Gardening at Night

One Dad’s Guide to Minecraft

I was running through a forest, and it was getting dark. My hands were sweating and my heart was racing.

I was playing Minecraft and the monsters were ON.

My girls were running circles in the living room, screaming and worried.

“Get into the mushroom! Quick! Hurry, Daddy! Hurry!”

Ahead, I saw a giant red mushroom with white spots. Through their screams, they explained that I could punch a hole in its side.

“Get inside!” Then: “Pile dirt in the door! Hurry!”

Suddenly the room, er mushroom, was pitch black.

“Yay!” they cheered.

It was my first night playing the game, and it was past their bedtime. There was no way they were sleeping any time soon. The adrenaline in their systems would take time to clear.

This was just the beginning of the many adventures we’ve had together in Minecraft. Along the way, we learned about things like staying safe — both virtually (from monsters) and actually (from strangers) — and navigating some of the joys and emotions that come up.

A Parent’s-Eye View

My girls heard about Minecraft when they were 8 and 10, and they wanted to play. I’d heard it mentioned on NPR once, something about “virtual Legos.” I asked an intern at work, in his early 20s, whether he played. He just smiled and said it was life-changing.

I wanted to know more.

Is it violent? Is it brain-candy? Will my kids be playing with strangers?

The girls and I Googled around, watched some videos and downloaded the game.

As I stumbled along, I occasionally tweeted about being a Minecraft Parent, prompting friends to reach out. Their kids, too, were interested. Is it violent? Is it brain-candy? Will their kids be playing with strangers?

Could I share what I’ve learned?

So here it goes.

It’s a Game for Tablets, Phones or Desktop Computers

That may seem obvious, but it’s important to know that there’s are differences between the mobile and desktop versions.

The mobile version, for phones and tablets, is called “PE” for “Pocket Edition.” It doesn’t have every feature an advanced explorer will want eventually, but recent versions have many cool capabilities, including taming ocelots into pet cats, a favorite in our house.

The computer version, for desktops and laptops, is called “PC” for personal computer, and has more sophisticated features for advanced players — including the ability ride horses and to modify the game.

There’s actually a third version, called the console edition, for Xbox and Playstation. We don’t have one of those, but word is that the capabilities are very similar to the computer version.

It’s a Virtual World

Each person has their own character, which starts as a generic “Steve” or “Alex” avatar. Players guide their character through the world and collect resources to make new things — which they use to collect resources and make new things. With wood, you can make a pick axe. With a pick axe you can mine iron. With iron you can make shears. With shears, you can shear a sheep. With wool from the sheep, and some wood, you can make a bed. Like that.

It Can Be a Closed World

At least it is initially. This was important to me. I didn’t want my children playing with strangers. Could they play solo, or just the two of them together? The answer is, thankfully, yes. More on that in the next section.

Monsters are Optional

There are monsters in Minecraft — zombies, skeletons, creepers and other evil-doers, collectively known as “mobs.” They come out at night, and can make the game challenging and fun, but also scary and unfun. When my girls started out, the monsters were just too much. Fortunately, you can turn them off. Details on that are below in “Family Friendly Settings” section.

Killing Is Not the Goal

This, too, was a relief. The goal is … whatever suits your interests. You can build and manage a garden, raise and care for animals, build a house out of glass. Make a roller coaster. Mine precious metals. Build a giant orange cat statue.

But Death Does Happen

To this day, I implore DiamondStrider* to be careful at the edge of a high Minecraft cliff. She appreciates my fatherly instincts, but is far less worried than I. Truth is, if her character falls to its death, it will respawn back where she began or in the last bed she napped in. It’s still a drag: She drops everything she was carrying and she loses her experience points. But it’s not the end of the game, nor her hard work.

Also, animals die. Sometimes killing a cow or a pig is the fastest way to stave off hunger. This can be unsettling, and my kids still apologize to the doomed creature beforehand. Worse, though, is when a beloved digital critter dies unexpectedly. DiamondStrider once accidentally killed a yellow sheep she had been caring for. She was sad for the rest of the day, and built a memorial at the spot.

