Video Games

How Kids Build, Learn, and Resolve Their Fights in a Video Game World

Anarchy, Minecraft, and utopia

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Clive Thompson has an engaging piece in The New York Times Magazine called "The Minecraft Generation." Minecraft is a video game, but Thompson writes that

I belong to the Minecraft generation/I can take it or leave it each time
Minecraft

it doesn't really feel like a game. It's more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends. It's a world of trial and error and constant discovery, stuffed with byzantine secrets, obscure text commands and hidden recipes. And it runs completely counter to most modern computing trends. Where companies like Apple and Microsoft and Google want our computers to be easy to manipulate—designing point-and-click interfaces under the assumption that it's best to conceal from the average user how the computer works—Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them….It invites them to tinker.

Thompson points out that Minecraft has been getting a reputation among parents as "the 'good' computer game in a world full of anxiety about too much 'screen time.'" (Aside: If you're able to make distinctions like that, maybe it's time to stop lumping all sorts of different activities together under the "screen time" label?) So it's worth noting, as Thompson does, that this celebrated educational toy was not designed by educators, or even designed for kids. It was originally created for grown-ups, and it still has plenty of adult users, many of whom provide advice to younger players.

Adventure time!
Anarchy

All the same, Minecraft does fit into an educational tradition that encourages boys and girls to learn by playing with their environment. "The Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen urged that areas in cities ruined by World War II be turned into 'junk playgrounds,' where children would be given pickaxes, hammers and saws and allowed to shape the detritus into a new civilization, at child scale," Thompson writes. "Several were in fact created in Europe and were quite popular." The British anarchist Colin Ward once wrote a celebration of such playgrounds, seeing in them not just a place where kids could be creative and have fun, but a lesson in self-organized cooperation. At one point Ward quotes an account of The Yard, a Minneapolis playground where kids were given "their own spot of earth and plenty of tools and materials for digging, building and creating as they see fit." At first, Ward's source notes,

A girl builds a chair at The Yard.
McCall's

it was every child for himself. The initial stockpile of secondhand lumber disappeared like ice off a hot stove. Children helped themselves to all they could carry, sawed off long boards when short pieces would have done. Some hoarded tools and supplies in secret caches. Everybody wanted to build the biggest shack in the shortest time. The workmanship was shoddy.

Then came the bust. There wasn't a stick of lumber left. Hi-jacking raids were staged on half-finished shacks. Grumbling and bickering broke out. A few children packed up and left.

But on the second day of the great depression most of the youngsters banded together spontaneously for a salvage drive. Tools and nails came out of hiding. For over a week the youngsters made do with what they had. Rugged individualists who had insisted on building alone invited others to join in—and bring their supplies along. New ideas popped up for joint projects. By the time a fresh supply of lumber arrived a community had been born.

With Minecraft, similarly, Thompson argues that

What a pleasant little community.
Minecraft

kids are constantly negotiating what are, at heart, questions of governance. Will their world be a free-for-all, in which everyone can create and destroy everything? What happens if someone breaks the rules? Should they…employ plug-ins to prevent damage, in effect using software to enforce property rights? There are now hundreds of such governance plug-ins.

Seth Frey, a postdoctoral fellow in computational social science at Dartmouth College, has studied the behavior of thousands of youths on Minecraft servers, and he argues that their interactions are, essentially, teaching civic literacy. "You've got these kids, and they're creating these worlds, and they think they're just playing a game, but they have to solve some of the hardest problems facing humanity," Frey says. "They have to solve the tragedy of the commons." What's more, they're often anonymous teenagers who, studies suggest, are almost 90 percent male (online play attracts far fewer girls and women than single-­player mode). That makes them "what I like to think of as possibly the worst human beings around," Frey adds, only half-jokingly. "So this shouldn't work. And the fact that this works is astonishing."

Frey is an admirer of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize-­winning political economist who analyzed the often-­unexpected ways that everyday people govern themselves and manage resources. He sees a reflection of her work in Minecraft: Running a server becomes a crash course in how to compromise, balance one another's demands and resolve conflict.

In a Connecticut library that hosts a Minecraft server, Thompson reports, administrators sometimes "will step in to adjudicate the dispute. But this is increasingly rare." One librarian tells Thompson: "Generally, the self-­governing takes over. I'll log in, and there'll be 10 or 15 messages, and it'll start with, 'So-and-so stole this,' and each message is more of this. And at the end, it'll be: 'It's O.K., we worked it out! Disregard this message!'"

