Playing with Blocks
April 17, 2016 11:13 AM   Subscribe

In the late ’70s and ’80s, the arrival of personal computers like the Commodore 64 gave rise to the first generation of kids fluent in computation. They learned to program in Basic, to write software that they swapped excitedly with their peers. It was a playful renaissance that eerily parallels the embrace of Minecraft by today’s youth - Inside the Minecraft Generation.
posted by Artw (30 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What is great about Minecraft in this respect is that it can be a gateway drug to get those kids who have an aptitude for coding onto that path. I don't subscribe to this 'everyone must learn to code' thing though. Should everyone know structural engineering or cell biology? Of course not. Don't see why coding is different.

Now imagine if Minecraft had a working mod API instead of layers of hacks and incompatibilities ...
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:27 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The difference with coding is that it's a generally useful skill in a way that cell biology is not. For everything except maybe some corners of the humanities, you already get a divide between practitioners who can code and those who cannot, and those who can code tend to be strictly better hires: the cell biologist who can code can do their own analysis end-to-end, while the one who cannot will likely end up requiring an additional supporting programmer somewhere down the line.

There's a similar situation with stats in a bunch of academic disciplines: you've got the sociologists who understand basic stats and those who avoid it like plague. (So really the right thing to do is to learn some coding, some stats, and some area knowledge, and call yourself a data scientist specializing in X.)
posted by kaibutsu at 11:44 AM on April 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

I don't know much of anything but I know a little of everything.
posted by shockingbluamp at 12:03 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Schools and governments have spent millions on “let’s get kids coding” initiatives, yet it may well be that Minecraft’s impact will be greater. This is particularly striking given that the game was not designed with any educational purpose in mind.

It's interesting to see articles like this trying, and largely failing, to thread the needle between the egalitarian nature of open-ended exploratory play in itself, and the "meritocratic" inegalitarianism that the "every child a coder" penny wisdom produces (by design). Gee, somehow, it's the rich kids with all the resources and support in the world who end up learning the command-line arcana and socializing online with professional programmers? You don't say. Surely a few more afterschool programs will fix it.
posted by RogerB at 12:12 PM on April 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

I hear you, but I do think Minecraft is more accessible to a wider variety of kids than a lot of consciously designed educational material.

The open-ended and exploratory play is one. One this piece underplays is how its availability on MANY different platforms including (relatively) older hardware and software widens its impact beyond folks in households that always have the latest toys. The cultural impact -- the fact that it is (mostly) positively received by parents, teachers, libraries, etc. while somehow not being exiled to the unfun "educational games" category by kids is another.
posted by feckless at 12:47 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

They're working on it.
posted by Artw at 12:54 PM on April 17, 2016

"according to Microsoft, the average player is between 28 and 29,"

So the examples are preteens but the average is about to dip one toe into middle age. What's a generation again?
posted by srboisvert at 1:03 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

The lesson there, I think, is that averages are a pretty terrible way to talk about a cohort of people. You could have five two-year-olds and five forty-two-year-olds, and the average age in the group would be 22 - even though nobody in the group is that age. there are similar splits in most populations, although they're usually much more complicated. "The average player is between 28 and 29" doesn't even mean there's a single player between 28 and 29, necessarily.
posted by koeselitz at 1:32 PM on April 17, 2016 [10 favorites]

Except the population is in the millions so in order for the results to skewed there would need to be a bunch of million year olds. Which could be possible depending on how well constructed Microsoft's market research is.
posted by srboisvert at 2:00 PM on April 17, 2016

At the point when everyone does everything with computers and also carries miniature computers around with them everywhere, not learning to code is like not learning to cook. You don't by any means have to learn to cook, it's just that if you don't you're only going to be eating what's on the menu or what comes in packages except on the occasions when you can afford to hire a personal chef. And people who grow up with large kitchens at hand with all the gadgets and well-stocked pantries and have spare time to spend in them, and who have parents who cook, are definitely going to have an easier time developing skill and versatility in cooking.
posted by XMLicious at 2:20 PM on April 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

I love Minecraft but it's not really comparable to Basic programming.
posted by Segundus at 2:21 PM on April 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Re: the "average age" question, there was an interesting comment in the discussion of this article on /r/Games the other day:
I was trying to cheer up my 8 year old cousin a few months ago and it turned out that like every other 8 year old in the world, he has played Minecraft.

I showed him a YouTube video of my old server from Beta and then asked him to show me some YouTube channels that he watches.

He took me straight to this video.

About 5 minutes in, it hit me: This is a Children's TV Show, but on YouTube instead of TV and with Minecraft instead of Puppets or whatever. [...] Anyways, my point is that I bet the average age for Vanilla minecraft is much, much lower. People who are 28+ are mostly running modded games and servers, or are the ones making the shows for kids on YouTube.
posted by teraflop at 2:39 PM on April 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

I love Minecraft but it's not really comparable to Basic programming.

