NYT Magazine: The Minecraft Generation

Our friend Dave Bolman over at the University of Advancing Technology turned us on to this great piece in the New York Times Magazine. Thanks Dave!

THE MINECRAFT
GENERATION

How a clunky Swedish computer game is teaching
millions of children to master the digital world.

Jordan wanted to build an unpredictable trap.

An 11-year-old in dark horn-­rimmed glasses, Jordan is a devotee of Minecraft, the computer game in which you make things out of virtual blocks, from dizzying towers to entire cities. He recently read “The Maze Runner,” a sci-fi thriller in which teenagers live inside a booby-­trapped labyrinth, and was inspired to concoct his own version — something he then would challenge his friends to navigate.

Jordan built a variety of obstacles, including a deluge of water and walls that collapsed inward, Indiana Jones-style. But what he really wanted was a trap that behaved unpredictably. That would really throw his friends off guard. How to do it, though? He obsessed over the problem.

Then it hit him: the animals! Minecraft contains a menagerie of virtual creatures, some of which players can kill and eat (or tame, if they want pets). One, a red-and-white cowlike critter called a mooshroom, is known for moseying about aimlessly. Jordan realized he could harness the animal’s movement to produce randomness. He built a pen out of gray stones and installed “pressure plates” on the floor that triggered a trap inside the maze. He stuck the mooshroom inside, where it would totter on and off the plates in an irregular pattern.

Presto: Jordan had used the cow’s weird behavior to create, in effect, a random-­number generator inside Minecraft. It was an ingenious bit of problem-­solving, something most computer engineers I know would regard as a great hack — a way of coaxing a computer system to do something new and clever.

When I visited Jordan at his home in New Jersey, he sat in his family’s living room at dusk, lit by a glowing iMac screen, and mused on Minecraft’s appeal. “It’s like the earth, the world, and you’re the creator of it,” he said. On-screen, he steered us over to the entrance to the maze, and I peered in at the contraptions chugging away. “My art teacher always says, ‘No games are creative, except for the people who create them.’ But she said, ‘The only exception that I have for that is Minecraft.’ ” He floated over to the maze’s exit, where he had posted a sign for the survivors: The journey matters more than what you get in the end.

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