By Mark Cheverton
When we first bought my son the game Minecraft, I helped him load it on the computer, create his user name, Gameknight999, select his character appearance and off he went. At first, he played it on his own, but soon he was calling us into our office so that he could show us what he created—and it was pretty amazing. He had built a gigantic castle, an obstacle course with moving parts, and even an entire underground village. His creations blew us away! As an engineer, anything that offers me a chance to build something sounds instantly intriguing. So I sat there with my son and let him teach me how to play Minecraft. In no time at all, I bought a license for me to use and off we went into the digital realm together, building towers, fighting with zombies and dodging creepers. And you know what I noticed right away? My son loved teaching me how to play the game: how to make zombie traps, how to use redstone, how to craft items, and so many other things. And the more he taught me, the more his self-esteem seemed to grow. I heard him telling his friend one day how he taught his father how to do things in the game, and he was proud, actually proud that he played Minecraft with his dad—wow!
He loved playing Minecraft so much that we bought a server for him the next Christmas. He spent months building things on his server: castles, bridges, underwater cities, factories, everything and anything his imagination could conceive. Next he brought in his friends from school and did some collaborative things and building gigantic structures that he designed. Again, great “teachable moments” arose as he struggled to work collaboratively with a couple of his 8 year-old friends. I was overwhelmed with how proud he was about his creations.
Well, one day, my son’s world came crashing down. Some other kids were able to get onto the server and destroyed everything that he’d built; “griefing” it, as the term is used in the gaming world. They leveled everything to the ground, obliterating months of work. The next time my son logged on, he saw his destroyed creations and was crushed. To make matters worse, these kids posted the video of their griefing his server on YouTube.
This was the ultimate “teachable moment,” to talk about cyber-bullying. That was when I came up with the idea of teaching my son through his favorite thing—Minecraft. I wrote a book called Invasion of the Overworld: A Minecraft Novel, to teach my son about cyber-bullying using his favorite game—a game that I came to understand as well as he did—as a backdrop. Through teaching my son about why kids bully, in the context of a game he understood, I think the lessons got driven home much harder than they would have otherwise.
Since the griefing episode, I have used video games to not only teach my son about bullies, but to teach him about other things as well. Branching out, I started looking for games that I could use to teach my son about problem solving. They helped me to teach him how to break down a problem into manageable parts and tackle them one at a time. This quickly led to a discussion on how he can do this with personal problems instead of mechanical ones. We had some great discussions about challenges I’d faced in my own life, and problems he’d faced, some of which I was hearing about for the first time, and this discussion came about because we were playing video games together.
It turns out that I am not the only one who has been using video games to teach lessons to my child. There has been a lot of research out there by respected universities on the benefits of parents playing computer games with their kids. Researchers from Arizona State University suggest that “Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids.” They also echo my statement above that “Gaming with [your] children also offers parents countless ways to insert their own ‘teaching moment.’” In addition, researchers at Brigham Young University studied 287 families, looking at how they play video games together and they found that girls between 11 to 16 years of age who played video games with a parent reported better behavior, more feelings of family closeness and less aggression than girls who played alone or with friends.
My son and I are still play Minecraft together, but we’ve also moved on to some game-making software and other games as well. Each of these platforms presents numerous opportunities for those “teachable moments” that we, as parents, crave. Playing these games with my son gives me the chance to talk with him about serious things without the ever-present eye roll and sighs. Try it, you might find what I found—that our kids are more incredible than we could ever imagine.
Mark Cheverton started playing Minecraft with his son as a way for them to bond together. His son’s experience with cyber-bullying led him to write Invasion of the Overworld: A Minecraft Novel. He is currently working on the sequel to it, Battle for the Nether. Cheverton has also written a children’s series, The Algae Voices of Azule. He lives in Albany, NY with his wife and son.To learn more about the author and his book, go to www.markcheverton.com.