Minecraft is and, for the foreseeable future, will remain one of the most popular video games among children. Behind all those millions upon millions of downloads are more than a few curious parents; read on as we help clear up some misconceptions and give curious parents a crash course in the game.
We’ve written extensively about Minecraft here at How-To Geek, but not everyone is interested in taking an in-depth look at Minecraft as a potential player. Some people like parents, educators, or curious relatives of avid young players just want a crash course that provides a general overview of the game, a better understanding of the online elements of the Minecraft experience, and a general sense of what the game entails. Let’s take a look at Minecraft from the perspective of a curious parent and run through (hopefully) everything they would want to know about Minecraft to better understand the game their kids are currently obsessed with (or desperately want them to buy).
We want to emphasize the crash course bit before we proceed. This article is intended to take someone from knowing nothing about Minecraft to having a basic understanding of what the game is with an emphasis on delivering the content for parents, guardians, and other adults in the life of a child interested in the game. If you want more in depth look at the game (either as a potential player or a parent really committed to learning the ins and out) we’d strongly suggest you start with our 15-part introduction to Minecraft and then follow up by browsing our general Minecraft articles. Between our introductory series and subsequent articles we’ve practically written an 80,000-plus word book on the topic and reading through our collection will take you from a total novice to Minecraft mastery.
What Is Minecraft?
Let’s start with the most basic question (but that isn’t really all that basic): what exactly is Minecraft? Many parents look at Minecraft and are puzzled by the game. It looks like a blocky 8-bit adventure from yesteryear, but it certainly doesn’t seem to play like the linear adventures many of us grew up with.
Minecraft is a sandbox style game created by Swedish programmer and gamer Markus “Notch” Persson. The game was further developed under Persson’s guidance by the company Mojang and in 2014 Mojang was acquired by Microsoft. The game is procedurally generated and focused on resource gathering, crafting items, building, and (at the player’s discretion) combat.
Sandbox? Procedurally generated? Let’s break down those terms for the unfamiliar. Linear games are the kind of games most of us think of when we think of video games. You start the game, you go through level one, then level two, and so on, completing objectives and passing through new levels until you reach the end of the game. This is the formula for nearly every video game out there and certainly the formula for most of the best selling games of the last thirty years.
Sandbox games are effectively the opposite of linear game play. Sandbox games allows you to do practically anything (within the constraints of the game engine) just like a real life sandbox allows you to build and play how you wish. You can play however you want in the sandbox, build what you want, and guide your game to be the game you want it to be. Whether you want to explore far and wide, build a giant castle, play hide and seek with your friends, collect all the items in the game, or whatever else your heart desires, sandbox games afford that kind of diverse play that extends well beyond the traditional “Beat level one. Get magic item. Beat level two,” and so on.
Procedural generation is a key part of this play experience. Again, unlike most other video games where the game and the player’s experience is carefully cultivated and scripted, the Minecraft experience is different. Every single Minecraft map, the space in which players play and explore, is unique—every single one. The game’s engine combined with the “seed” (a player supplied or randomly generated alphanumeric string) generates a unique world filled with different biomes, caves, creatures, and more.
This “do anything you want” sandbox experience combined with the “the world is nearly infinite!” procedural generation yields a game where you have the ability to play anyway you want with nearly endless space and resources in which to do it. The very element of the game that causes many people to sit back and ask “What’s the point?” is exactly what makes it appealing to so many kids and adults alike. It’s a game that doesn’t come with a rulebook, any instructions, or even the slightest bit of guidance as to what the player should (or should not) do. Just learning the ropes is a rewarding and fun experience in and of itself. Like LEGO blocks it’s play for the sake of play.
Players start the game as a generic player, a castaway if you will, that wakes up on the freshly generated map and has to break blocks to gather resources, use the blocks to craft tools, and then use those tools to keep breaking more blocks, building and exploring all the while. What players do with that “all the while” time is really the beauty of Minecraft. You can build a castle, explore the oceans, recreate your backyard (or entire hometown), or whatever your creative heart desires.
