Is Minecraft a complete waste of time for kids?
This year marks the 10th year since Minecraft’s inception. With six boys under our roof, you can bet that our kids (including the girls) have racked up their share of hours playing Minecraft.
Seven years ago, our 12-year-old son was no different than most boys his age… he obsessed over the game of Minecraft.
As a dad committed to creating passion in my son, I asked the question: Could I use Minecraft to awaken an inner motivation and self-directed learning path in my kids toward a long-term talent?
That son learned Java coding and grew up to become a full-time programmer. It all started with Minecraft.
Here’s the secret: To trigger a strong desire to become very good at something, find a way to bring value to others with it as soon as possible. I’ll tell you how I did this with my 12-year-old, but first, let’s talk about the game.
What is Minecraft?
Minecraft is an online gaming environment where kids move cartoon-like characters to build houses and entire cities. All the while playing various mini-games in between projects.
It should be clarified that it is not a one-size-fits-all piece of entertainment software.
And this explains its huge popularity.
Minecraft is played in many different ways to satisfy almost any personality and age level of kids. After downloading the required core Minecraft software (a one-time fee of $26), the player chooses from hundreds, maybe thousands, of resource packs and modules. The add-ons enhance the virtual world in any number of ways that you want.
Playing the game of Minecraft for entertainment is the consumption side of the equation. That’s where it stays for most kids, much to the frustration of the parent.
How to Leverage Minecraft to Motivate Your Kids
Did you know your child can get involved in the production and management side of Minecraft?
Modifying the game and the social skills to manage players is an amazing asset to tap into if your child has more of a “logic and coding” bent to his interests. This is exactly what my son Nicholas had when he first started getting involved in the production. I call this the development side of Minecraft.
Following the earlier principle of choosing a small current interest and using tools already on hand or available to the household, I decided that Nicholas should take a look at creating simple coding plug-ins for Minecraft. Plug-ins make a much more exciting experience for the players.
NOTE: I had no idea how to create plug-ins myself. With the help of online tutorials for beginners, Nicholas started creating some fun ones to enhance the experience for his friends. He was absolutely self-directed at this point.
A simple plug-in modifies the game’s code to change how you play during the game that is not normally part of the experience. More complex plug-ins can even create unique competitive game events for a group of friends. The better you are at creating unique experiences, the more positive feedback you will get from your gaming friends.
Creating such plug-ins requires learning how to code in a real programming language called Java. You guessed it, this is a language used for coding useful applications in the real world. By using Minecraft as a safe playground, my son could learn a real programming language without worrying about blowing up someone’s accounting software.
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The steps my 12-year-old kid took to learn computer skills using Minecraft
Nicholas, now 19 years old, works full time as a programmer. I called him, “What did you use to get started in programming?”
He suggested the following tools, each one of them not “kid” tools. Instead, they’re real-world working tools that are still accessible to young beginners. They all have online support communities and free tutorials that a 13-year-old can follow and understand:
IntelliJ – software that helps your child get started programming in the Java language. This is the coding language used to program the modifications to the Minecraft game! https://www.jetbrains.com/idea/GitHub
GitHub – this software tracks, manages, and collaborates on programming projects and using it as a repository of programs: https://github.com/
How Taking Control of His Skill-Building Creates Motivation
Here’s what’s exciting: your young teenager can download the full version of the game (known as the Minecraft Server Software) to be hosted on his own computer.
This allows your young child to have enormous control over the game, to change many of the settings.
Initially, Nicholas started by learning how to give himself control to write commands for special things to happen during the game. This made his guests happier about coming to play with him. That was fairly easy to learn.
Then he tried more exciting things that were not possible until he actually modified the underlying features of the game. To do so, one must learn how to code “plug-ins”, which are small sections of code that have to be written in Java.
At first, he tried his hand at very simple plug-ins by following YouTube tutorials. As he got more feedback from his friends, it emboldened him to graduate to coding much more complex plug-ins. He used the above two tools: IntelliJ and GitHub.
From there, he participated in coding forums where enthusiasts explained the details on how a beginner like him could get started. To this day, even though he outgrew making plugins for Minecraft, he still uses those tools and the programming language Java for his day job.
How to Work Skill-building into his Day
So, how did I get my son to spend time learning to code? If he wanted to play his daily allocated quota of Minecraft time, he had to put in some programming time to create his plug-ins.
If he didn’t work on producing something, then he lost his playtime privileges.
Truthfully, it didn’t take much bribing to get him down the creative coding path. Just as I had sensed, once he got feedback from other players that they’d rather play on his server than other servers, he worked at it.
Other Benefits of Hijacking Minecraft Time to Teach Kids Skills
- As Nicholas learned to code projects, he also learned to manage other young players. He was responsible for keeping the peace and managing expectations.
- Then he graduated to collaborating with other young Minecraft programmers. He learned the bittersweetness that comes with discovering that not everyone is dependable. He had to manage his emotions accordingly.
- A lot of great dad-son discussions arose from times where other coders “ghosted” him. So, I shared some of my own real-life workplace experiences and how I managed them. Without these real-life opportunities, it is hard to generate that level of gravitas with your son.
So three cheers for Minecraft! …if you can turn it into a gateway to the computing world.
Other Kids’ Interest and Talents Using Minecraft
Our 15-year-old son who created the graphic at the top of this post explains the story behind it:
The character holding the gem is offering his gem to the other character, a “wandering trader” who is hoping to trade a pumpkin for the gem. In Minecraft, you can sometimes find wandering traders. They can trade you cool items in the game that can be hard to find.
Has the game of Minecraft created conversations around economics and world events with our kids? You bet it has!