Despite the fact that Minecraft isn’t a game that was specifically designed for kids, millions have taken to it with a passion and loyalty usually only reserved for books about boy wizards. The game is now everywhere and its fans can be extremely devoted... and this is where the problem lies for a lot of parents.
Their kids eat, sleep and breathe Minecraft. They want to play it all day and night... and if they’re not playing it then they’re talking about playing it, or watching YouTube videos of other people playing it.
So what is it about the game that brings on this level of devotion? How do you get okay with that, and where’s the line between obsession and addiction? Let's look at how to manage a Minecraft obsession.
Why do kids love Minecraft?
Until you’ve played the game yourself it can be really hard to understand just what it is that kids find so fascinating about this world of blocks. It's often called 'online Lego', but although they might be visually similar the two offer quite different playing experiences. Minecraft is like building something with Lego after you made and moulded the plastic yourself, and then going on an adventure inside it through jungles and oceans and deserts while monsters are chasing you. And when you tire of that, you can blow it all up and start again.
Kids are attracted to Minecraft by the chance to be super creative in a cool environment with just a few simple rules. The first-person player perspective really immerses them into a world of their own creation, in which they’re in control and can decide where to live and when to eat and what to do. They build their own safe spaces from which they feel emboldened to venture out and take risks. They experience the thrill of the chase and the freedom to run and explore and just be.
They can also decide when and what to destroy, and that combination of both construction and destruction is part of what makes the game so much fun. And even the basic movements themselves just feel good to do - pounding on a tree until it breaks with a satisfying pop is like playing with virtual bubble wrap.
But really one of the reasons that Minecraft is so absorbing is that it’s not just about building and being creative, it’s doing these things in an environment that makes it hard to do. It’s just the right balance of challenge and reward and fun - not so hard that you give up, but not so easy that it becomes boring. That makes it incredibly attractive and engaging to play.
And for many kids, Minecraft is so much more than a game - it’s a way to express themselves. What they choose to create, the adventures they invent, even the way their character looks is a reflection on their experiences and interests and skills. They can put their individual stamp on the game, and have an instant connection to a whole community of like-minded people with whom they can share all of that.
But why do some become obsessed with it?
Have you ever had a DIY project that you couldn’t wait to get started on? A new recipe you were dying to try, or a great book that you couldn’t put down in the wee hours of the night? That’s what it can feel like for kids playing Minecraft. Except when you get to the end of the book another chapter suddenly appears, one that’s even more exciting than the entire book you just finished. So you quickly read to the end of that chapter and another one opens up... so you read a few pages more... and a few more... and suddenly it’s morning.
On the outside Minecraft can seem simple, but it’s actually quite complex and almost every moment is filled with learning and new discoveries. You’re continually presented with new challenges, and the reward of solving them just opens the door to another round of things to figure out and achieve. The world itself is endless and the challenges never stop... this is not a game to be played in half an hour.
There’s also constant novelty. Unlike most video games, every Minecraft session is different from the last. It’s impossible to get bored because you can always change what you’re doing and have many projects on the go at once, all of which are challenging and super fun. There’s no repetition of levels, no pre-rehearsed sequence of moves, and this never-ending cycle of novelty and discovery can really hook you in.
Minecraft is usually played from the first-person perspective, where the point of view changes as your player moves around. This is incredibly powerful and immerses you deep into the game, where the things you see and experience feel much more real than if you were watching your character run around onscreen from an outside third-person perspective. In this way you literally become your character, and this can be a very intense experience for many kids.
So Minecraft can be much more than a game for some. They feel the surge of adrenaline when they run from a monster and the very real satisfaction of finally striking diamonds deep in their hand-crafted mine. And that feeling, that richness of experience, can be incredibly compelling. It also means that they have a vested interest in what happens during the game - keeping themselves alive, protecting the fruits of their considerable labour and looking after others. This level of concern can be time-consuming and hard to disengage from.
Then there’s the whole extension of the Minecraft experience outside of the game itself - YouTube videos, parody songs, the wiki, websites, MineCon. Kids want to learn how to make cool stuff, find answers to their questions, share their creations with others and hang out with other people who understand what they’re talking about and why they love the game so much. This can take up more time than actually playing the game, and leads them to become part of a huge external community. So it becomes really easy to fill your mind (not to mention entire days) with all things Minecraft.
How do you keep a Minecraft obsession healthy?
Minecraft can be enjoyed in a lot of really positive ways, but it’s also easy for it to develop into some very unhealthy behaviours - going without sleep, neglecting chores and homework, even forgetting to eat or use the toilet. These can happen more easily in kids than adults, as their ability to self-manage and regulate is still developing. So how do you help them to play safely?
Make clear boundaries
If your kids are spending a lot of time playing Minecraft, setting firm rules and limits on their play will help them to find a balance where they can still enjoy the game but in a healthier way. This might mean spelling out exactly what players can and can’t do to each other, how long and when they can play, whether they can watch YouTube videos and read the wiki or download mods. The world both inside and outside of Minecraft is huge, so you need to set some boundaries on that so your kids can operate within it safely.