What Can You Play It On?
Minecraft is available on multiple platforms and each platform is slightly different. Let’s take a look at the different ways you can play Minecraft and what varies between them. In each section below we’ve included a link to the Minecraft wiki entry on each of the game editions for your reference and further reading.
Minecraft PC Edition
Minecraft PC Edition is the edition that started it all. It’s also the most sophisticated version with the most advanced in-game components and elements, better multiplayer support, and and overall superior Minecraft experience. It can run on any platform that can run Java and prepackaged binaries are available for Windows and Mac OS X (the Linux version is just the core Java code and you’re responsible for installing and launching it yourself). The PC edition retails for $26.95; a demo mode is available if you want to test out the game and ensure your computer has the appropriate hardware. Although Minecraft looks like a simple game the behind the scenes procedural generation and physics is quite resource intensive, and we do recommend that parents try the game out first to ensure it runs smoothly on their computers.
In addition to supporting more default in-game components and elements as well as larger game worlds, Minecraft PC Edition also supports modding. Modding allows players to introduce new elements to the game (other dimensions to explore, in-game tools and resources, and other improvements). The Minecraft PC Edition modding community is enormous and very active.
Minecraft PC Edition supports local and remote multiplayer games.
Minecraft Pocket Edition
Minecraft Pocket Edition is the mobile edition for Android, iOS, and (quite recently) Windows Phone; it retails for $7. Compared to the PC Edition it’s pretty light. Many elements from the PC Edition are missing (the extra dimensions found in the PC edition are missing, there is no hunger in the Survival mode, and so on).
Despite the missing elements and the smaller worlds, the Pocket Edition is extremely popular and millions of players around the world get their Minecraft fix via mobile devices and not on a full blown computer.
Pocket Edition supports both local and remote multiplayer games. It’s worth noting, however, that remote multiplayer support on the Pocket Edition is buried in a sub-menu and that the majority of kids playing the game aren’t even aware the game supports anything but single player or local multiplayer.
Pocket Edition can, technically, be modded but the modding community is nearly non-existent and it’s a huge hassle to mod it.
Minecraft Console Edition
The Console Edition retails for $20 and is available for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and the PlayStation Vita. Although the Console Edition got off to a rough start (different versions on different console platforms had significant differences) all the versions are in sync now, and the Console Edition has a really great feature not found on PC or Pocket Edition: local splitscreen multiplayer. There are a host of differences between the other two editions but Console Edition definitely comes closer to the general Minecraft PC Edition experience than the Pocket Edition.
Console Edition can, again technically just like Pocket Edition, be modded but the modding community is even smaller and modding console games are very difficult; the practice is so infrequent and so difficult that the Console Edition should effectively be considered unmoddable.
Console Edition supports multiplayer, but the player must be logged into a user account on the Xbox or PlayStation that currently has a paid online subscription (e.g. Xbox Live Gold or PlayStation Plus). Without a paid online subscription to the console’s respective service there is no online play. If you don’t have a paid subscription then you needn’t worry about your child even getting online.
What Are The Game Modes?
In addition to understanding the basics of the general game, it helps to understand the available game modes (especially if you’re a parent trying to help a child enjoy the game more). We detailed the Minecraft game modes extensively in our Minecraft lesson Exploring Minecraft Game Modes if you want to take an indepth look but a simple overview should suffice for most people.
The gamemode you select has a significant impact on your play experience and, in the context of children playing the game, a huge impact on frustration levels. Picking the right gamemode for your child’s developmental abilities and personal temperament will go a long way toward keeping frustrated tears at bay.
Creative Mode, as the name implies, is focused on creative play. The players have access to infinite resources, can fly, can’t be injured by things in the game like lava, drowning, or aggressive mobs, and they are free to go wherever they wish to go. The mode is essentially like playing with virtual LEGO blocks that never run out.
This mode is ideal for kids as there’s nothing to scare them (no aggressive mobs will spawn and attempt to attack them), there’s tons of resources, and there’s no pressure to survive (you don’t have to gather food, stave off hunger, or struggle to locate limited resources like wood).