Bonus links: For more on Ostrom, go here. For Reason's special issue on video games, go here. For the tale of a gaming community where self-organization took a rather different turn, go here.

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  1. I resolved a fight playing The Division last night. During a gear extraction, a Rogue agent started shooting at us from down the street. My team gave chase and when we caught him, we beat his ass and took his lunch money.

    1. You’re guilty of having the “bad” kind of screen time.

    2. That sounds a hell of a lot more fun. I don’t play games to learn about civics or dispute resolution, or any other “real world” skills. I play games to do stuff that I couldn’t get away with in the real world: driving really fast cars, killing people, and blowing shit up.

      1. I don’t play games to learn about civics or dispute resolution

        I don’t think that the point is that kids should play games for the purpose of learning about civics and conflict resolution. But that they do learn those things while playing games that they like to play for fun. Which sounds like a good thing all around.

      2. Killing people and blowing shit up IS dispute resolution, you know.

  2. “They have to solve the tragedy of the commons.” What’s more, they’re often anonymous teenagers who, studies suggest, are almost 90 percent male (online play attracts far fewer girls and women than single-?player mode). That makes them “what I like to think of as possibly the worst human beings around,” Frey adds, only half-jokingly. “So this shouldn’t work. And the fact that this works is astonishing.””

    Wow. That’s some solid sneering condescension right there.

    “LOL, everyone knows teenage male gamers are all a bunch of scumbag sexists, so how can they do something that doesn’t suck, amirite?”

    1. These are the same guys who call SWAT teams on people they don’t like and make online arenas unplayable with their constant stream of racial and sexual epithets?

      1. and make online arenas unplayable with their constant stream of racial and sexual epithets

        Irish doesn’t see a downside to that, Hugh.

      2. Would you rather these ingrates join a gang of like minded assholes and commit crimes? Would you rather foster an environment where “outrageous” behaviors are punished?

        Are you a prude, Hugh? One of the New Puritanigressives?

      3. “These are the same guys who call SWAT teams on people they don’t like and make online arenas unplayable with their constant stream of racial and sexual epithets?”

        Somehow I suspect that if someone made similar arguments to say “Muslims are the worst people on Earth” you’d have a problem with that. It’s weird how some groups can be wildly collectivized with impunity while others can’t.

        1. In fairness, they are a bunch of nerds.

          *cracks knuckles menacingly*

        2. If by “with impunity” you mean “without anyone calling attention to an unfair characterization” then I guess neither Muslims nor teenage male gamers qualify, huh?

      4. The very ones, but are the all like that? Can we say the exception obliterates the pattern?

      5. Collectivism is good today. Chocolate ration increased, too, I’m sure.

    2. Don’t worry, sneer makes things cool when the counter-culture develops. Often, the sneering people are incorrigible degenerates who inevitably piss-off some faction of a group. When the counter-culture develops, “liking” or “practicing” a pasttime, one that is sneered at, is a sign of rebellion and disrespect. I would suggest that often. the first time a person gets to make a choice they know has negative impact on people they don’t like, the behavior is done post-sneer as a form of maturation. “Don’t play Mortal Kombat, you’ll become a killer.” “Yeah, well fuck you too. Toasty.”

      Further, I would argue that the more sneer something receives, the more likable it becomes after a set amount of time. Anecdotal evidence aside, why are Hitler Youth haircuts and tattoos the new vogue? “Don’t get a tattoo, you’ll never get a job.” “Fuck you, I am getting a tattoo.” etc.

      1. “Don’t get a tattoo, you’ll never get a job.” “Fuck you, I am getting a tattoo.” etc.

        There are always plenty of openings for baristas.

    3. Try this one: males are better at same-sex cooperation than women are.

      1. (Except sex.)

      2. If a male hates you, it only lasts until you do something cool.

        If a female hates you, it’s forever.

        1. “If a male hates you, it only lasts until you do something cool.

          If a female hates you, it’s forever.”

          Succinct. Yeah, willingness to reconcile, task-orientation, hierarchies, group-competition.

