The best birthday gift I ever received from my parents was an original Nintendo video-game system in 1988. I spent countless hours playing Super Mario Bros. in grade eight, which probably explains why my math marks suffered that year as my ability to jump over Goombas improved dramatically.
So I have to admit I have a soft spot for video games, and I get a bit nostalgic when I see my kids with game controllers in their hands. But those warm, fuzzy feelings evaporate when I find out they are playing Minecraft.
If you somehow aren’t familiar with Minecraft, consider yourself lucky. It is a scourge upon the six to 12 demographic and belongs on a list with the talking Furby and those annoying running shoes with wheels.
In an era of high-definition graphics that simulate the real world, Minecraft, which was released in 2011, looks like a game your grandma created after taking an introductory course on computer programming. It has eight-bit graphics and is completely visually unappealing. It’s like watching someone play Lego on a computer screen. On second thought, scratch that—it’s like watching someone play Duplo on a computer screen.
What’s worse is that a good portion of kids don’t even play the game half as much as they just watch YouTube videos of other people playing it. This is a mind-blowing phenomenon that makes absolutely zero sense. I can’t imagine someone saying to me, back in the day, “Hey, Ian, would you like to play Super Mario? Or—and brace yourself for this, because it’s going to sound super exciting—would you rather I pop in a VHS tape of someone else playing the game and you can watch it for hours?”
This current generation of Minecrafters has created YouTube stars out of people like Stampylonghead, who uploads a new Minecraft video just about every day, narrated in a voice that sounds like somebody doing an awful Julia Child impression. Despite the shrill tone and repetitive content, Stampy (as he’s known to fans) generates up to 30 million views on YouTube each week. Thirty million. Once a bartender, Stampy now makes a full-time living narrating Minecraft videos. And he’s not alone.
These Minecraft YouTubers also introduce the kids to cool new upgrades—known as “mods”—that are only available through downloads, which your kid will beg you for on a daily basis. They’ll say strange things like, “Dad, pleeease can I get the mod that can turn me into a sheep or a pig?” Say yes, and your computer will soon be plagued with pop-ups because the downloads usually come from questionable sources.
If your kid is obsessed with Minecraft but you don’t want her staring at YouTube videos all afternoon, you could have her read one of the Minecraft handbooks. If you are trying to encourage your kid to start reading, this is the equivalent of getting her a subscription to Mad magazine. Each of the four Minecraft handbooks reads like an Ikea instruction manual with added gibberish and crummy graphics. The beginner’s guide does a good job of thoroughly explaining the basics of the game, but it doesn’t answer the simplest questions, such as: “Why does this game exist?”
I suppose we should give the Minecraft creators some credit for making a modern video game that has minimal violent elements to it. If I had to choose between my kids playing Minecraft or Call of Duty, I’d much rather have them building square huts and battling G-rated zombies and creepers than shooting people with assault weapons. Minecraft does take you back to a simpler time, when Pac-Man and Frogger ruled the video-game world with simple graphics and asexual characters.
But the trip down memory lane is still not enough to get me to fall in love with Minecraft. If I want to enjoy some old-school video games, I’ll dust off my old Super Mario Bros.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2015 issue with the headline, “Game theory,” p. 42.
Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising his daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia. Read all of Ian’s The Good Sport posts and follow him on Twitter @ian_mendes.