Help them to plan and self-manage
Negotiate their time online - talk about how much time they think they spend in the game, whether that’s healthy and how they might make changes. Help them to plan ahead for themselves, so that they can schedule homework and chores around game time and take control of their own time management. It's a great opportunity to teach them how to set (and stick to) their own limits and manage their interests in a healthy way, and to be rewarded for acting responsibly.
Learn how to stay healthy
Talk about the negative effects of too much computer time and not getting enough sleep or exercise, and how to recognize the signs that they need to take a break. This will help them develop skills for the times when you’re not around to remind them. Ironically the game itself is excellent for this, because you need rest and food in order to survive there.
I like the way my friend Bil (who blogs with his wife Patty at Pancakes Gone Awry) used the game to teach his kids about the importance of finding a balance in life, telling them that "If you just mine all of the time, you'll be starving. If you farm all of the time, you'll survive, but nothing exciting will ever happen. To take care of yourself and be happy, you need to work and engage in a variety of experiences."
Help them transition
Minecraft is a difficult game to stop playing, especially for those kids who are obsessed, so it can be really easy to spend hours and hours in front of the screen. If this is happening in your house, you might need to provide extra structure and cues to help with transitioning (there are more tips in the article called How To Help Kids Transition When Playing Minecraft).
A large part of helping their obsession stay healthy is just being involved so you know what's going on. There might be times when it looks like the kids aren’t enjoying the game at all, for example - maybe they cry when they play or scream at the screen, or it’s causing a lot of friction between siblings or friends. At those times you need to do a bit of investigating to figure out what’s going on before deciding whether to put the brakes on their time spent playing.
You need to know what they're actually doing in the game before you can figure out where they’re having trouble and why. Ask questions and get involved... Are they crying because they can’t achieve their goal, or because they’re scared of the monsters? Are they overwhelmed by choice, or do they need a break from survival mode for a while? Are they having a hard time on the server because they don't know how to use the chat feature, or has someone griefed their stuff? Are they just not emotionally mature enough and need to wait six months before giving it another try?
Play the game
If you’re just watching or listening to your kids play, you’re not immersed in it in the same way that they are - you don’t have the same experience as a third-person observer as your kids are having as a first-person participant. So get your kids to show you around and teach you how to play - after you’ve seen the game from their viewpoint you’ll be in a better position to set reasonable limits, and to judge whether or not their obsession with it is okay.
Where’s the line between obsession and addiction?
What about if your kids want to play Minecraft all day? If they beg you to let them at the iPad, scream when it’s time to come off and hide under the covers playing it in the middle of the night? And if they’re not playing it then they’re talking about it... incessantly? It looks like addiction. It feels like addiction. How can you tell the difference?
This is a big concern for a lot of parents. And while video game addiction is a very real possibility, it's important to be clear about what it means before you panic and ban Minecraft from the house. Addiction is more than just an intense or all-consuming interest in something, it involves elements of dependency and compulsion. This can be hard to spot when it comes to gaming, and finding that line where a Minecraft obsession has crossed over into something more can be really difficult.
Some of the warning signs that an interest in Minecraft is becoming unhealthy might include:
- The time spent playing is having a serious impact on their health or family life
- They’re lying to you about how often they play
- They have symptoms of withdrawal when they’re not playing - irritability, restlessness, insomnia, headaches, depression
- They’re not in control of their behaviour while playing
- They’re experiencing extreme changes in mood
If these are the kinds of behaviours that your kids are experiencing when playing Minecraft then you need to start talking with them about it, and figuring out together how to manage their obsession in a more healthy way (this is another reason why it's really helpful to have an understanding of what the game is all about). Remember too that if your kids’ interest in Minecraft is indeed an addiction, stopping it completely is going to cause psychological distress and needs to be handled very carefully.
But what if the obsession is totally driving you nuts?
Sometimes the problem isn't how much the kids want to play the game, but how often they want to tell you about it. Creepers and spiders and slimes, oh my!
While it’s understandably hard to deal with an obsession that you don’t share, Minecraft has a lot to offer and if your kids are passionate about it then it's important to find a way to be tolerant and respectful of that. It’s not just a game to them, it can feel like meaningful work and creative expression that they take a lot of pride in - so speaking about it in a derogatory way or groaning every time they talk about it might feel really insulting.
It will also make it less likely that they’ll share the good things about the game with you, or come to you with problems. Sure it can be exhausting dealing with the arguments and tears and frustrations, but it’s also pretty great that they come to you to help them find solutions. You’re an important lifeline for them, so don’t cut yourself off from that.
If you don’t know the answers, don’t understand the game and are just totally sick of hearing about it then at least set them up with other people that they can talk to about it. Find a friend or family member who plays, or a family-friendly multiplayer server where they can meet other kids to play with.
The bottom line
Really it all boils down to this one basic idea: the key to getting the best out of Minecraft is setting your kids up to enjoy the game in a healthy way without driving you insane. Hopefully the tips in the articles on MineMum will help you to find ways to do that.