There Are Two Ways to Play: “Survival” and “Creative”

When you start in a fresh world, you can play in “Survival” or “Creative” modes, terms I found confusing because both require creativity. Here’s the scoop:

In Survival Mode, you start out with nothing and have to collect resources, such as wood and food. You then use those resources to build and collect new things. Want to make a boat? Cool! First you need to chop down some wood, turn it into wood planks, then arrange the planks into a boat shape. Whenever you make something new, there’s the added reward that you worked to solve the puzzle and built it from resources you collected. But if you don’t equip yourself with the right resources, and keep your belly full, you can die.

In Creative Mode, you have at your disposal every kind of thing that exists in Minecraft, from wood planks to diamond swords. It’s like an infinite box of every Lego piece ever. If you want to build a giant cat out of orange wool, you can! No need to find sheep, make shears and figure out how to dye wool orange. Just grab the orange wool. As much as you want! My girls have built entire amusement parks and every kind of house imaginable. Plus, in Creative Mode you can fly. And you can’t die.

Google around, and you’ll see plenty of derision about Creative Mode. Players say it’s not the real way to play, that it’s not fun. We disagree. Yes, the challenge of Survival Mode is exciting, fascinating and even educational. But in Creative Mode, young minds can build anything they can think of. And that’s pretty great.

It is also possible to switch between the two modes in the same session. (Which just seems like cheating!)

It’s Super Fun to Explore Together

It’s been an absolute treat to learn this game with my girls. They know a ton, and teach me things when I play. We hunt for diamonds or food together, build and maintain our gardens — or homes or stables — and just have fun. It’s no substitute for tromping around in the real world, but it’s surely a blast.

Will My Kids Play with Strangers?

This is one of the first questions I get from other parents, and was an initial concern of mine.

The short answer is: Not necessarily, but it’s possible. This was important information for me. Fortunately, it also wasn’t a deal breaker. And in two years of playing, my girls never have played with strangers.

Playing Solo

Both the mobile version and the computer version allow you to play the game alone. And it’s a lot of fun. My youngest still prefers it.

But if the device is connected to the internet, the game is capable of “Multiplayer” mode. To play with others, you need know the name or address for a public server. But it doesn’t take a clever child long to Google a few.

My wife and I had a heart-to-heart talk with our girls about not connecting to other servers — for all of the internet child-safety reasons. And not only because strangers could text-chat with them; there are plenty of folks who just enjoy making life miserable for others by destroying others’ creations and stealing stuff.

So the rule was, “Singleplayer” only.

Playing Together on Our Home Network

A child can connect with several other players on the same wifi network. Typically, that means they have to be in or near your house and know your wifi password.

This is great for siblings with their own devices, or when friends come over with theirs.

Here’s how we do it, using the mobile version:

  • Before you hit “Play,” press the tools button.
  • Slide the switches for “Multiplayer Game” and “Broadcast to LAN” to “on” (white is “on”).
  • Go “Back,” press “Play” and start playing a world.
  • Chose the same settings for the second device. When you go to play, wait a few seconds for the first player to appear on the list. It can take a few moments to register.
  • Pick it and play!

The computer version can do this, too, but you can’t mix the platforms. A child using a computer can’t play with one using a tablet.

Playing With Friends Elsewhere

I liked the idea that my girls could play online with select friends, I just didn’t like the notion that some unknown person could join them.

So I learned how to build a server in the cloud that only I control, which allowed me to “white list” myself, my girls and a friend 1,000 miles away.

But now there’s an option called “Minecraft Realms,” which is perfect for this. You can start a networked world within Minecraft and invite several friends to join — wherever they are. There’s a monthly subscription fee, and it takes a little tinkering, but you can get running in just a few minutes.

For now, Realms isn’t available on the mobile version, but that is due to change.

Playing with Strangers

Someday, when my girls both have their own phones, social media accounts and a better understanding of the joys and pitfalls of the connected world, they’ll probably log onto one of the thousands of Minecraft servers available and play with complete strangers. We’re not there yet, though.

Getting Started

Here’s a quick guide to get going, depending on your device.

