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PAX: The phenom and value of MinecraftAugust 30, 2012 @ 7:04 pm (Updated: 9:37 am - 9/1/12 )
One of the hottest-selling video games of the year does not feature bloody gun battles, violent images or birds trying to destroy pigs. With its soft, soothing theme music and simple 8-bit building blocks, Minecraft is a star of a huge convention in Seattle this weekend.
The Penny Arcade Expo, PAX, brings together 60,000 game developers and fans who play console video games, online computer games and even tabletop games.
Minecraft is focused on creativity and building, allowing players to construct things out of textured cubes in a three-dimensional world.
The game world is essentially made of blocks which represent different materials, such as dirt, stone, various ores, water, tree trunks, or lava. While the players can move freely across the world, objects and items can only be placed at fixed locations relative to a grid.
"You open it up to this randomly generated world and you do whatever you want," says Lydia Winters, who is the director of fun for Mojang, the company formed after they realized they had a success with Minecraft.
"The focus is on creativity, but you do need survive too."
She explains if you don't build a shelter "at night the most adorable, and also terrifying 8-bit creatures will come and kill you."
A player in Minecraft has a lot of freedom to choose how to play the game, with the primary goals being surviving attacks by the monsters that are in the form of zombies, skeletons and "creepers."
Along with the game itself - which can be played online, through Microsoft's Xbox 360, or on mobile versions - hundreds of businesses have popped up related to Minecraft. There are hundreds of YouTube channels with people describing their worlds.
Just as you never know which videos will go viral on YouTube and get millions of views, the Swedish creators of Minecraft didn't know they'd have hit when the game launched a year ago.
"The total value, you could take about 7 million times about 20-ish dollars," Winters says. "It's a lot. It's kind of crazy."
There are almost 40 million registered users, of which more than 7 million have bought the game. Everyday they're selling about $350,000 dollars worth of the game for the Xbox 360 alone.
The value to me is more personal.
My 12-year-old son, who will start seventh grade next week, is obsessed with Minecraft. He spends hours each week on a game that involves minimal violence. I like that. My son also has a new passion for engineering and architecture. I love that.
Why is it that the same young people who turn sullen and bored when faced with a half hour of algebra or chemistry, are happy to spend hours mastering Minecraft's physics?
A neuroscientist at Bristol University in London says computer games stimulate the brain's reward system to produce dopamine, a chemical which enhances the making of connections between neurons. That's the physical basis for learning.
"For generations, we educators have done everything we can to maintain a consistent relationship between reward and achievement, but the neuroscience is telling us something different," Paul Howard Jones told The New York Times earlier this year. "
"Instead of trying to ban portable phones or portable computers from the classroom, teachers should be trying to harness the power of games in their lessons," he says.
Minecraft creators will make an announcement next week that they say will show the game is "worth more to the world" than just countless hours of entertainment. They won't give me any hints, but education is important to the creators.
"A teacher could walk into a classroom and teach about hunger and sustainability. If you don't grow your crops then there's no food around, you won't survive," Winters says. "Kids could get on a server and learn to work together to building a community. I think the possibilities are really encouraging."
By LINDA THOMAS
Photos are screen grabs from a few of my son's Minecraft worlds.
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