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What Minecraft Teaches Me About Fatherhood


There are no mirrors in my son’s bedroom. There is a bed, a dresser, a goldfish, and a Moroccan pouf ottoman. There are dozens of green, blue, red, and black darts color-coded to match brightly hued blasters by Nerf and by BOOMco. Quietly neglected but faithfully lingering, certain stuffed animals have made their way to the corners.

In the closet, several types of Battleship games, electronic and old-school, share space with sports regalia. And crammed onto the dresser are—along with the spy kit components, the collection of sticks, and the porcelain piggy bank that is also a bust of Optimus Prime—four slimes, three creepers, two zombies, and a cave spider, all of the fold-up cardboard variety.

On the wall next to the Skylanders poster is a richer, more complicated one. It features the creepers, zombies, and dozens of other mobs (“mobile entities”) that belong to the Minecraft universe. You’re presented with farm animals, rabbits, and wolves, but also ghasts, witches, skeletons, zombie pigmen, and long-armed, jet-black, teleporting endermen, eyes emitting an eerie, purplish glow.

These beings creep and cavort across the poster: in dungeons, on cliffs, in and around pools of lava, in the crannies of desert mountains, in the paling shadows thrown by a rising sun, in the (almost) bottomless pits and caverns filled with granite, cobblestone, and diorite. Deeper in the vast fissures, players mine iron, gold, diamond, emerald, and lapis lazuli. Along tracks powered by “redstone” switches, mine carts careen around peaks and valleys, topography jumbled together like a pixilated and intimidating, yet strangely enticing, seven-layer bean dip.

This poster, a portal to a world that exists, as Zoolander says, inside the computer, is something that catches my son’s approving and wondering eye each time he wanders in or out of his room. But even though he’s (“already”) six, he hasn’t asked for a mirror to place on the wall, and even when he’s mugging in front of the bathroom sink, it’s only to check on a wiggly tooth that’s possibly seeping blood. Then he’s washing his hands as fast as something with only two arms could ever do, and it’s back to the iPad.

Where, if the moment is right, still often enough to make me smile, a game of Minecraft is waiting. Where, as we’re used to, he and I will flop down on the couch or the bed, host a server, create a world, and meet inside.

Minecraft Explains Itself

You don’t need the instructions. The context, the writer pausing after the nutgraf to “back up for a minute” and set up the lens for a potted explainer of the whole “phenomenon”— in the “unlikely event” you’ve been “living offline in a converted bunker,” an old-person realm where the sandbox game with the Swedish creator and the massive Microsoft buyout is terra incognita—all this is unnecessary. Like my son, like his friends and the endless children watching exhaustive 30-minute-plus gameplay videos when they’re not themselves exploring the world, you learn Minecraft through immersion.

The purpose isn’t to display expertise. It’s to do.

Everything you need to function is there at the outset. You walk around, dig with your hands or tools you build out of wood and stone, you amass units of same and begin constructing houses, forts, towers, libraries deep below ground level, swimming pools rimmed with torches—whatever. Things click. Intuitions are rewarded. The six-year-old veteran you’re playing with quickly addresses any dumb questions. (You have to go to sleep to fast-forward to morning. You have to put down a crafting table.) Knowledge isn’t performed, it’s merely disseminated. The purpose isn’t to display expertise. It’s to do.

Sometimes, for the two of us, it’s “survival mode,” where you start with nothing but what Thomas Hobbes would grant: your clothed but otherwise-naked self, vulnerable to splash damage (from TNT) and fall damage and drowning and burning from lava or fire. Bound by the laws of physics, you dig with care, you build only with what you’ve managed to mine. Time moves slowly… until you look up from the screen and it’s going to be an 8:45pm dinner hour, even though it’s a school night.

Building Lives and Relationships

Survival mode, as is true of Minecraft generally, can mean a lot of things, and one of them is Hunger Games, where players build worlds with elaborate settings and everyone’s equipped with bows and arrows, and you can imagine what happens next. But without prompting or nudging my son guides us toward the simplest forms of survival mode, where you can flip the settings to private and keep it just the two of us, etching out an existence in a landscape that technically unfolds itself ad infinitum.

Outside the computer, will I ever so unobtrusively teach my son the way architecture functions as a metaphor for life?

Our characters look more or less identical, but our biological relationship and its reverberations of heart and soul have migrated into the game. Scowling gently in concentration, he warns me without taking his eyes off the screen of spooky perils we will never encounter in real life. Making what might, if we made our own gameplay video, look like a notably similar face, I drop hints—and sometimes amped-up shouts—about some piece of wisdom (don’t dig through the seawall!) that seems suddenly, as the real sun slides under the blocky downtown skyline, impressively inaccessible through real-world experience in this, the Year of our Lord 2015.

Outside the computer, will I ever so unobtrusively teach my son the way architecture functions as a metaphor for life? How foundations enable by constraining? How hard it hits when you step back from a project you’d worked so hard to construct, only to realize that your innocent unseriousness about your grand vision has led to your vision revenging itself, reflecting the unseriousness back onto you in a way where the innocence is suddenly lost? Outside the computer, is any kind of survival mode quite so forgiving?

Then there’s “creative mode,” where he—and, ahem, I—really shine. We can’t get to sleep on the clock. We’re on the thirtieth story of a desert ziggurat assembled from glowstone and compressed ice. We’re making an obstacle course that spans between chasms. We’re running through space and time, in the sky, zooming upward to laughable heights and toggling the wing icon to plummet in freefall through various rings we’ve constructed, affixed in midair, directing us onto a target in the bedroom in the computer, where we click go to sleep and, in a second, it’s morning.

Don’t Insert Obvious Takeaway Here

It’s science fiction. It’s endless vistas occasionally featuring noise. It’s training for space.

In space, no one can hear your kitsch. There are stupid feels to be had by the dozen—Look at my online kid, soaring through space! Look—he’s building literal castles in clouds!—but you don’t have them. It’s seamlessly analogous to meatspace. Floating around leads to zooming leads to returning to home base. Exploration takes place in a more or less constant relation with creation, sometimes one more aimless than the other, often not. Boredom sets in, but not “inevitably.” Reality is augmented, not replaced.

Exploration takes place in a more or less constant relation with creation, sometimes one more aimless than the other, often not.

But in creative mode, you can’t die. You can have endless fights, or zero fights. You can kill sheep for 45 minutes, or construct a creeper concentration camp and pick them off with flaming arrows. You can make a herd of wolves and domesticate them all. You spell out your names in gleaming materials that will never exist in real life, stretching like ridiculously-placed hotels across horizons you know will persist out in netherspace long since you’ve forgotten where to find them, or what you called the worlds you decided to place them in.

There are other games where people have taken the most aggressive potential of Minecraft and built it into a set of arenas for kill-and-be-killed-fests with outlandish, inventive types of armor and firearms. There are times when my son will insist upon Pixel Gun 3D, but this isn’t one of them. He knows he’s better than I am at running and gunning. (It’s hard to aim well even on an iPhone 6.) But it’s not just that. He knows how peace and creation go hand in hand.

Creative destruction can wait. Time is already short. The list of available servers created by other players—older kids—has him laughing, but not me. Their titles scroll past, dozens of variations on a single phrase: “I need a girlfriend.”

After he’s finally asleep, and the last of the bedtime books is put on pause and set down, I quietly pad out of the room. A prayer for him, a prayer for the fish, a prayer for us all. Then it’s my turn to look into the mirror.