Back in June of 2011, David Pakman’s son and daughter, at the time age eight and 10, asked him for a copy of Minecraft. “I didn’t know what that was, so I checked it out, thought it was kinda like digital Legos, and agreed to get it,” says Pakman, a tech entrepreneur and investor. Pretty soon Pakman joined them a few times, and got hooked. So that the family could play together, Pakman set up his own server, hosting a private community for the three of them. Slowly, his children’s friends began to join, and three years later, there are more than 100 kids and parents from around his neighborhood who log on to Pakman’s server. They've built churches, libraries, airports, castles, and farms. “It’s the basis for a huge amount of the interaction that happens between the kids in town.”
With its $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang, the parent company behind Minecraft, Microsoft is gaining a profitable, fast growing company. Mojang reportedly book over $100 million in profit last year and has only around 40 employees. Minecraft offers Microsoft a platform with strong elements of social and mobile usage, two areas where it has struggled so far. But perhaps most importantly, Minecraft gives Microsoft an intergenerational success story that few other games or services can replicate. The Verge spoke with dozens of parents who see Minecraft not only as an incredible tool for bonding with their children, but a gateway to education in computer science that could restore some appeal to the Microsoft brand for the next generation. Ari Paparo, an ad-tech entrepreneur in New York, plays Minecraft with his own children. “My eight year-old son says: ‘If Apple wanted to get cooler they would buy Minecraft instead of Beats.’"
Easy to learn, impossible to lose
In Minecraft, users move around a virtual world, harvesting resources like wood, gold, and iron ore that they can use to build whatever they like. Everything is made of textured 3D cubes. The graphics are extremely low-fi. There are bad guys to watch out for and defeat, and technically a dragon you can slay to beat the game, but what has captivated millions is the total freedom Minecraft offers to wander around and build, often collaboratively, a huge world of you own. "It’s not a game exactly, or a social network, although it has elements of both," says Pakman. "It’s a canvas that offers near total freedom to build your own world, and that has turned out to be extremely appealing to a lot of kids and adults."
Steven Sorka, a 36-year-old software developer from Toronto, has never beaten Minecraft, at least not without cheating. He always gets killed by the Ender Dragon, but it doesn’t matter. "You can spend a lot of time enchanting swords and trying to defeat the Ender dragon. But lots of kids are also perfectly happy just riding pigs, building houses, and exploring cities," says Sorka, who plays with his 20-year-old stepson and 11-year-old daughter. He sees the game’s flexibility as the key. "There are other games that have crossed generations, but Minecraft seems to be a perfect storm of Lego and adventure that has appeal for all."
Another big reason Minecraft appeals to younger players is that it’s easy to learn and impossible to lose. "There’s no minimum skill level," says Sorka. "If you die, you respawn. Maybe you dropped some stuff, but that probably doesn’t matter if you just like running around and following your big brother." He has played with big groups of adult friends, but now spends the majority of his time playing with his children and their cousins. "I’d love to play more video games with them, but there’s few that have a low barrier to entry and capture the attention of young ones."
Of course, just because you can’t lose doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong. Just like at school, in any group of kids there will be a few bullies, known as "griefers" in Minecraft parlance. But because parents can set up their own servers for their children to play on, they can exert a level of control and protection that isn’t always possible in the real world. "I got a frantic call at work," remembers Pakman. "Some kids had come into the server and were destroying homes and killing players. So, I banned a few of the wrong-doers. Now we have griefing-protection tools and anti-cheat technology on the server to help bring a little order to the world. Not too much, but just enough to keep the community healthy."
Mods, makers, hacking, and learning
A lot of parents are especially happy to spend time and money on Minecraft for their kids because they see it as a teaching tool. Minecraft can educate kids about architecture, and players can use something called redstone circuits to create simple mechanical devices, even entire computers, out of Minecraft blocks. And while Mojang offers a number of different versions and upgrades of Minecraft to download, the incredible variety of worlds to explore and items you can build comes from "mods", modified software created by the community that can be installed on a server to reshape that world or the rules that govern it. For many young players, mods become a gateway to the world of computer programming, something parents, and perhaps Microsoft as well, are keen to encourage.
Peter Grace says his son became interested around the age of three after seeing him play. "He became very fond of the game very quickly, as many kids with autism do." Grace started a family-friendly server called Blocktown.org, which now has a few dozen dedicated regulars. "It has definitely prompted my son to want to build custom mods for Minecraft. I just recently purchased a beginning programming book for him so that he can get the basics before we move on to Java."
Trei Brundrett, the chief product officer at The Verge’s parent company, Vox, played with his two sons Aedan and Joseph. They started out by sitting together on the couch playing in the same world over a LAN (local area network.) "It felt like playing LEGO with him, but obviously much more interactive. We'd spend hours building giant cities, dividing up responsibility for different parts that would connect together." Soon, however, the boys wanted to progress to custom games, which meant adding on mods. "Aeden taught himself how to find, download and install the mods on his own local machine. He quickly cycled through many of them. And inevitably he wanted to make his own."
For a while Aedan just watched as Brundrett learned the basics of how to create mods. Then he enrolled in a summer camp to learn Java. "Eventually he created his own simple mod - just his own block that he could insert into the world. The mystery of programming, of software, of Minecraft and mods, disappeared. I've never seen him more proud. And man I was proud too - my kid didn't just play a game on his computer, he had hacked it - just like I did on my Apple IIe. Sitting next to my kid writing code, hacking on a game together is an amazing experience."
Microsoft as manager
Microsoft is not doubt eager to own a profitable game which can give them a foothold among young consumers, especially a platform with strong social and mobile elements. Minecraft has consistently been one of the most downloaded apps in the paid category on iOS and Android. But Brundrett and many other parents thinks it goes much deeper than that. "Honestly, I think there is a Minecraft generation, one that is learning that you don't just have to use computers, that you can make things with these machines, that you can hack it."
There have been more than 12 million downloads of Minecraft on the Xbox console, and over 16.6 million copies sold for Mac and PC. Hacking Minecraft requires owning an honest to goodness computer, not a tablet or smartphone. That’s a potential upside for desktop operating systems like Windows. Hacking also means learning about how servers and APIs work. If kids are learning that stuff while interacting with Microsoft’s cloud, they might be more willing to use its other services and products down the road.
"Honestly, I think there is a Minecraft generation."
Whether Microsoft can maintain the momentum of Minecraft, and perhaps absorb some of it’s goodwill, remains to be seen. "I really do worry that Microsoft may not understand this ecosystem," says Brundrett. "However, as someone who worked quite a bit for Microsoft (through my own software firm) I know that they do get what it means to create a turn-key world for their developers with great tools and documentation." Brundrett, like many techie parents, says there is plenty of room for improving how players interact with Minecraft and how different communities play together.
But fixing all the rough edges, could also lessen the charm. "It just might not be the same as having to sort through the mess," Brundrett says. "There is something unique about not just following instructions, but bridging the gaps through extra research, wild leaps of experimentation."