Survival Mode is more like a traditional video game in that you have health (which can be lost) and you need to gather resources (like food, wood, coal, etc.) to survive. In addition to working toward your survival in a player-versus-nature scenario, Survival Mode also introduces aggressive mobs like spiders and the zombies that come out at night and will attack the player.
Although the aggressive mobs are just as blocky as the rest of Minecraft (and not even as scary as something you might find in a Scooby Doo cartoon) young children might find the hostile creatures both frustrating and frightening. Parents with young kids interested in Minecraft would be well advised to start them off in Creative Mode and then, as both their reflexes and sensibilities mature, move them into Survival Mode if they’re interested.
You can die in Survival Mode, but you always respawn back at your original spawn point (or the last bed you slept in). You lose experience and equipment but you’re never permanently dead; succumbing to a hostile mob or a fall off a cliff is just a minor setback.
Within Survival Mode you can set the difficulty level. The difficulty ranges from Peaceful (where you still need to survive but there are no hostile mobs) to Easy/Normal/Hard where there are hostile mobs and they have increasing health and deal increasing damage based on how hard you’ve made the game.Surviving Your First Night in Survival Mode. If you can make it through the first night you’re in a great position to make it through all the ones that follow.
If you’re playing on the PC, one way to help transition a kid into Survival Mode is to toggle the in-game variable that retains gear and items after death (instead of leaving them at the site of the player death).
Hardcore Mode is, as the name implies, well, hardcore. It’s just like Survival Mode except you have just one life to live. If you fall in lava, get attacked by a mob of zombies, or crush yourself in a mechanical device of your own creation, the game is over. Not only do you lose all your stuff but the world you explored and built up is permanently deleted.
Dying and losing your gear in a videogame is frustrating enough as it is, but in a game like Minecraft where you take so much time to explore, gather resources, and build really cool stuff the idea of dying and losing everything is a bit too much for most kids. We’d strongly advise steering clear of Hardcore Mode unless you have an older kid that knows exactly what they are getting into.
Again, if you want a more indepth look at the different game modes, we’d encourage you to check out our lesson on the topic.
Is It Kid Friendly?
In the sense that kids absolutely love it, Minecraft is obviously kid friendly. When adults talk about kid-friendliness, though, what we’re really talking about is how appropriate the content is for various age groups. Let’s take a look at the two most pressing “kid friendly” issues when it comes to assessing a video game: content and online interactions.
Video Game Violence
As far as video game violence goes, yes, Minecraft has some but, no, it’s not graphic. In Creative Mode you can play without ever striking anything or anyone. You don’t need to kill passive mobs (like sheep or cows) to get the items they drop nor do you need to fight hostile mobs (because they never spawn and any item they might drop you can get from the Creative Mode inventory screen). Further, in Creative Mode nothing is trying to attack you so there isn’t even a threat of violence in any form if the player wants to play without conflict.
In Survival Mode the player can take damage from the environment (such as burns from lava or fall damage) as well as damage from creatures in the game like the hostile zombies, spiders, and skeletons. The combat in the game is bloodless and, despite the challenge at times, amounts to (visually speaking) about as much graphicness as hitting a pinata with a stick. Players whack, whack, and whack at the creature, and it just keels over when its health is exhausted leaving behind whatever loot it may or may not drop in a little pixelated puff of smoke.
While we don’t find this degree of violence in a video game problematic and readily let our children play the game, if you would like to remove any violent conflict from the game we would advise you to either have your child play on Creative Mode or set up a Survival Mode game for them and set the difficulty to Peaceful; this provides for the hunt, gather, and survive Robinson Crusoe experience, if you will, but without the hostile mobs.
One final note on video game violence, if you have multiple children playing together on a local shared game be aware that players can attack each other in the game. If you have siblings or friends prone to antagonizing each other it would be wise to preemptively talk about this (or set up a home server with player-versus-player combat turned off via the “pvp” variable in the server.properties file).