      3. Elinor Ostrom, recommending Low, Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior, Princeton UP: “Essential reading for all scholars interested in the human dimensions of global change. . . . Low shows our good side and our bad side. She gives us a realistic understanding of what drives humans, and what may enable us to achieve better outcomes in the future. A must read for everyone interested in people and the planet.”–Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University

    4. Err I kind of have to agree, having 3 teenage children at home, teenagers are the worst.

      The one thing he got wrong however is that Teenage Girls are FAR worse than teenage boys when it comes to things like cooperation and community building.

      1. How DARE you suggest there are innate differences in the biological maturation of the homo sapien along the gender line.

        Where is your gender studies degree?

        1. “How DARE you suggest there are innate differences in the biological maturation of the homo sapien along the gender line /that in turn suggest males are better at a thing than females/.”

          FIFY

          Gender Studies folks will totally be willing to point out innate differences when it suggests females are better at a thing.

    5. I would rather shove a fork in my eye than play any popular online game. I guess that makes me a woman.

      1. Complaining about men in gaming helps. Made Sarkeesian famous and filthy rich.

      2. Women don’t use forks.

      3. I presume you mean the MMO type adventure game. ‘Cause you don’t strike me as an MMO type.

      4. No. I’m a white, heterosexual male and I hate people and online gaming. I’d rather play Total War or XCom against the computer.

        1. I’m the same way. Online gaming, in general, descends into exploiting certain unrealistic characteristics of the game engine.

    6. It is kind of condescending. But it seems like you are missing the bigger point which is that even with people being assholes and just out for themselves, people have a wonderful capacity for self organization Which is a very important thing for libertarians to point out as often as possible.

      And I don’t know many teenage boys these days, nor do I play video games, but if I remember properly being a teenage boy, I would not be surprised if the personas adopted by many teenage boys online do at least appear like the worst human beings around.

  3. Man, those junk playgrounds sound like they’d be a lot of fun.

    1. “their own spot of earth and plenty of tools and materials for digging, building and creating as they see fit.”

      And end up with deadly “recreational sand holes”? I think not.

      1. “Recreational Sand Holes”? That’s a terrible name for a band.

        1. That was Bill’s nickname for Hillary.

          1. Gross, dude.

          2. Sand Trap is her official Secret Service code name.

      2. And end up with deadly “recreational sand holes”? I think not.

        Someone’s obviously never dug up into a column of gravel or sand blocks and subsequently drowned. Almost as bad as digging down blindly and dropping into lava.

    2. When I was a kid, we played a similar game, except in a real junkyard. Sure, we had to get the occasional tetanus shot, but at least we were outside.

    3. That would never fly now. There’s no fucking way they’d ever allow children access to saws, nails, and hammers and shit. Not unless you could somehow make everything out of plastic and guarantee that the kids wouldn’t be able to build anything “dangerous.”

      1. “Everyone take out your safety pencil & a circle of paper.”

      2. Except, if you can believe, such a place does, in fact, exist, in Berkeley CA of all places. I would not have believed it if I did not see it with my own eyes.

        http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/adventureplayground/

      3. My preschool had an activity area where 4-6 year olds were given pretty free rein with saws and hammers and nails and such. I don’t recall any injuries.

  4. My kids used Minecraft to build a pyramid made of TNT to see if they could blow a hole through the world. When they set it off it only locked up the game for 10 minutes but didn’t go all the way through.

    The good news is, they haven’t tried to do that in real life. So I guess I’m thankful.

    1. I’ll play with my son occasionally and he loves blowing up whatever I have built. As long as he is not destroying my property in real life, I am cool with this.

    2. Has our government ever considered giving free video games to the Muslim world?

      1. Actually, yes, I believe they have. I seem to remember an article maybe 10 years ago now that involved just that.

        Of course, it was the government, so they managed to make it stupid and pointless, which is why it didn’t work and you never hear about it now.

    3. the world is a cubic section of crust not an actual planet. lrn2wiki, noobs.

  5. Twitter’s Trust&Safety; Council and/or feminists diagree(s).

    1. Twitter’s portfolio begins the death rattle in response.

  6. Are there “girls-only” Minecraft severs? How is that going?

    1. The things are called “servers”, and Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council (above) is called that. This is an edit function.

      1. What’s that, an Edit Button?

        I heard those things were technologically impossible to implement?

    2. My 8-yr-old daughter is obsessed with Minecraft – she plays at least 2-3 hours a day.

      Her thing right now is what she calls “trials.”

