This summer I spent many hours playing Minecraft, but I wasn’t building my own creations, nor was I fighting off monsters in dungeons. I was babysitting. You see, a friend’s daughter was spending the summer at her mother’s house, a place she did not want to be. Her father added her onto his Minecraft server so that she would have something to do during her Summer stay. I immediately saw the value of spending quality time with the child, something I hadn’t been able to do for years since I live across the country from them. What resulted was a very interesting couple of weeks filled with adventure, learning, and growth for both Sarah* and me.
Unlike other games, Minecraft uniquely allows a child to connect with an experience that they know well – playing with blocks – and combines it with an open virtual environment where the rules are what you make of them. The result is a very powerful teaching tool for those that take advantage of it. Knowing that children crave company and learning, I did what I could to spend time with my young friend, and together we played the day away building villages, hunting monsters and adventuring across a virtual landscape. After this playtime with her ended, I was able to sit and think about all we learned playing Minecraft together, and how that relates to larger life lessons.
Respect is not one of those words that you can easily define to a ten-year-old. It’s a complex concept. When we normally tell a child to be respectful, we mean be polite, and usually equate such behavior with pleases and thank yous. In the world of Minecraft, playing on a multiplayer server, there are all sorts of ways in which to transform this abstract idea into concrete terms.
Respect in Minecraft terms comes into play whenever you interact with someone else’s structures or items. In a multiplayer world where you cannot lock up your belongings, or even your house, there is a huge amount of trust involved when playing with another person. Children do not easily understand the concept of “not mine.” They quickly get the idea of “mine, not yours,” and will immediately jump on you for any action that threatens their belongings. But with an open system like Minecraft, the biggest tool you can have in teaching the idea of respect of someone else’s ownership is the use of the sign. Labeling a chest might seem like a simple idea, but it was this single tool that enabled me to quickly define boundaries between what was mine and what was hers. Sarah quickly picked up on this concept and from that point on labeled every chest, building, or area that she considered hers.
Sarah quickly learned the “not mine” concept, and also learned to start asking when she could enter someone else’s space. She had learned to respect the property of others, even though it was a virtual space made up only of pixels and time.
The idea of fair play is closely connected to the respect of the other, but mostly deals with how we interact with others. In Minecraft this usually manifests in barter agreements. If I take something from your chest, I put something back. If you spend your time helping me on my project, then I help you with yours the next time we play. Because the world of the child is so small, it tends to also be self-centered. I want to do what I enjoy, and only what I enjoy. Playing Minecraft with Sarah I was able to show her basic barter agreements, and how that improves our relationships with others. I always asked before I used her items, and always replaced them when I did. I always discussed my plans for a building project and asked for her help with tasks I knew she could accomplish. If she asked to have plants I had in my farming plot, I taught her how to replant and keep the cycle of growth going.
It wasn’t long before Sarah was splitting her time between helping me with my projects and working on her own. Sometimes this meant setting off to search for wolves to tame, other times this meant finishing a structure one of us had started. While she still wanted to do those things she enjoyed most, Sarah had also learned the value of helping others, and the joy you get from helping someone accomplish what they want to do.
Morality in Minecraft manifests in how you respond to the modding and/or manipulation of the physics of the world. Once Sarah had discovered the wonderful world of Minecraft Youtube videos, she plunged full bore into waving her magic op wand around, spawning mobs and items at will. This is something you can’t do in real life, so it provides a unique opportunity to teach about the limits we should place on our own power. There is a huge difference between “can’t” and “shouldn’t,” but rather than belabor that point, I led by example. I never told her she shouldn’t do something, I merely said – when discussing the subject of spawning for instance — that I found it more fun to do things on my own. I set up adventures, where we went out in search of creatures, mining digs where we hunted for rare gems beneath the earth, and building sites where we created home bases from our own hands.
I have always believed that when you cheat at a game where you make the rules you only cheat yourself. Solitaire is a great example of this, and I see Minecraft as an extension of this rule. It wasn’t long before Sarah was building things for herself despite her ability to spawn anything at will. She had learned “shouldn’t” to the point where she was equating spawning with cheating by the end of our playtime together. She had learned that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should – and I was amazingly proud of her for coming to that conclusion on her own.
What’s thrilling here is the real world application of lessons learned playing games like Minecraft. The world is just similar enough to our own to inform natural correlations. Yes, I can theoretically walk into someone’s home and take their things, but that’s disrespectful. It’s not that I shouldn’t do it because I would get caught, it’s that I shouldn’t do it because it violates the trust of the other. If I cheat on something as simple as a test, I am in fact cheating myself out of the learning experience required to pass the test on my own. If I help others with what they need instead of always expecting to do what I want, I will build relationships that will help make my life a more fulfilling one. In short, Minecraft can and does teach us to be better people. I watched it happen myself — saw respect flourish and moral judgments coalesce — and all because I decided to babysit in Minecraft.
Amanda Orneck, a guest poster here today at The Minecraft Sandbox, is Editor-and-Chief of Game Geex and writes on how Minecraft can make you a better person.
*Name has been changed