It takes a village: But not one built using Minecraft

www.jeffvrabel.comApril 22, 2013 

A screenshot from the game Minecraft.

For going on nine years, the video game situation in our house has been happily deplorable.

By "deplorable," I mean we don't have video games. We are sans Wii. There is no Xbox here, no PlayStation. One time a friend brought over some device that you control by hopping around your living room like a hysterical lunatic, which wasn't something I could see doing regularly. Somewhere in the attic there's an ancient blow-on-the-cartridge-era Nintendo, which essentially represents the precise moment my video game evolution came to an end. And that's it for video games.

Somewhere, we are being pitied by the Amish.

This is partly by design and partly due to dumb luck. We're not going out of our way to plop an Xbox in here, but Short Pants has also, bafflingly and inexplicably, never really gotten into video games. (He doesn't like french fries either. PARENTING SCORE!)

Yet it's hard for me to stand atop Hippie Mountain and say, "The scourge of video games shall not touch this castle!," because in place of the Xbox, we've become obsessed with something called Minecraft. And apparently if you are the parent of a boy between the ages of 3 and 18, there's a solid chance you just went, "Oh my God yeah, Minecraft!" -- especially if you're the kind of person who talks to your newspaper a lot.

Minecraft is either the most genius or most boring video game ever, possibly both. The first thing is, it's not really a video game. It's more a building exercise. In Minecraft, you get blocks, and you get a large empty environment, and you build things out of blocks in your space -- a forest, a desert, an island, whatever. And that's it. It's creating on a blank slate. It's a first-person shooter with no shooting. There's no point, no decisive victory, no storyline -- you just build. The creativity comes out of the different kinds of blocks: You can build out of rocks or stones or bricks or gold or butter. Actually, in Minecraft, gold and butter are the same thing. This is something that my son has had to explain to me probably 900 times, because no matter how frequently another human being tells you he's building a cruise ship out of butter, you never really get it.

In one sense, it's unbridled creativity, and that is good. In another, more practical sense, it's forehead-smackingly boring to watch.

As video games go, it could be worse. As the fulcrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders go, it's a problem. Minecraft has taken over this house -- and sizable real estate in my son's brain. I have had to actually kick him out of the car in the drop-off line in the morning because he's telling me about diamond blocks and iron blocks and stone blocks and oh my God you have to get to class RIGHT NOW. "If you want to place bedrock you have to place destructible bedrock," he'll tell me, out of the clear blue sky, as though we've been already engaged in a serious discussion about destructible bedrock. (Oh wait, here's another thing he said once: "If I damage the watertight compartment, more water will flood in. But I just tried to fix it. With butter." Can someone tell me how to keep a straight face when someone this small is this concerned about butter?)

All of which was reasonably fine and harmless until last week, when we found Minecraft on YouTube. As near as I can figure -- and understand, I am far too old and uninterested to care about this -- there's a guy named Sky who plays Minecraft, and all the kids watch, which is odd because Sky uses language that qualifies as filth, flarn, flarn and filth. This is to be expected -- there's only so much wit and charm you can expect from a guy who records himself playing video games. So naturally I'm telling my 9-year-old he can't watch videos of some obscene loser playing video games online, because yay modern parenting!

But one night, something odd happened, something Minecraft-related, right at bedtime. "There's something weird about Minecraft," he told me at lights-out, which is when he usually likes to deploy his existential crises, partly because it's the end of a long day, and partly because he's spectacularly effective at delaying bedtimes. "I like it during the day but not so much at night." Why not at night, I wondered? "I don't know. It seems really lonely."

Yep. That happens with video games.

Jeff Vrabel has, to date, never tried to build anything out of butter, except breakfast. He can be reached at www.jeffvrabel.com and followed at twitter.com/jeffvrabel.

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