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Minecraft is fast becoming one of the most popular video-games in history. We asked journalist Jordan Erica Webber to explain why her family had recently been avidly playing with Minecraft.

Update: A series of Minercraft guides have recently been released by Egmont that are an excellent place to start discovering more about the game for families. Minecraft Beginners & Redstone Guide and the Minecraft Annual last year. Then this year we have the Official Combat guide and the Official Construction Handbook.

As my twelve-year-old brother told me with disdain a couple of months ago, the hot topic in the playground these days is Minecraft. I didn't understand it. I'd tried to play the PC version back when friends were talking about it, but had never got the hang of what I was supposed to do. However, now both of us play. In fact, most of my brothers and sisters are in on the action, and we sometimes spend hours playing Minecraft together. We've joined the ranks that are currently made up of more than 11 million PC players, more than 10 million mobile device players (and that was in April), and more than 7 million Xbox 360 players. It's difficult to tell from the outside what makes Minecraft so popular. In fact, it's difficult to tell what the game even is. If you try to watch your child over their shoulder, you might see them digging a hole in the ground, or hitting a sheep with a sword, or setting something on fire, and you'll probably have no idea why they're doing any one of those things. If you try to play for yourself, as I did some time ago, you'll find your avatar stood in the middle of a procedurally generated (different each time) blocky world, with no instructions to give you a hint of how to proceed. But this lack of instruction is actually what makes Minecraft interesting. Minecraft is an electronic game, but it's more like the toys of the past, where children made their own fun. Minecraft is the Lego of the video game world, and not even a Lego set with instructions on how to make a Death Star but a box of assorted Lego pieces for which you have to use your imagination. In fact, the analogy with Lego is even more apt because of the way you actually play Minecraft. That blocky world is made up of separate pieces that you can break off just like you can break off a Lego piece and use to build something new: grass pieces, wood pieces, rock pieces, and much more. Since these blocks are all the same size, you can rearrange them to form whatever you like: a house, a statue, a mountain with a forest on top and a waterfall running down its side. Minecraft technically has two modes: Creative and Survival.

  • Creative mode is most like a Lego set, where you have all the blocks available to you and can just build uninhibited (and people have come up with some incredible creations).
  • Survival mode is a little more like other kinds of video game. You still play in that same blocky world, and the focus is still on building new things, but monsters come out at night and if they get you then you have to reload and you might lose the blocks you've most recently collected.

The great thing about Survival mode is that it provides some direction for the player's creation. You can avoid the monsters if you build yourself a shelter by nightfall, so you'll probably want to spend your first day cutting down trees to build a wooden hut, or just digging a big hole in the ground that you'll seal up with rock when nighttime comes. Also in Survival mode, you don't have access to all of the different kinds of block straight away. If you want to make yourself some gold armour, then you'll have to go and do some mining, probably deep into the ground, to find some gold ore. Then you'll want to gather some stone and build a furnace that you can use to turn that gold ore into gold ingots, which you can then use to make your armour. While Creative mode is all about pure creativity, like a blank sheet of paper, Survival mode encourages other skills. The player chooses their own goal and then makes a plan to achieve it, working out the necessary ingredients and creating the necessary tools, all the while keeping in mind the need to return to shelter at night. As the player improves, they can choose more difficult goals and build more impressive creations. This is why my brothers and sisters and I play Minecraft in survival mode when we play together. When you have multiple people playing in the same world, you can choose a common goal and then divide up the workload. On a recent Sunday afternoon, we got out various mobile devices and started a new game in Survival mode and made our plans: my fifteen-year-old brother chopped down trees and gave me the wood, I built us a big house between two mountains, my twelve-year-old brother searched for wool with which to make beds for us to sleep in, my seven-year-old brother dug out a mine and mined for iron ore, and my nine-year-old sister melted down that ore and used it to make us each a piece of armour. The previous day, we'd played a board game together, but half the players left the table before the end. Never has something encouraged us to work together for as long as Minecraft has. So it was good news for us when Minecraft: Pocket Edition (the one you can play on mobile devices) got a new update that introduced a way to use the Internet to play together even when not in the same room. Since I don't live with my brothers and sisters, I can now keep in touch with them by meeting them in the Minecraft world we're building together, using the chat function to talk to them and carry on making plans. As you can see in the video my siblings and I play Minecraft together, both in the same room and across the Internet. We're looking forward to the new version on Microsoft's new games console, Minecraft Xbox One. On their Xbox 360 XBLA version Minecraft has also caught on with more avid games. I hope this article and video help those who haven't played to understand a little more about why so many people have fallen in love with Minecraft. If you have any questions or suggestions for future videos about the game, let us know in the comments!

For more family video-game review from Jordan Erica Webber, you can follow her Family Gaming videos.
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Andrew Robertson
Andy Robertson is the editor of AskAboutGames and has written for national press and broadcast about video games and families for over 15 years. He has just published the Taming Gaming book with its Family Video Game Database.