On Tablets & Phones

Download Minecraft from the Apple AppStore or Android Marketplace.

Fire it up and hit the “Play” button.

Make a new world with the “New” button, and give it a name. This is the point where you can pick between Creative Mode (the infinite box of Legos) and Survival Mode (hunting for resources and problem-solving).

If it’s your first time, I’d start in Survival Mode and turn the monsters off (more on that below). This will give you the best sense of the game. The infinite resources in Creative Mode can be overwhelming.

  • To look around slide your finger around the screen.
  • To move use the arrow buttons in the lower left corner.
  • To place something tap once.
  • To break blocks press and hold your finger in one spot until your hand (or axe or other tool) breaks it apart.
  • To pick up floating things walk over them.
  • To check your inventory press the “…” button.

The bar at the bottom of your screen lists the items you have at the ready and can quickly put in your hand by tapping them.

Your adventure begins!

On Desktops and Laptops

On a computer, each player in your family needs a separate Minecraft account, which must be purchased from the Minecraft makers, Mojang.

You might think there’s a way around this — surely we can buy just one account and share it. If you do, you’ll quickly realize it’s problematic. Minecraft characters become very personal very quickly. Where you are, what you were holding, what you are wearing and even how hungry you are is preserved from session to session. If you and your kids are sharing the same character, it’ll get confusing and frustrating quickly.

Take the time to pick a character name you love. You’ll be using it for months, possibly years. We made sure our kids didn’t use identifying characteristics, such as their real name, address, age or birth year.

To register characters, go to the Minecraft.net website. It’s also where you’ll download the software for your computer. Follow the instructions for getting that going.

When you launch Minecraft, don’t mess with the “profiles” at first. All you need to do is log in using the email and password you used to register a character with Minecraft.net. Then press the big “Play” button.

  • To look around move your mouse.
  • To walk around use the w a s and d keys.
  • To place something click and hold your right mouse button, or control-click-and-hold on a Mac.
  • To break blocks click and hold the left mouse button, or just the main button on a Mac.
  • To pick up floating things walk over them.
  • To check your inventory press the e key.

Note that on a Mac, it’s exceptionally easy to destroy something when you are trying to place or tap something simply by forgetting to press the control key. This is so crucial, we went out and bought a two-button trackball.

The bar at the bottom of your screen lists the items you have at the ready and can quickly put in your hand using the scroll wheel on your mouse (if you have one) or by pressing the numbers 1 through 9 on your keyboard.

Family-friendly Settings

There are a gazillion different settings in Minecraft, and your kids will figure them out before you understand half of them. But when you start out, here are some key ones:

Turning Monsters Off

The monsters aren’t horrible. They’re not even particularly ugly. But they can be stressful, and when creepers explode, they can blow apart your creations. That’s exciting for some, overwhelming for others.

My girls found them overwhelming initially and still rarely play in Survival Mode with monsters on. (Monsters can’t hurt you in Creative Mode.)

Here’s how to turn them off.

On tablets and phones:

  • Press the faded pause button || at the top of the screen
  • Click “Options”
  • Move the “Difficulty” slider all the way to the left
  • Click “Back”
  • Click “Back to Game”

On laptops and desktops:

  • Press the Escape (ESC) button
  • Click “Options …”
  • Click “Difficulty: Normal” until it changes to “Difficulty: Peaceful”
  • Click “Done”
  • Click “Back to Game”

Now you’re safe!

For a Parent’s Ears

We live in a small apartment, so everyone hears everything. Adding the incessant mooing or meowing of Minecraft animals can drive even the most patient parent batty. (And the bats squeak.)

Sounds are key to the game, so turning them down completely isn’t ideal. For the computer version, here’s what to do:

  • Press the Escape (ESC) button
  • Click “Options …”
  • Click “Music & Sounds”
  • Lower the Master Volume to a level that’s audible but not distracting. Eventually, you’ll need to zero out the music completely. Promise.
  • Click “Done”
  • Click “Back to Game”

For the mobile version: headphones.

