Redstone Willow


Minecraft stole into my house with the grace of a cat burglar.

It began as a topic of discussion among the kids in the car; who was playing, who was not playing (I can take a hint as well as the next parent), and what untold delights awaited those LUCKY CHILDREN (ahem) who had access to their OWN SERVER. Over time, as these discussions got more frequent, I began to give them a rear-view mirror smile, the patented Dad grin that says “I hear every word you’re saying, and right now, I’m working out how to rig this to parental advantage.” The hints stepped up further over time, and the wide-eyed stories of the glories of Minecraft grew more evangelical after every Mojang-centric playdate, until the fervor reached a pitch I couldn’t ignore much longer. The timing worked out, actually. They’d grown weary of Wizard 101, and Free Realms, and I was looking around for something that could replace both – and, ideally, add more creativity to the gaming equation. But, like all modern parents, the choice presented itself when it comes to the new end-all, be-all video game: am I a willow or an oak?

Quick aside: I grew up in a no-video-games household. My parents’ reaction to the September 1977 U.S. launch of the Atari 2600 was truly something to behold, a cross between John Lithgow in Footloose and Jason Miller in The Exorcist. I genuinely felt bad for them in retrospect; I’m not sure how I would have handled the arrival of an entirely new childhood time-wasting technology, either. What I do know, from raising three kids myself, is that if you demonize anything, that thing instantly becomes a must-have. (We really should put salmon filets and homework up in a high cabinet and declare them off-limits.) I’m a case study in that. I lived eighteen videogame-free years in my home growing up, sneaking time on Yar’s Revenge and Pitfall at my friends’ houses; when I went off to college, I promptly blew my first retail-store paycheck on a Sega Genesis.

That was the oak route, one I got a good firsthand look at. So we’ve opted to be willows, submitting to the wind but not breaking. Here’s the thing: like most things in life, your kids are going to play videogames. Don’t try and deny it. It’s going to happen. Getting in front of that train ends just like you’d think getting in front of a train would. Are you the we-don’t-have-a-TV family? They’ll be playing on a laptop. No laptop? It’ll be an iPad. No iPad? No iPhone? They’ll be That Kid at sleepovers. “I know it’s three-thirty in the morning, but CAN’T WE PLAY MARIO KART AGAIN?”

The trick is not to outlaw videogames, but to manage them, and I’ll be honest: as management tasks go, Minecraft is pretty benign. If I judged it strictly by its presentation, I’d actually be pretty surprised that they’re into it: the graphics look like two crappy 80s arcade games had a goat-child, the sound is just as bad, and the server-side mods can be wonky (think NetWare 3.12 wonky). But by God, they take to the gameplay like it was a triple-fudge Oreo dusted with fairy glitter. There’s something about the possibility of unlimited creation that engages them at some very primal level, and they’d probably play it six hours a day if I let them. Maybe that’s what concerns parents about Minecraft – that it does seem so obsession-prone in its nature, and that their kids, left alone, will want to play it six hours a day. How’s that going to be managed? What’s the answer to that request?

Well, every once in a while, the answer should probably be yes. One of my favorite phrases around our house is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Once in a great while, if it would truly balm your soul to eat a carton of ice cream, or take a three-hour nap in the sun, or sample every chocolate milk stout on the market in one afternoon – or play six hours of Minecraft – I think you should do it. Not every day; it’s not a round table, and Moderation sits at the head of it. But every once in a while, especially if they’ve truly rocked the other aspects of their growth and development that week, I’ll let them go to town. Once in a great while, mind you. Because if ‘a great while’ got to be too often…

…well, that’s a slippery slope. Buffalo Mama wrote a post a while back entitled “But What If All The Kid Wants to Do is Play Video Games?” It’s a core question in unschooling: what if something becomes everything? Well, I’m not sure I would let anything become my children’s everything, no matter what it was. Everythings, in general, are bad in a house of intensities, because if something is an everything, everything else gets squeezed out completely. It’s one reason we do Adventure Lunches over the summer, and try out Indian and Greek and Korean and Moroccan food, chasing sushi with rice-paper ice cream balls and vegetable korma with gulab jamun: because left alone, humans fall into ruts. For kids, that’s doubly true, and for intense kids, even moreso. It’s easy to let them become chicken tender-eating, sidewalk-Razoring, Mario Kart-driving, Phineas and Ferb-watching automatons, so we continuously break that ice as it emerges with baba ganoush and indoor skydiving and Portal and Doctor Who and a zillion other life variations that keep them evolving.

What I have learned on the videogame front is to bend like a willow, rather than break like an oak, and thus it came to be that they became LUCKY KIDS with their OWN SERVER. And you know what? Their intellectual and creative development hasn’t faltered in the slightest; if anything, it’s grown, and given them a new means of socialization as well. I’ve seen how this game can bring kids together; operating a Minecraft server has been the 2013 equivalent of owning a trampoline or a swimming pool in the 1970s. The other kids come around to play – virtually, in this case – and there’s something to be said for watching how other kids approach the tasks of resource collection and construction. They build together, and they build apart, but there’s a line of companionship and shared passion that runs through all of it.

It’s not everything for them, but it’s a something that I’m cool with, and I haven’t seen their interest in other somethings diminish. Oh, and we get to talk about other stuff in the car now. Win/win.

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