One mother’s reluctant journey to understand what her son loves most.
I’m sure there was a time when the soundtrack of my life didn’t include non-stop commentary on Minecraft, but I have little memory of it. I couldn’t even tell you when JR, our almost-seven-year-old, started playing Minecraft, it’s that woven into our family’s daily rhythm and conversations. The kid loves it. When he’s not playing it (or talking about playing it), he’s watching videos of other people playing it. He lives and breathes this game. And while I love to gripe about the hold Minecraft has on our son, I’ve also come to really, really love it1.
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For those of you not familiar with Minecraft, allow me to explain in it the simplest terms I can conjure2…
Minecraft is what’s called a “sandbox” video game. It’s open-ended play with no specific tasks to accomplish. Instead you roam about a randomly-generated pixelated world to build things, maybe destroy some other things, and basically see what you can create.
Minecraft offers two modes of play, both of which can be enjoyed solo or with multiple buds: creative mode and survival mode.
In creative mode you have access to all the materials, tools, and whatnots within the game’s arsenal to use however you like–build a house, start a pumpkin farm, construct an amusement park, you name it. You live forever and can even fly!
In survival mode you start with nothing and are left to gather resources (like wood, stone, coal) that can be crafted into more complex resources and/or items (like pickaxes, swords, various pieces of furniture) that you then use to build. You can die and cannot fly. And, depending on your preferred difficulty level, you might find yourself fighting off zombies.
BUT THAT’S SO NOT IT.
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When my husband downloaded Minecraft: Pocket Edition to JR’s hand-me-down iPad, bringing this force into our lives, playing it was strictly a father-son activity. Not because I have anything against video games; I just couldn’t care about it. Like, at all. After years spent fielding constant chatter about Ninjago and Pokemon, I had reached my limit; there was simply no space left in my brain to invest in another elementary school obsession. Once JR realized that any Minecraft comment directed my way would receive a blank stare in reply, he saved up his thoughts for when his dad got home from work. This strategy worked for many, many months.
Then summer came.
Sure, we spent time hanging out at the pool and filling up JR’s summer reading log. I jammed his days with camps, vacation Bible schools, and playdates as best I could. But despite my best efforts, the inevitable loosey-goosiness of summer prevailed, leaving us with lots of hours to fill. By the time July hit, the endless chirping of “Wanna play Minecraft?” was no longer solely directed at my husband.
I bought myself some time by claiming I had too much work to do3. I bought some more time by insisting I needed to “look into” downloading the app to my iPad. But eventually I had a realization: my kid is almost seven. I’ve got maybe (maybe) three more years of him actually wanting to hang out with me. I could suppress my cringes long enough to at least give this madness a try.
I downloaded the app secretly one afternoon during his rest time. I didn’t open it right away; it seemed appropriate to wait for him to introduce me to this world of his.
Per his afternoon routine, JR ambled down the stairs and half-heartedly asked if I would play Minecraft with him.
“Sure,” I answered nonchalantly.
“Christmas Morning Face” is the only way I can describe his reaction.
As we snuggled up together on the couch, iPad to iPad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. JR is one of those people who understands things extremely quickly, and he’s not always patient with those who don’t. He can also be really, really bossy4. And chatty5. I didn’t want this potentially sweet moment to crumble into a weepy, dramatic mess.
“Now remember: I’ve never played Minecraft before. I have no clue what I’m doing,” I warned him.
“I need you to be patient with me.”
“And please give me a chance to understand what you’re saying; don’t just keep talking.”
Minutes after we started playing I realized how much I was underestimating the kid. I’d developed a vague understanding of Minecraft after spending months inadvertently overhearing JR yammer on about it, but I really needed him to walk me through every aspect of the game. And he did so with such patience and kindness, never once laughing at what a n00b I was. Part of me thought he’d get fed up and drop the idea of us playing together, but he was so into it–he and I spending this time together doing this thing he loves so much.
He even pulled from his own stockpile of wood and cobblestone to build me a pickaxe so I could cut down trees faster6. That’s basically the Minecraft equivalent of him laying his coat down over a mud puddle in my path.
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The first world I built by myself in Minecraft is still my favorite.7
JR and I had been at it off and on for a couple of weeks, usually pecking away at a new Minecraft world in the 30 minutes or so before his dad (i.e. the preferred building partner8) got home from work. JR would generate the world on his iPad and then, through the magic of the Internet, I’d eventually join him to see what he was up to. While I rarely initiated our Minecraft sessions, I always enjoyed them. JR’s enthusiasm for the game was (and is) contagious, and I was consistently blown away by most of the things he created–complex and clever structures that seemed to just slip out of his brain and onto the screen.
One night, after JR and his dad were both asleep, I found myself feeling restless and distracted. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t focus on a book long enough to settle down. So I crept downstairs, iPad in hand, and settled into the arm chair in our living room.
I opened the app.
I tapped “Play” and then “New” to create a new world. I called it “Mama Loves JR” because, well, I do.
Then I started to build.
I built a house with a swimming pool in the backyard and a fire pit in the front.
I built a treehouse in a giant spruce tree next to a lake. It had three levels and no roof so you could see the stars when the sun went down.
I built a ridiculously tall tower out of obsidian and then turned it into a waterfall. I added a sign at the top that sad “JR’s Jump” because he really likes to build anything resembling a waterslide.
I dug out the side of a mountain and built another house in there, this time with a bed for me and a bed for JR. I spawned two dogs9 and named them Pongo and Pip.
When I finally looked up at the clock almost two hours had passed. I knew I’d pay for the late night come morning, but I didn’t care. Not only was my restlessness long gone; it felt good to invest time into understanding and appreciating what my son was so excited about.
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The next afternoon, JR came down from rest time to find me already sitting on the couch with my iPad in-hand, working on my world from the previous night.
“Wanna play Minecraft?” I asked.
A huge grin took over his face as he grabbed his iPad off the counter and plopped down next to me.
“What is ‘Mama Loves JR’?” he exclaimed as he opened the app.
I didn’t have time to answer. Before I knew it he was in, poking around and discovering the little treasures I’d built just for him.
He bounced. He squealed. He might have cried a few happy tears.
Then he built bigger, better, and crazier versions of what I’d made the night before, providing a nonstop, glee-filled narration in the process. Because that’s what happens when he plays Minecraft: he becomes a caricature of himself. He’s exuberant and brave and relentless and innovative and unassuming and rowdy and silly and so very sweet. He’s so completely him, all at once. It is a sight to see.
And I’m really glad I’m making time to see it.
- It’s kind of like an obnoxious/well-meaning relative for me at this point. ↩
- Spare me your “actually…” comments, Minecraft aficionados. I’m trying to make this info accessible for everyone. Also: trying to explain Minecraft to someone who’s never heard of or seen it makes you feel like a total tool. ↩
- Which was not untrue. When two of your three part-time jobs are freelance, summer break can really throw a wrench into your work schedule. ↩
- Courtesy of me. ↩
- Courtesy of his dad. ↩
- I needed to hurry up and build my house before the sun set and the mobs came out. I’m telling you, this game is a whole…thing. ↩
- Ok, technically is was my second. But my first (called “Valsville”) consisted of a single one-room building, and I think I forgot to add a roof. ↩
- Probably because he’s willing to play in survival mode. I can’t handle it–too much pressure. ↩
- Yes, this is also a thing. ↩