HomeTech ‘A place that made sense’: Minecraft turns 15 and continues to change lives

‘A place that made sense’: Minecraft turns 15 and continues to change lives

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'A place that made sense': Minecraft turns 15 and continues to change lives

TO A few days ago, I was tidying up my home office, which looks more like a video game room recently hit by a tornado, when I found a long-lost piece of technology in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. It was an old Xbox 360, the Elite model: black, heavy, ungainly, incredibly retro. Out of curiosity, I took it out, found a controller and power cable, and turned it on. I knew right away what I wanted to look for, but I was also apprehensive: I didn’t know how I would feel if Minecraft was still there, or worse, if it wasn’t. Minecraft, you see, is more than just a game to me. I thought about returning the console to where I found it. But since this month marks the 15th anniversary of the game’s original release, I felt I had to continue.

In 2012, Microsoft held a huge Xbox Games Showcase event at a cavernous venue in San Francisco. The company was showing off all the biggest titles of the time (Forza, Gears of War, Halo), but in a quiet corner sat a pair of demo units showing off the still-unreleased Xbox version of Minecraft. Of course, you already knew the game: designed by Swedish studio Mojang, it was a creative open-world adventure that allowed players to explore vast procedurally generated worlds, collect resources, and build whatever they wanted. It was already attracting millions of PC gamers. But I had never really spent much time on it; so I sat down for a quick look…and ended up staying an hour. There was something about it that kept me there, despite all the other games on offer. That something was Zac.

‘Taught him new words and concepts’…Keith and Zac. Photograph: Morag Stuart/The Guardian

Earlier that year, my oldest son was diagnosed with autism, confirming something we’d known for years. At seven years old he had a very limited vocabulary, he was terrified of change and he felt withdrawn and isolated at school. The worst thing was that he had no avenues to express himself. His verbal communication was forced, it was difficult for him to draw or build with Lego. He was trapped inside himself. But he loved technology and games, and I saw Minecraft as a possible means of escape.

As soon as we loaded the game on our Xbox 360 at home, he was hooked. He loved the game right away: it was safe, it had consistent rules and systems, the music was relaxing, and it allowed him to build things with just a controller and press a few buttons. In 2015 I wrote an article in The Guardian about the effect the game had on his life, the way it taught him new words, new concepts, the way it showed him, with such patience and care, that he too was a human being. creative. Unfortunately, my feelings about the game’s original creator have changed due to many disturbing things he has said online, but what I wrote about Minecraft is still true. An editor at Little, Brown Book Group named Ed Wood read the article and approached me about writing a novel based on our experiences. Boy Made of Blocks went on to sell 200,000 copies, and Ed and I have worked on novels together ever since. In many ways, Minecraft changed my life.

At first it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to find it again. When I booted up the old machine it wouldn’t let me log into my Xbox Live account and the version of the game I had on the hard drive was a test copy, so I couldn’t load the saves. I was dejected. I was sure this was the version of the game I’d first played with Zac and his younger brother, Albie: the three of us together, building worlds. Did those worlds still exist, locked away on the hard drive? It was so tantalizingly close.

Over the past 15 years, Minecraft has had a similar impact on thousands of players: it has helped people combat loneliness, discover your gender identityand to overcome your fear of change. The Hour of Code initiative, launched in 2015, has taught basic coding principles. Since its release, Minecraft has also reached schools around the world, with a special educational edition designed to help teachers use the game in class projects, from imagining sustainable future landscapes to studying macbeth. It has also been used by a variety of charities such as Block by blockwhich encourages communities to reimagine their local environment, and the World Wildlife Fund to raise awareness about panda conservation. It has been used as a tool for political messages. Reporters Without Borders has used the game to create the Uncensored Library where people living in countries where media is restricted can access banned books and items.

It’s a much more complex game now than when we first played it. Regular updates have brought new animals, new resources, new non-player characters; The images have been updated with support for modern technologies such as HDR. But game director Agnes Larsson assures me that the company is keeping the game’s core principles intact. “We try to think about the simple beauty of Minecraft,” she says. “So every new thing can be seen as a toy we add to the sandbox and should preferably have a very clear purpose and simple rules, because that means that since everything itself is simple, players can do infinitely complex things.”

Like Fortnite, it has also become a self-contained multiverse: a place where people go to hang out, socialize, and play together even when they can’t be together. “Minecraft felt even more magical during Covid,” says Larsson. “I mean, the whole world shut down and suddenly we were in a very different and difficult situation. And yes, we’ve heard from so many players who were able to stay in touch with friends and family thanks to Minecraft. From time to time, we also hear stories about kids who are in the hospital and can still have fun with their friends in the Minecraft world, even if they can’t be at school.”

After a few hours of searching online, I figured out how to access my Xbox Live account using an app to bypass modern TFA security, and thus my old Xbox 360 profile came back to life. I found a boxed copy of the game in the attic. I picked it up and the music started: a wizened piano melody composed by Daniel Rosenfeld, slow, quiet and somehow sad. The memories flooded back.

When Boy Made of Blocks was published, something strange happened. People started sharing their experiences of the game with me. I have given many talks about Minecraft and my novel. I’ve spoken at NHS events, at EU meetings in Brussels, at Comic Cons and book festivals. Almost always, when the talk is over, there will be a family waiting behind to talk to me. It will be one or more parents, shepherding a shy child or young adult with them. They won’t really have any questions, they’ll just tell me, “We wanted you to know that Minecraft changed our lives, too,” and they’ll tell me their story. Often it’s about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, or bullying, and how difficult things were and how alone your child was. But those stories always end with the same words: “And then they started playing Minecraft.” We will share experiences, there will be laughter, memories, handshakes, sometimes tears. It is a great privilege to be able to trust in this way.

I found the old saved games. Dozens of them. Here were block-shaped castles with secret tunnels leading to huge diamond mines. Here were our houses, each with our own rooms, loaded with treasure chests. There was still a grocery store containing pork chops and pie, and a fully stocked armory, no doubt ready for an adventure that never happened. The cows grazed peacefully on our farm; the crops were growing. It was like revisiting an old family home: the same, but also irrevocably different.

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My kids now play video games with their friends. However, as long as the game still exists, there’s a chance we’ll play Minecraft together again. “Minecraft is very generational,” says Larsson. “My daughter is seven years old and she had a school break earlier this spring and we went with my parents and my mom was like, ‘Can you teach me Minecraft?’ “So, during the school holidays, my mother, my daughter and I played together in the same world, which was very nice.”

‘The worlds we create exist as something tangible’… Minecon 2015 in London. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

The imagined worlds we create with friends or our children exist as something tangible. Even when we grow, age, or drift apart, we can retrace our steps. The world I shared with Zac and Albie is still there, on an old games console, now safely back in my filing cabinet. The things we did, the houses we built: everything remains, as real as the memories.

I hope many other families have these experiences in the future: fortunately, I don’t think the game is going anywhere. “What we see is that Minecraft is bigger than us,” says Larsson. “We’re lucky that we’re now dealing with Minecraft and when we hand it off to the next generation of game developers, we’re delivering a Minecraft that’s still about creativity and that still allows players to express themselves. We definitely try to take a very long-term perspective; We never add something that’s only fun the first time you play with it because the hope is that when we add something it will be loved 10, 15, or even 50 years from now.”

In my heart I will always carry with me the image of my son, my little one, showing us the world he had created within this game, I will always remember how he finally found a place that made sense. Minecraft was a door that opened and, 15 years later, that door is still accessible and open. Anyone can enter.

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