you need it to be.

Minecraft encourages kids to be creative and curious, as they explore and build and discover inside a world that they design and control. It’s a virtually limitless toolbox for bringing the imagination into existence. Want to build a working computer? How about the Enterprise? Or maybe the entire earth? How about using it to propose to your girlfriend or teach a class during a flood? The things that people create in this game are nothing short of amazing.

Not only can Minecraft have a superglue-like hold over a player’s attention, it’s a game where that intense focus is fostered and rewarded. Being able to successfully keep track of several tasks at once and all the different things that are going on around you is a complex skill to develop, and is the key to surviving and enjoying the game.

At a time when there’s so much concern over the apparent inability of kids to pay attention and stay engaged, it’s remarkable to watch how they can so easily spend many hours on end for days/weeks/months at a time building and planning and working on their many self-initiated Minecraft projects.

Another cool thing about Minecraft is that the files that run the game are accessible to be modified by the player. This means that for the first time a lot of kids are really becoming interested in how software like this is put together – how it’s coded, what makes it run – and want to learn how to edit these files themselves to customize the way the game looks and acts. They’re figuring out how computers work and teaching themselves programming, researching on the internet, making videos and using graphics editors – the tools that their generation will build their careers upon.

Minecraft is an incredibly flexible game, with options that allow you to tailor it to your kids’ abilities and the way they like to play and learn – turn the monsters off, make the challenges more difficult, set goals for them to complete, play alongside each other or let them discover on their own. It’s a game that can grow with the player as they become more skilled and knowledgeable, and there’s a huge array of user-created modifications to adapt the game to just about every level of ability and area of interest.

One of the best things about Minecraft is that it’s equally well-suited to lots of different types of players – those who like to design and build stuff enjoy it just as much as those that want to run off and fight monsters. The problem solvers, the tinkerers and the storytellers have as much fun as those who want to create and foster communities. Kids at different levels of experience and ability can play together in the same world, and whole families can join each other on adventures or work on collaborative projects.

Speaking of collaboration, Minecraft is great at not only teaching kids to work together but encouraging them to do so. While it’s not mandatory to join forces with others, players soon learn that survival is more likely when you work in a team – shelters are quicker to build, resources easier to collect and there’s safety in numbers when it comes to monster attacks. Acting selfishly or aggressively towards other team members often comes at a great cost too.

Minecraft costs around $30 for the computer version and less for the pocket edition or XBox 360 – after that initial outlay, all the subsequent updates are free. Considering that many kids are still playing it years after first getting the game (and don’t show much sign of slowing down), that’s a pretty good investment. Not to mention there’s a huge source of free mods and texture packs to keep things interesting, and free image editors and video software that kids can use if they want to get into making their own stuff to share.

So that’s some of the many good things about Minecraft when it comes to kids. But it’s important to remember that it’s a game that was never specifically designed with them in mind, and so naturally there are aspects to it that can be a problem for some families. The good news is that most of these things are fixable!