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8 Things You Need to Know About Minecraft

I first heard about Minecraft sometime last year. Not being a gamer, I didn't pay too much attention. My kids are 5 and just-turned-4 so I don't need to worry about video games yet, right? (Cue laughter.) After a very brief introduction by an older friend, my 5-year-old is now playing Minecraft like he was born for it and my 4-year-old is picking it up fast. What is this strange, "addictive," block-building game?

There are dozens of tutorials and how-tos online, but if you have a preschooler who has just discovered Minecraft, here are some basic things you need to know:

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1. It's like LEGO blocks in digital form—except there are an unlimited amount of blocks and unlimited space to build.

I didn't get it at first (OK I still don't), but despite the very simple graphics (where "water" and "lava" also come in blocks), the appeal of Minecraft is in the ability to build anything you can imagine. As there is no end to the resources a player can collect, elaborate worlds can be created on the screen.

My son Patrick's boat design

2. It really does teach critical thinking skills.

The goal to Minecraft is survival: creating housing, procuring weapons and food, avoiding enemies in the form of Endermen, skeletons, zombie pigmen (seriously), silver fish (known as "bitey things" to my kids) and other slightly creepy villains. It's intriguing to watch a 5-year-old determine what he needs to protect himself and his treasures, then build a fully furnished house to keep the bad guys out.

3. This is pretend play on a video screen.

For non-gamers, Minecraft might seem like just mindless time in front of a screen, but it's engaging pretend play that takes "playing house" to an entirely new and creative level. It doesn't look like much to me, but my kids see the world they're building and they're very engaged. I'm not a child psychologist, but I'd rather have them engaged in a video game that is fully of their own creation than watching TV.

4. For pre-readers who want to understand the game better, there are video tutorials.

My older son found how-to videos on YouTube that have helped him figure out what tools he needs to collect and how to build different structures. He's learning how to listen, watch and follow instructions while putting his own interesting spin on the world he's creating.

5. There isn't any real violence, but there is death.

My kids have shown me how they have to kill the "bad guys" that might attack them or destroy their stuff, as well as how they raise and kill livestock for food and clothing. I'll be honest: I find it a little disturbing that they kill cows and pigs, but they understand that the animals are providing them with resources. While I would like to protect them from the realities of life and death, we have had several productive discussions on the topic since they've started playing Minecraft.

6. It opens the door to conversations on a variety of other topics, too.

We've also had conversations about what makes a "bad guy" and how bad guys in Minecraft are easily identifiable, but that isn't always so in real life.

Since my kids started playing Minecraft, we've talked about everything from what makes a good house to how to care for animals to how important it is to take care of our environment. We've also had conversations about what makes a "bad guy" and how bad guys in Minecraft are easily identifiable, but that isn't always so in real life. "If all bad guys looked like zombie pigmen, we'd know who to stay away from," says my oldest. Indeed.

7. The line between real world and Minecraft can become blurred in a good way.

The lessons they're picking up while playing Minecraft have translated to my older son wanting to clean his room to make sure all of his "treasures" are safe, building a "library" in his Minecraft house like our office full of books, my younger son wanting to learn how sheep's wool makes clothes and bringing his real-life love of gardening into his Minecraft world.

8. It can be a great bonding experience, if you let it.

My husband has started playing Minecraft a bit, just so he can understand what the boys are doing in their games. My older son often invites me to look at his "lovely world"—a term I find utterly charming. He takes great pride in his Minecraft creations and in helping his younger brother navigate the game. My younger son can take it or leave it at this point, but being able to engage with his older brother in a game that he has deemed "for big kids" makes him feel good and gives them one more activity to share.

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One final personal note: I've seen the word "addictive" used to describe Minecraft. I dislike the negative connotation of that word. I might joke that I'm "addicted" to watching "The Walking Dead," reading thrillers and drinking coffee*, but at the end of the day I understand that there is a whole lot more to life than those three things.

Likewise, I don't think we (the collective we) give kids enough credit. Yes, my kids can be passionate about playing Minecraft. It's up to me to set the limits on how long they can play that or any game. But at the end of nearly every day, they have played outside, engaged in pretend play in ways that don't involve a screen, eaten at least two meals at home with their family, snuggled up for story time, gotten into at least four arguments with each other, played with their real-life pets and done some kind of arts and crafts. And in almost all cases, they are happy to put down their iPads and walk away from Minecraft when my husband or I declare that it's time for a new activity.

So perhaps it's time to do away with the word "addiction" as it refers to kids' pursuits and respect that they have interests and hobbies that are just as strong, and just as important to support and nurture, as our own.

*I joke. Coffee is life.

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