      She has a courtroom she’s built and she summons animals (this is in Creative Mode). If the animals make noise, she slays them. If they don’t, she frees them.

      I’m not sure what to make of that on the “educational toy” continuum, or on the “girls play more cooperatively than boys” continuum, but it is Kafka-esque in a weird way that I find amusing.

      I feel like I’m supposed to find it concerning, but I’m oddly not that concerned about it.

      1. At least she’s not doing it with the local squirrels or the family dog.

  7. “Where companies like Apple and Microsoft and Google want our computers to be easy to manipulate?designing point-and-click interfaces under the assumption that it’s best to conceal from the average user how the computer works?Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them….It invites them to tinker.”

    The internet comes preinstalled on new computers now, and you can get a free installation disk in any issue of Wired.

    Pretty soon, people will start making their own Half-Life mods and trading mp3s through FTP servers, too.

    1. And out of that darkness, led by Lord Gaben, the Master Race moves forward into the light of truth.

    2. Also… Microsoft owns Minecraft.

  8. Minecraft also encourages kids to believe you can punch down a tree then put three sticks in the oven and pull out a wooden shovel.

    1. This is the real problem with games like this. It’s the same problem with television. It teaches kids that solutions to problems are simple and immediately resolvable. When these expectations are not met by reality, kids suffer anxiety and don’t know how to cope. In response, they invent microaggressions and safe spaces.

      1. Eh, not exactly. Kids have jack shit in Minecraft until they actually take the time to start building.

      2. I guess we’re just lucky we have complex thinkers around who are able to identify the single root cause of a phenomenon they’re pretty sure is a generation-wide problem.

      3. “It teaches kids that solutions to problems are simple and immediately resolvable.”

        /has never played Minecraft

        Problem: I want to be able to pull a lever and open a door:

        Solution:
        Punch down a tree, make a crafting table.
        Use crafting table to make a pickaxe
        Spend a few minutes mining for stone
        Make a small shelter to protect you from the horrible monsters before the first nightfall
        Use stone to make a stone pickaxe
        Spend an hour mining for iron
        Build a smelter
        Make an iron pickaxe
        Dig deep
        Spend a few hours mining for enough redstone to connect lever to door.
        Mine for more iron.
        Make iron door
        Place it in entry way.
        Dig up ground from door to lever location
        Make a lever out of a stick and some cobblestone.
        Lay down redstone wiring
        Realize that the distance between lever and door is too far
        Smelt cobblestone into smooth stone
        Construct redstone repeaters
        Finish wiring
        Bury wiring
        Done

        1. ~Immediately Resolvable~

        2. That sounds like hours of fun.

      4. In response, they invent microaggressions and safe spaces.

        More like, my generation grew up on television and video games and our KIDS invented microaggressions and safe spaces.

    2. You said it, man. I played all that Super Mario Bros. when i was a kid, and it was so disappointing to discover that you don’t actually get points for jumping on turtles in the real world.

      1. At least my dog never laughed at me like that son of a bitch from Duck Hunt.

        1. See this is what I am talking about. I spend years trying to hit a flying duck with a pistol before I found out you are suppose to use a shotgun.

    3. “put three sticks in the oven and pull out a wooden shovel.”

      No, you have to put the sticks on a TABLE, /duh/!! And it’s two sticks and some planks.

  9. Carpet bombing I hope.

  10. A good way to see just how different Minecraft is from non sandbox games is to Google “Minecraft (fill in the blank)”. You’ll usually get a result:

    1) Independence Hall: check
    2) oil rig: check
    3) death star: check
    4) Denmark: invaded by Americans
    4) ringworld: not yet

    And for the cherry on top, it’s Turing complete.

  11. A bit wrong on Minecraft. Most players play alone, because most servers are dysfunctional. A few servers even thrive on their dysfunctionality. The only group space that is safe is one that must be paid for with a monthly fee, where only one’s invited friends can join. And even there the players frequently get screwed.

  12. I think Minecraft is one of the biggest influences on kids these days and I absolutely love how it brings kids together. I also wrote about it on my blog https://ollygames.com – check it out if you like.

    Cheers.

  13. oh man this Minecraft creating so much noise among the kids. It’s like Games are empowering over our LIfe. We are almost forgetting our real life and started to play those games very seriously.

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