Get the Full View

If you’re playing on a computer, be sure to get the full experience by viewing it in “full screen” mode. Usually, this happens automatically. But if you find yourself playing in a little window, do this:

  • Press the Escape (ESC) button
  • Click “Options …”
  • Click “Fullscreen:” until it changes to “Fullscreen: ON” (if it was already ON, click it OFF and then ON again)
  • Click “Done”
  • Click “Back to Game”

Your First Craft Projects

To give you a feel for the game, let’s find some resources and make a couple of tools. Start in a world running in Survival Mode, but without monsters.

Chop Wood

Wood is great for building things, and you can collect it with your bare hands — which is all you’ve got at this point.

Approach a tree and break the blocks of wood that make up its trunk.

Mobile version: hold your finger down.

Computer version: click and hold your mouse button. After a few seconds, the wood block with break.

Pick it Up

Sometimes the blocks will fall to you, other times they’ll fall to the ground. Just walk on or near afloating wood block to nab it.

Chop More

Do the same for the other parts of the trunk. You can chop up, too. Don’t worry: falling wood won’t hurt. Collect at least 10 blocks total, from a couple of trees.

Make Planks

Raw chunks of wood aren’t very useful, but planks are. So let’s make some.

For folks using the mobile version: Check your inventory by pressing the “…” button.

Inventory in the mobile version

Now pick the tab with the crisscross box icon.

This tab is a little cryptic at first, but hang on and it will become clear. On the left are things you can make based on what you what you have in your inventory. In the screenshot above, all we have is wood, and all we can make are planks.

On the right is where you convert raw wood into the wood planks. The resources that will be used are in the upper right, in the “recipe” shape, and the button creates them. You get four wood planks from each chunk of wood.

Now that you have planks, you’ll see more things on the left side of the screen you can make. Like sticks. Jump ahead to the “Make Sticks” section if you’re not on a computer.

For folks using the computer version: Take a look at your inventory by pressing e.

Inventory view in the computer version.

Single-click and release your mouse to grab the block and move it up to the Crafting area. Then click-and-release to place it there. It’ll turn into planks because the recipe for four planks is one wood block. Pick up the planks (single-click) and move them to the bottom bar (another single-click).

Make Sticks

With planks you can make sicks, which are useful for building things you can hold, like tools and torches.

Mobile version: Select the sticks and make some with the big button.

Making sticks in the mobile version.

In the computer version, you manually arrange the planks into proper shape, or “recipe.” For sticks, it’s planks over planks.

Making sticks in the computer version.

Getting the planks into the proper spots takes a little getting used to. Click once to pick them up, move them over to the Crafting area, then click-drag to put them in the right spots. Tinker with it; you’ll get the hang of it.

Single-click the new sticks to pick them up, move them down to the bottom bar and single-click to place them there.

Make a Crafting Table

Our current crafting area isn’t quite big enough to make most of the things in Minecraft. You’ll need a crafting table, which you can make with four planks.

Crafting table in mobile version.
Crafting table in the computer version.

The steps for actually using the Crafting table are different depending on your platform.

Mobile users:

  • Close the inventory screen by hitting the “X” at the top
  • Put the crafting table in your hand by tapping on its picture in the bottom bar
  • Put it on the ground by tapping the ground
  • Tap the table to use it

Computer users:

  • Close the inventory screen by hitting the ESC key
  • If the crafting table is not already in your hand, hit the number key, 1–9, corresponding to its location on the bottom bar
  • Aim yourself at a spot on the ground, highlighting a square there
  • Put the table on the ground by right-clicking or option-clicking
  • Right-click or option-click to use it
Crafting table on the ground.

The Crafting Table’s “crafting area” is nine squares instead of the four in the inventory screen. That means you can make many more things. In fact, with the right materials, you can make everything else in the game.

Make a Tool

With planks and sticks, make a pick axe.

Three planks and two sticks make a wooden pick axe, in the mobile version.
The pick axe recipe, in the computer version.

A pick axe will help you mine stone. A blade axe helps to chop wood. Hoes are used for farming. Swords help kill monsters.