Multiplayer and Online Play
Speaking of multiplayer games and PVP combat, one of the first things on any parent’s mind when it comes to video games is “Can my child get online with this game, and who will they encounter?”
Minecraft has a thriving online community with thousands upon thousands of servers. You can have a rich and rewarding Minecraft experience without ever playing on a remote multiplayer server, but many kids do want to play online as their friends also play online (and there are some really cool servers out there to explore). Let’s run through the available ways you can play local and remote Minecraft.
There are several ways to play local Minecraft games (and by local we mean with players who are on the same local area network). Minecraft Pocket Edition players can easily host a game by simply opening their game to the local network wherein anyone on the same Wi-Fi network can join in and play. When you see a bunch of kids clustered together with tablets and phones playing Minecraft this is likely what they are up to. There are local Minecraft Pocket Edition servers you can host on a network attached to your computer, but there is no official release from Mojang and the third party servers are a bit clunky (although fun to play with).
Minecraft Console Edition players can always turn on split-screen multiplayer which allows for tandem play by the same players using the same console. Both the Xbox and PlayStation versions support up to four local players on the same console via split-screen. Xbox players can also engage in LAN play with up to eight players if there is a second Xbox on the local network (four players on one machine, four players on the other). Local network play is not currently available on the PlayStation.
Minecraft PC Edition players have two options for sharing a local game. They can load a regular Minecraft game and open the game to the local network for other players to join or they can host either a local server.
In addition to the local multiplayer there are two ways to engage in remote multiplayer games: private servers (purchased and/or hosted by you or a Minecraft server hosting company) or public servers (accessible to anyone).
The first option is a great way to set up a persistent server that your child and their friends can access from anywhere in the world. You can do this as simply as just signing up for Realms, the official Minecraft server host provided by Mojang, or you can go the more advanced routes and purchase a Minecraft hosting package (or even roll your own if you’re a tech savvy sort of parent). If you’re interested in allowing your child to play online with their friends using a server you have explicit control over definitely check out our article How to Select a Remote Minecraft Host.
The second option, and by far the most popular, is to simply join an existing multiplayer server with a theme you enjoy. There are Minecraft servers for just about any theme under the sun. You can find Pokemon-themed Minecraft servers, servers with medieval barter systems, servers dedicated just to creative play and building, servers dedicated just to mini games, and even servers devoted to player-on-player combat where anything goes.
If you’re planning on allowing your children to play online with other players, we would strongly encourage you to carefully read over our very detailed treatment of the subject found in Exploring Minecraft Multiplayer Servers.
Fortunately for concerned parents, Minecraft servers tend to be very well moderated and very well delineated into their various types. For example, the majority of servers do not allow player-verse-player combat (and if they do they have dedicated areas for arena combat and the like). Further, its understood that a lot of kids play Minecraft (even if it is popular with adults) and most server administrators and operators are very intolerant of vulgar behavior or griefing (antagonizing a player, destroying player creations or parts of the map, etc.).
There are even whitelisted family servers where you have to outright apply to play and only whitelisted players are allowed in (and any players who break the family-friendly rules of the server are booted out). If you’re looking for such servers, you want to include “whitelist” and “family friendly” in your Google search queries. Here are a few family-friendly servers to get you started: Cubeville, The Sandlot, and Crazy Pig.
In short, we’ve been playing Minecraft online for years (as have our children), and we don’t have any traumatic or horrible experiences to report. Outside of the time we’ve spent on a servers specifically dedicated to mayhem (known as Anarchy servers) where anything from PVP to griefing was permitted we’ve never run into any serious issues.
That said, even though we’ve never had a “Hey kid, where do you live?” experience on a Minecraft server, it’s never too early to start instructing your children to not talk to strangers online and to never share personal information.
Malware: The Real Minecraft Threat
We’ve talked about the cartoon-like violence in the game and the online player experience (both issues parents are very interested in), but now it’s time to talk about an issue that most parents are totally blindsided by: Minecraft malware.
