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Minecraft offers entertainment for kids, families

Kim Komando Show
USA TODAY

The popular build-and-survive video game Minecraft has been a surprising tech success in childrens’ indoor activities. Created in 2009 by programmer Markus "Notch" Persson, expanded by a small team, and advertised mostly by word of mouth, it has more than 100 million users. At a time when people are needed to stay home for entertainment, it provides a good option for fun. Some reasons for the games popularity with all ages follow.

1. It builds creativity

Minecraft gives kids the same creative freedom as building with Legos, but it's easier on the bank account. Plus, you'll never step on a loose piece barefoot in the dark.

If you haven't played or seen it, Minecraft is a very blocky world, i.e. everything is built from blocks. The ground is made up of blocks, trees are blocks, and even your character avatar is very blocky. You get progress in the game by scavenging or mining blocks of various materials such as stone, wood, lava, etc. Use these as the basis for creations, or combine them in "recipes" to create more advanced materials, tools and objects.

Some of the things Minecraft players have built are truly staggering: massive vehicles, intricate skyscrapers, working analog computers, and even the entire country of Denmark exactly to scale.

There are also game modifications, or "mods," that add more advanced items like robots, nuclear reactors and a whole range of high-tech real-world materials. If you can think it, you can probably build it on Minecraft.

2. It teaches real-world skills

One overlooked value of most strategy-based video games is resource management. The player has a finite amount of resources at any given time and needs to decide wisely how to use them most effectively.

Do you use that wood block now to upgrade your ax for mining, or save it for the house you're building? Do you spend your time mining or exploring for new resources?

Even if they don't realize it, kids are learning cost-benefit analysis, when to save vs. spend and other key budgeting and financial skills so important later in life. Of course, they might need you to help them make this connection.

Kids learn patience with Minecraft. It takes a while to assemble the resources you need, so instant gratification isn't an option. Any adult who's had to save for a car or a house down payment knows that patience is important.

Kids learn perseverance. Your child might not build that amazing monument correctly the first time when it comes tumbling down under its own weight. They can learn how to recognize where they made mistakes and try again.

Kids learn teamwork. While Minecraft can be played solo, it also has online options. Kids can play with others from around the world. They can team up and learn how to work cooperatively to make amazing things. That also builds pride in cooperation with others.

Of course, they might also learn how to deal with people who don't want to play nice. This is where parental monitoring is essential. If you want your child and friends to be able to play together, but not worry about strangers, you can set up a dedicated Minecraft server. It isn't as hard as it sounds, and it lets you set the rules and who can play.

Before your kid does anything online, however, whether it's Minecraft, Facebook or just basic browsing, have them read and sign my 10 Commandments for Kids Online. It's a great starting place for talking with kids about what is and isn't acceptable online, and how to recognize dangers.

3. Play anywhere

Unlike high-end video games that only work on certain systems or require expensive hardware to run, Minecraft works just about anywhere. It runs on computers, smartphones and tablets, most video game consoles, several handheld gaming systems and more.

That means you can give your kid a free hand-me-down or inexpensive older gadget and they can go to town. Or you can let them jump on your smartphone or tablet while in the car or running errands to keep them occupied.

If you are handing your kid a gadget, there are a few things you need to do first. If it's your gadget, learn how to let kids use your tablet or smartphone without messing up your settings or getting into things they shouldn't. If they're using their own personal gadgets, make sure you prepare it so they can't get into anything online they shouldn't. You should also install an app that lets you control when they can use the gadget so they're forced to take breaks.

4. It's kid friendly

Violence is a big complaint with video games. Sure, older video games were violent but the graphics were so cartoonish and crude it wasn't the same as gunning down the highly detailed, lifelike characters found in modern games.

Minecraft does have some fighting elements to it. You have to fend off "mobs" of monsters but the graphics are blocky and bloodless, like an old-school video game.

For concerned parents of younger kids, Minecraft also features a "Peaceful" mode. This is the easiest setting and turns off all enemies. It also makes it nearly impossible to die, so you can just explore and build.

5. Fun for the whole family

Parents should play video games with their kids. That way, they can monitor the game, teach them to be good sports, or shut it off when their time is up or when they start melting down. Plus, there are plenty of fun video games that you might genuinely enjoy. The LEGO series, for example, is very clever and not too difficult.

Minecraft is another fun one. You can sit next to your children and give them advice, or create your own character and jump into the game using a different computer or gadget. Some families have Minecraft night and everyone joins in together.

The one bad thing: Minecraft isn't all roses and sunlight. I already mentioned that playing online can lead to encounters with strangers who might not be that nice. There are spoilsport players who want to destroy it.

Even worse than that, however, is that Minecraft like any other game or Internet service can become addicting. Parents should put strict limits and conditions on how long each child can play each day.

If you suspect your child is suffering from an addiction to Minecraft, or the Internet in general, check out reSTART. You can take a revealing quiz, get insightful articles on the dangers and find links to treatment centers and therapists who can help.

To monitor how much time is spending playing Minecraft, used the RescueTime program and app which shows exactly where a child's time is going. If there is a problem, it will show up there and can be addressed.