I KNEW there was trouble in paradise the instant I took my son’s iPad off him while he was playing Minecraft. He’d ignored me three times when I’d told him to put it down and come eat dinner.
Like a werewolf right on the strike of midnight, my seven-year-old transformed. He clenched his jaw, turned his hands into claws and came at me kicking and scratching and even trying bite me, like he hadn’t done since he was two.
“Don’t you know I was building a fortress?” he shrieked.
Shooting me a death stare as he attacked, he was severe. The only thing standing between me and a serious injury was his pint-sized 7-year-old body. Because he wanted me hurt and if he was any bigger he would have done it. One part of me wanted to laugh at the preposterous situation but I couldn’t because I was too disturbed. So I bent down on one knee and hugged him until he settled.
To bring you up to speed, Minecraft is a gameplay phenomenon that enables players to build worlds — castles, thrones, houses, trees, animals, fortresses, cities, countries — out of textured cubes in a 3D world. The game also involves exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat.
Once adept, a player can devise, plan and execute the creation of entire worlds that are all their own.
It sends kids nuts. It sends some adults nuts too. According to the telltale Wikipedia, Minecraft has more than 100 million registered users worldwide and is the most purchased PC game of all time with 17 million copies sold by late last year.
For some it’s like corn chips for the brain. Once you’ve started it’s hard to know how to stop.
At first I didn’t make the direct link between Louis’s behaviour and the Minecraft game; I just thought it was the iPad. But then when I thought a little harder, I acknowledged that Louis had had his iPad for three years and he had never come even close to displaying this kind of feral behaviour.
I immediately went online to investigate Minecraft and kids, certain there’d be widespread outrage about its ill effects. That it would be the scourge of our children’s digital worlds.
But no. What I found was praise. Minecraft is “kid friendly’, it teaches real world skills, it builds imagination and creativity, it teaches perseverance, “a generation of architects” and it’s fun for the whole family.
Unconvinced, I put my theory to the test on one of my son’s rare sick days. But to be fair I walked through the key issues with him beforehand.
“Mate, you know how angry you got the other day when I asked you to stop playing Minecraft?” I asked.
“Well did you like feeling that way? That angry?”
“Well I’m worried that it’s Minecraft that made you feel that way. But I’m not sure so I’m going to let you play Minecraft again today because you are sick and I know you’re getting bored. But when I ask you to stop I don’t want you to get angry. I want you to stay calm and accept that game time is over.”
“Okay Dad. I’ll try.”
While he was playing, I got to thinking. One thing I always try to do, wherever possible, is see the world through my boy’s eyes. And no matter which way I cut it, I can’t get around the fact that it must be terribly disempowering at times.
“Fetch your school bag, take your plate to the kitchen, do your homework, we’re getting your hair cut, it’s bedtime, it’s school time, we’re going to swimming class, no we’re not going to Luna Park, it’s a school day.”
But in Minecraft, he owns the joint. He gets left alone while he builds his world from the ground up and he calls the shots. Every shot.
So putting this outburst of fury into my son’s context, here is this big bloke who calls all the other shots and, on some level, must represent his disempowerment, taking away from him the one thing over which he has complete control. Minecraft.
After about 90 minutes of sick day screen time I called out to him that it was time to down his Minecraft tools. He ignored me point blank. I walked towards him and repeated myself. This time he reacted and put the iPad down.
“Dad I’m getting angry again. I think its Minecraft that’s doing that,” he actually said.
“Then do you think now is a good time to stop?” I returned.
“Yes Dad. It’s time to stop.”
After some trial and error, he’s is now restricted to a maximum of one hour screen time per day and all anger issues seem to have been resolved. For now.