The game itself is perfectly safe, and you’ll never have any issue with malware in the actual Mojang supplied software but, unfortunately, there are lots of people out there willing to prey on the naivete of children to infect your computer or device with malware.
Kids love Minecraft and they love searching for new Minecraft skins, maps, and mods. While there are plenty of legitimate websites out there that catalog and rank all these great Minecraft additions there are plenty of very shady websites that lead to virus-laden software downloads. We can’t count the number of times we’ve been enlisted by a neighbor to help fix their computer after their child accidentally downloaded malicious software masquerading as a legitimate Minecraft add-on.
The best thing you can do to keep your computer safe while allowing your child to enjoy Minecraft is to only allow them access to a non-administrative account so they cannot run any malicious software even if they come across it. The second best thing you can do is to sit down with them and talk about how there are unethical people out there who want to trick them into downloading software that would hurt their computer and to provide them with a list of Minecraft websites they can visit and check out without risking an infection.
If you’re looking for a list of legitimate sites you can share with your child (or use yourself) we’d encourage you to check out our guide: How to Restyle Your Minecraft World with Resource Packs. When in doubt, always stick to the official Minecraft forums.
Is It Good For Kids?
In so far in our Parents Guide to Minecraft we’ve stuck to the facts of the matter: game versions, server types, and so on. One question that comes up more often than not when we’re talking to other parents (especially those who have kids recently enamored with Minecraft) is “Is it good for them?”
After all the time we’ve logged playing Minecraft ourselves, watching our kids play, and playing alongside our kids, we’re going to give a very resounding and strongly opinionated: Yes, yes it is. Not all video games are equal, and there are a ton of really stupid video games out there, but time and time again Minecraft has proven to be not just a fun game for our kids to play (that we’ll happily join in on) but a worthwhile game to play.
The game encourages a host of positive and prosocial behaviors. We’ve watched our kids gather with their friends time and time again and, in the course of playing together, dedicating time to planning what they will build, measuring out spatial relations and quantities of resources, dividing labor, and otherwise actively working together to build whatever the project of the day is. When the kids aren’t actively playing Minecraft they’re talking about it, sharing Minecraft articles with each other, and voraciously reading those articles to learn more about Minecraft.
Further, Minecraft is a game that plays explicitly to your strengths. Whatever you like doing, whatever you have a knack for, you can find a way to incorporate it into Minecraft. Within my own household everyone plays Minecraft, and during play everyone is able to take on a role that they enjoy (which is something more than you can say for just about any other video game out there). Instead of every person playing out the same role (e.g. “Tonight we’re playing a fighting game!” where everyone is a street fighter) Minecraft allows for people to focus on what interests them and what they’re good at.
When we play, I get the most enjoyment out of exploring the map and defending our bases and encampments from hostile mobs. My wife loves to mine and will devise elaborate underground constructions in search of the best ore and diamonds. My daughter absolutely loves building and stocking farms as well as forging weapons and armor to stock our supply chests. In a typical video game there is no way we could accommodate all those play styles and desire while still playing the same game. In Minecraft it’s not only possible but actually advantageous to have players interested in taking on different roles.
You’re free to disagree, of course (and if you have a kid who throws a fit when it’s time to put down the virtual blocks and pick up the school books you certainly have a reason to be unhappy with the game), but we’ll stand by our assessment that Minecraft is a positive game that encourages everything from prosocial team building behavior to an interest in programming.
At this point, if you came to this article brand new to Minecraft, you know just enough to have a rough idea of what the game is about, different ways to play it, and how your kids can play it both on the local network and the greater Internet. Despite how simple the game looks, however, there is so much going on within the basic game, so much available via modding, player created maps, and more, as well as such a thriving Minecraft community that we really encourage you to read through our whole 15-part Minecraft series as well as the other Minecraft articles we’ve published to help round out your understanding of the game (as well as give you piles of fun ideas for Minecraft activities you can partake in with the Minecraft lovers in your life).