Once you mine stone, you can make a pick axe made of stone. Just use cobblestone blocks on top instead of wood planks. It’s stronger! An iron axe, made with iron ingots, is stronger still, and essential for mining rare blocks. If you happen across some diamond, don’t try to mine it with a stone pick axe like I did. They simply disappear. Which is really depressing. You need an iron pick axe to mine diamonds.

You’re off and running! You have the basics to have fun in the game and learn how to make new things with your kids.

Useful Resources

Learning about everything possible in Minecraft is a blast. It’s great to do together, and to see what your children can build.

DiamondStrider loves taming wolves and ocelots and caring for them as pets. She also builds large structures, often resembling cats, from which she can jump. (A little secret: You can jump from any height into water and not get hurt.)

SylvieStar loves to mine, collecting gems and precious metals, which she’ll often trade with in-game villagers. She builds beautiful homes, and finds ways to make them cozy and welcoming.

Their friend SosoMiami made an amazing roller coaster. And once, after flying with her family (in the real world), she built a swimming pool with an airport-style security checkpoint — and made sure everyone placed what they were carrying on the belt before going through! It was adorable and a clear expression of her latest experiences.

There are lots of ways to learn more. Here are a few places to get started:

Kid-safe Videos

Many of the best resources are videos narrated by folks who are playing the game as you watch.

Our favorites are made by Paul Soares, Jr. As of this writing, he has 2,542 videos on YouTube, including titles such as “Wheat farm,” “Cave Navigation Basics,” “Boating and Villages” and “Cozy Cottage.”

Start the How to Survive and Thrive in Minecraft series with “How To Survive Your First Night.”

StampyLongnose (aka stampylonghead or Mr. Stampy Cat) posts videos about the adventures of an orange cat and his friends. The narrator is a bit over-the-top, but the girls love him. They’ve learned lots about the game and have developed an appreciation for Minecraft cake.

One note: Advanced videos often describe “mods,” which are unofficial modifications to the game that change the experience and add lots of features. Don’t worry about those for now; it was a long time before we exhausted the unmodified game, despite pleas to install mods. Also don’t confuse “mods” with “mobs,” which are the monsters and other critters.

Official Handbooks

Also great is the Minecraft Essential Handbook. It’s friendly, full of images, and not “handbooky” at all. We have a copy and check it often. The series also has books about construction, combat and redstone —an electrical system that can power doors and mine carts (aka roller-coaster cars).

Online lookup

For information about specific things, the Minecraft wiki is full of great information. There you’ll find the recipes for everything, information on whether bats are dangerous (they’re not) and the answer to the question, “What the heck is a Mooshroom?

Friends

Guaranteed, there is someone at school or in the neighborhood who is into Minecraft, and the friendly kids will help out the newcomers. The most knowledgeable are often super deep into the game, which can be overwhelming — and sometimes problematic. Many have moved beyond the basic game play into modifications, shortcuts and even mythology.

One day DiamondStrider came home and suddenly no longer wanted to play Minecraft. At first she wouldn’t say why. But after a bit, she told me about a creature that infects and corrupts the game called “Herobrine.” A friend at school told her about it. She was scared and she wanted no part of it.

Together, we went to the “Herobrine” section of the Minecraft wiki to learn more. We read that Herobrine is legend among players of Minecraft that simply does not exist in the game itself. Her fears quelled, she went back to building and creating.

Happy Exploring

As you have probably gathered, the information here is by no means complete. I’ve intentionally, and no doubt unintentionally, left out lots.

Not only that, but the game is updated often. In the year since I initially wrote this, many details became outdated. DiamondStrider and SylvieStar have edited me carefully, and we should be current as of December 2015. But holler if you see anything amiss.

We hope this gets you on a path to many great Minecraft-days together. Let us know how it goes!

*DiamondStrider and SylvieStar are the Minecraft names for the author’s daughters, now 10 and 12.

John Keefe is a professional beginner in New York City. He‘s editor of the WNYC Data News Team, part of a hardware-hacking cabal called Team Blinky and co-creator of the Girls Who Mine meetup group. He blogs at johnkeefe.net.