“It's all about survival, Mom!” My 11-year-old daughter is trying (again) to explain Minecraft, the video game that seems to have captured the imagination of nearly every kid from 6 to 12 that I've ever met; a game that, up until now, I’ve purposely blocked space in my brain for, save for the basics. There’s a lot of squares and blocks and you build things, and maybe kill things, but it’s not violent… That's alI I really need to know as a responsible parent, right?
We were on our way to a Minecraft convention called Minefaire, which took over the main floor at the L.A. Convention Center this past weekend, and I was making my first real attempt to understand the intricacies and infatuation behind the 'Craft craze, hoping to bond with my babe in a new way (video games are sort of her dad's department). When we got there, I was not the only parent — eyes glazed, wallet in hand — following their offspring around like a soulless creeper. OK, so creepers are actually the bad guys of the game, but they seem anything but ominous to me — they actually look like happy, green pixelated robots. Endermans, on the other hand, are kind of sinister and scary: they are tall, black blockheads with long, spiderlike arms and searing purple eyes. Both are out to kill your kid.
A little background: Minecraft is a video game created and designed by Swedish game designer Markus "Notch" Persson. (“Notch is the god of Minecraft!” my daughter tells me, adding that there are maps you can load within the game to find secret “Notch” treasure. Sounds a little cult-y, but OK) The game is released and distributed by a Sweden-based company called Mojang. The creative and building aspects consist of different types of cubes, all the same size, which are used to make shelter, usually big, swank pads and palace-like homes that reflect the player’s personal taste.
There are a few types of “modes” available in Minecraft’s 3-D generated universe, which allow for exploration, gathering resources and combat. The most popular, as my daughter stresses, is survival mode, where the player builds his/her world and maintains health, repped by a bunch of little hearts on the left side of the screen. As my 'Crafty kid attempts to explain, you stay healthy by “not getting hit by mobs [monsters] or other players, not falling from high structures, not letting your hunger bar [repped by a bunch of little chicken drumsticks on the left side of your screen] go down, not burning in lava and not suffocating.” Apparently, there are a lot of ways to die in Minecraft.
Modes are not to be confused with mods, which are Minecraft “add-ons” that customize the game to suit personal aesthetics and tastes. When you play basic Minecraft minus the mods, servers or “texture packs,” that’s called Vanilla Minecraft (this, thankfully, is the only thing about it that has anything remotely referencing sex). Getting the intricacies of Minecraft now? Good, because your 6-year-old child/niece/nephew/neighbor sure does. It might look simple, like the Tetris or Pac-Man of our youth, and it definitely lacks the animated details of, say, Legend of Zelda or SIMS, but make no mistake — Minecraft is anything but simple in terms of details, levels and options.
We arrived at Minefaire just as the costume contest was in full swing, and children of all ages took the stage to show off homemade and store-bought getups, mostly inspired by creepers and the game’s two protagonists/default avatars, “Steve” and “Alex” (the latter, who is female, was added recently to make the game more gender-equal). There were also kids dressed up as their own original avatars, and as YouTubers. YouTube, by the way, is pretty much how Minecraft became the cultural phenomenon it is today, and for some reason, watching other people play and talk about Minecraft on YouTube is almost as popular as playing the game yourself.
So what did Minefaire have to offer? There were signings with YouTubers (though none of my girl’s faves), there were VR (virtual reality) demos and some (actual hands-on) craft tables. But the main attractions were sectioned-off tables with rows and rows of laptops for actual gameplay. Supplied by IDT Tech, each play area provided a different game from a popular server, such as Mineplex’s Turf Wars and Feed the Beast’s Egg Hunt. A chair is provided for parents to sit and watch their kids as they play (something most of us do not do at home, because it is not fun, so yeah...).
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There was lots of stuff to buy, of course — T-shirts, hats, plushies, blankets, drinking cups, Legos, light-up “Diamond swords” and those Pop Vinyl figures that fly off the selves at Hot Topic (my little goth/gamer’s favorite store, natch). Everything seemed overpriced; more than once I heard a mom tell her merch-swooping munchkins she could find the same stuff cheaper elsewhere. Still, as we left Minefaire, there was not one child who wasn’t carrying a bag of something. The most popular item was a souvenir TNT box (TNT is a popular weapon in Minecraft) filled with a T-shirt, a rubber bracelet, a plushie, an autograph book (for YouTubers to sign) and some other useless crap that will end up in the crevices of the family car by next week.
“Minefaire was cool,” the daughter told me as we left, “but it's no Mine-Con,” which apparently is the Comic-Con of Minecraft, where all the big Minecraft-playing YouTubers/millionaires such as “Stampylonghead," "LDShadowlady" and "PopularMMOs” make appearances. That mega-gathering used to be held in a different international locale each year (Vegas, Paris, London and, in 2016, Anaheim). Taking place on Sept. 29 this year, the event was rebranded as Minecon Earth last year and can only be "attended" via Livestream now, thank God. I mean, thank Notch.