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February 11, 2014 • 09:37:02 a.m.

Minecraft's adventures limited only by the imagination of the player

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

(Provided)

The conversations coming from the living room these days might as well be in a foreign language.

There's enthusiastic talk of Creepers and some creature named Enderman who teleports. There are disagreements over worlds that have been entered or not entered, walls built, blocks destroyed.

Looking at the kids, their eyes and fingers consumed by their iPods, you'd expect something mind-blowing on the screens.

At first glance, you see square pixels and cubes, some blue, some green, some brown.

And you just don't get it.

This is Minecraft, an indie video game basically about breaking and placing blocks, creating structures, surviving and adventuring. Players can explore, mine materials, build, farm, cook and fight off monsters.

You know this only because you looked it up.

You also know it seems to have taken over. If the kids had their way, they'd be playing this video game all day. Every day.

So it's up to you to mine that world a bit, maybe come face to face with those Creepers, even that Enderman guy the kids scream about. Is it all fun and games? Or does this obsession have some educational value?

"In my mind, I rationalize that it seems like it's more educational than what we used to play when we were kids," said Heidi Alexandar of Crystal Lake, echoing the likely thoughts of many parents, as the mom of a 9-year-old MInecraft fan. "I'm sure Pac Man had no educational value."

Modern day Legos

Considering Minecraft has been used in classrooms, with a special version of the game optimized for educational purposes, it must have some educational value. Along with the pocket edition for mobile devices, a computer version also is available for public servers.

It's a first-person adventure game, as opposed to the focus being on, for example, running around with a gun shooting or simply following a story, as is the case with some video games, said Dave Collins, an adjunct digital media instructor and alum of McHenry County College.

He started playing Minecraft when a basic version first came out about three years ago. Even then, without many of the perks it has now, it had an appeal, he said.

"It was a game where we could work together to sort of try to survive as well as accomplish a goal," he said. "The experience in Minecraft is centered around you creating rather than the game carrying you along. It's much more free-form."

Schools have used it to to teach basic logic, basic math by calculating the amount of resources needed for specific items, ratios and proportions as well as problem solving, he said. In the "Survival" mode of the game – players can choose Survival or Creative modes – players must obtain shelter, food, water and tools.

As far as kids, such as 10-year-old Jackson Buckler of Crystal Lake, are concerned, they're definitely learning when they play.

"It's skillful," he said of the game he's been playing for a couple of years. "I think it helps me because I'm going to be an architect. I think it helps me a little bit because I build a lot. I've built a roller coaster park, some houses and stuff like that."

Jackson's 9-year-old brother also plays, the two chatting over plans for their worlds or cities or whatever they're creating.

Players can enter each other's worlds, signing onto other servers, something Jackson's mom monitors along with the time he and his brother spend on the game.

"Because I think if I left for the day and they were alone in the house for some odd reason, they wouldn't stop playing," Katie Buckler said.

She also knows players can have chats with one another online while playing, so she makes sure her boys are playing with people they know. And they know to sign off if someone they don't know attempts a conversation or bad language is used, she said.

Other than that, she said, she understands little about the game.

"They do talk about it, but I don't know what they're talking about," she said. "I'm not into it at all. There are all sorts of different kinds of swords and materials and things they're looking for. I understand it from that perspective, but not the actual details."

Yet, she said, she likes that the game requires creativity.

That it does, say gamers and child development experts. Of course, limits must be set, and nothing beats actual real-life play. But when it comes to video games, it's like a modern day version of Legos, they say.


The many worlds of Minecraft

Gamers have taken these modern Legos to the extreme, recreating worlds, such as the entire world from the HBO series "Game of Thrones," the Parthenon in Greece and other beautifully crafted landscapes and art, Collins said.

At Northern Illinois University, where a virtual version of the campus has been created at minecraft.niu.edu, the game is the focus of summer camps for middle and high school students.

It's used to teach some basic computer programing and other skills, such as economics, organizers say.

For instance, students at camp are given money and their own community in MInecraft and must learn how to work together, trade resources and such, to have a successful community, said Eamon Newman, a web developer with Northern Illinois University's Digital Convergence Lab.

Players must gather supplies, such as sand, wood and stone, and mine for rare things, such as gold and rare minerals. Those comfortable going off into the wilderness exploring would do so, while others would stay back and farm wheat, providing food for the community, Newman said.

More advanced players were actually showing other players how to automate parts, such as an electronic gate for a castle in a Medieval world, Newman said.

Not a fan before, the game has grown on Aline Click, the co-director of the university's Digital Convergence Lab.

"After getting in there with the kids during the summer and seeing how creative they can be, I really enjoy it," she said. "I think it's the ease of building. It's not really hard to jump into and start building. ...

"It's one of those kind of ageless games where you can have really young kids playing and also adults."

The virtual worlds, such as the NIU campus, can actually be toured, something that might come in handy for potential students, Click said. Virtual classes could be added, with online courses actually held in those virtual worlds, she said.

In the meantime, young players will continue to mine their worlds.

"The world that they live in now is so all about technology," said Alexandar, who understand the game enough to urge her son to create scissors to sheer his sheep instead of simply killing them for their wool.

"But the iron ore is so hard to get just to make scissors," Caden would tell his mother.

When he talks about the Creepers and other aspects of the game, she admits her eyes glaze over a bit. But she notes that he's learned things, such as a fireplace in a wooden house can burn it down.

As for parents still not quite sure, Collins suggested they get in there and play with their children.

"If you don't play it, you don't really appreciate it. You see it just as blocks," he said. "After you've spent a couple hours at it and take a step back and look at it, you can appreciate what you've done and appreciate what other people have done."


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