Minecraft image © Mojang
Alphabet Soup logo by Paul Morton
This is my first digital media article for Alphabet Soup, and I thought long and hard about what to cover. But it struck me that there’s one example of digital media that's having a profound impact on today’s children, especially in the primary school age group.
How is the unstoppable march of Minecraft affecting the ways in which our kids play, learn, read and write?
Minecraft is not just a game – it is a phenomenon. Launched by software developers Mojang in 2011, it has sold over 70 million copies and was recently acquired by Microsoft. A high proportion of Minecraft users are children, and the game is readily available on a range of platforms: PCs, consoles, tablets and phones. For some, it is more of an obsession than a game, and naturally this has sparked plenty of debate amongst parents who worry their kids are spending too much of their time mining for virtual minerals.
It seems that even when children are not playing Minecraft, they are thinking about it (!), which has fuelled a host of merchandising and media spin-offs including toys, clothing, books, cookware and even a movie (scheduled for 2017). This would perhaps be comparable with other kids’ media brands such as Angry Birds or Star Wars, were it not for the uniquely immersive nature of Minecraft gameplay and the high level of creativity the game encourages. Users can choose to play in survival mode – which adds elements of danger and combat – or creative mode, which allows them to build to their hearts’ content. I found that my own daughters began playing the game in survival mode, but have gradually moved across to creative mode, content to get their adrenaline kick from other video games while using Minecraft like an infinite digital Lego set.
Minecraft also allows users to have a high level of access to the structure of the game engine itself. Software programs known as mods can be plugged into Minecraft to allow special features or abilities within the game. For instance, the current most popular mod JourneyMap adds a real-time mapping facility to the game. A more whimsical mod such as Still Hungry adds lots of additional foods to the Minecraft experience and lets the player make their own tacos! As children’s programming skills increase, they can write their own mods using Java code and make these available to other Minecraft players.
As you might expect, Minecraft has a massive presence on YouTube. How massive? Well, I typed “Minecraft” into YouTube’s search engine and got this response:
About 84,900,000 results
The Minecraft video content on YouTube is a mixed bag, ranging from game walkthroughs to fully-animated stories set in the Minecraft world. The undeniable superstar of this scene is a twenty-five-year-old Brit called Joseph Garrett, who is better known as “Stampy”. Stampy has the fourth-biggest YouTube channel in the world, and his recent Wonder Quest series has had over 50 million views to date. Wonder Quest is an interesting hybrid: part Minecraft adventure story, part educational, and part comedy. Although it might seem a trifle gauche to adult eyes, it speaks to younger viewers in a way that glossy TV content often doesn't.
Stampy signed a publishing deal last year with Egmont, and had a book in the shops in time for Christmas. Stampy’s Lovely Book is typical of YouTube tie-ins, containing a mix of bite-sized content: puzzles, cartoons, tips and tricks. However, his subsequent book tour attracted long queues of admirers – something that most debut authors can only dream of.
Although the Minecraft world is not obvious territory for publishers, the huge potential customer base has proved too lucrative to deny. As well as signing Stampy, Egmont have the official license from Mojang to produce Minecraft books. They’ve concentrated on non-fiction so far, with a range of highly instructive and highly popular game manuals. Last year, they published the mammoth Minecraft Blockopedia, which quickly became the number one title in the UK non-fiction children’s chart for 2015. More than 2.5 million official Minecraft books have been sold in the UK alone!
However, analysing traditionally-published Minecraft material is only scratching the surface. When I checked out fanfiction.net, there were 6,000 different Minecraft fan fiction stories rated as suitable for kids. And then there were another 700 or so which were rated as adult, though I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what those could possibly include!
It seems that Minecraft is not only promoting reading, but writing too. I asked SCBWI-BI member Pippa Wilson about how the game inspired her:
"Back in September 2013, two of my sons were Minecraft crazy and I realised how the game captured their imaginations in a completely immersive way. So I listened in to their conversations on the microphone with friends, and was fascinated by their levels of social interaction."
The Cracker Hacker in 2014. It’s a book very much in tune with the technology-obsessed family of today, featuring a lead character who is a Minecraft developer and all-round coding genius. So it appears that it's not just the game world of Minecraft that's inspiring – the human world that surrounds it can be equally fertile territory.
The future is block-shaped.
Nick Cross is an experienced word juggler, Undiscovered Voices winner and 2015 honours recipient of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for fiction.
Nick's most recent children's short story Todd Tempest Investigates can be found in issue 11 of Stew Magazine. He also blogs regularly for Notes from the Slushpile.