It's more like Max/MSP or Pd. Cute and eye-catching, but with very limited capacity for abstraction, and thus reducing coding to repetitive layout.
posted by acb at 2:47 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

My world back in the beta days, around 2011. Most of it was generated by fairly trivial javascript a beginner could understand. Once you unlock that toolbox you can't go back to the boring old way of building.
posted by adept256 at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2016

Should everyone know structural engineering or cell biology? Of course not. Don't see why coding is different.

Has anyone ever asked you if there's an app that does some incredibly simple task that could be accomplished in less than fifty lines of code? Or even on a spreadsheet?

That's why I think coding is different. Not everyone needs to be a software developer, but people need the ability to use the tools they have at their disposal. No one who wants to keep track of their gas mileage on odd-numbered Sundays should ever have to ask if there's an app that can plot gas mileage only on odd-numbered Sundays.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:46 PM on April 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

Knowing how to write a simple (bash|apple|python) script that invokes ImageMagick to rotate all the family photos taken on December 12, 2009 by 90 degrees to compensate for Aunt Matilda holding the camera sideways is a much more useful life skill than relying on someone else to write an application that can sub-select images by date and apply rotational transformations in batch mode.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:56 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

H'rmmm. H'rmmm? H'rmmm.
posted by Construction Concern at 5:36 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've been professional programmer for 20 years and these days I almost never write code outside work. But I do think being comfortable around computers and understanding basic stuff is a useful skill for anyone (things like "where is my photo actually stored when I take it on my phone but have cloud backup enabled, and if I delete it here then where might it still be?"

People who spent time just messing around with computers in their youth seem to have a much easier time with this than those who didn't. I suspect that population is lager today then when I was a kid (I got a C64 when I was around 7 so I'm pretty much exactly what they're talking about).

Anecdotally I've seen a few kids go from Minecraft love to say simple Python or something, but this is bad anecdata because most of the kids I know have at least 1 programmer parent or aunt/uncle.
posted by thefoxgod at 5:37 PM on April 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Exactly, thefoxgod. I don't know if my son will grow up to be a programmer (he very well may), but messing around with Minecraft, mods, and .jar files has made him very comfortable with computers at a level that many of even his reasonably tech savvy peers aren't. We're encouraging him to explore programming, so we'll see what happens, but I don't doubt that his early Minecraft tweaking will make a difference regardless.
posted by mollweide at 6:38 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I started on a ZX81 in the early 80's and basically all you could do was make your own stuff on it, i.e. code in Basic and Z80 machine code. Watching my son in the early days of Minecraft, it was quite similar, all you could do was make stuff in it. Especially with mods like Computer Craft and Script Craft there was a lot to learn towards making and manipulating stuff in Minecraft universe. My son learned Lua programming in order to use Script Craft to program in Minecraft. It was great fun to see the bugs in his code play out in Minecraft as, for instance, a created checkerboard suddenly filled the whole world by accident. I like Minecraft for kids as there is nothing to do in it, but it provides a rich environment to do nothing in.

In the early days of Minecraft the modding system was pretty broken and difficult to use. Watching my son sort it out reminded me of the earlish days of Linux when I did my first few installs on a notebook and I'd have to recompile the kernel 3 times before I'd get the sound card to work. Because it was a bit broken and hard to use I learned a lot about how it worked, and this was a great way to understand the system. Similarly, I think my son learned a lot a because of the semi-broken modding system. Finally, the Minecraft modding community was very friendly and open. We emailed the Script Craft creator (which for my son was bit like emailing god) and he was very friendly, chatty and helpful.

My son is now playing with more complex stuff like the Unity game engine (he wants to be a game developer), but Minecraft and Minecraft modding were a great introduction to software, programming, how computers work and online coding communities.
posted by drnick at 6:42 PM on April 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

srboisvert: “Except the population is in the millions so in order for the results to skewed there would need to be a bunch of million year olds. Which could be possible depending on how well constructed Microsoft's market research is.”

Nah – this is what I was getting at: there probably actually aren't that many in the middle. Whenever you have a huge population with a lot of divergence, the "average user" turns out to be relatively rare. What's most likely is that there are a few million 8-year-olds who play Minecraft, a bunch of kids in their early 20s, and then a huge number between 35 and 40 to balance out the average.
posted by koeselitz at 6:58 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

To play, you’ll need a computer with Minecraft and a child who’s familiar with the game. Once you have those things, just log on to the server (your child will know what this means).

The article is definitely written for a specific demographic
posted by rebent at 7:02 PM on April 17, 2016

What's most likely is that there are a few million 8-year-olds who play Minecraft, a bunch of kids in their early 20s, and then a huge number between 35 and 40 to balance out the average.

Mojang don't track age, afaik, so not sure where they got the numbers from, but in general, anyone under 13 (i.e. the vast majority of Minecraft players) is either 13 years old on the Internet or, more likely, (random number) years old.
posted by effbot at 7:23 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

(well, 13+N where N is how many years ago they signed up)
posted by effbot at 7:24 PM on April 17, 2016

Our friends have an autistic son that is 10 years old. For the last two years he has been a straight Minecraft gangster.
He sets up servers and all kinds of complex whateverthehellyoudoinMinecrafts.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:17 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really want to see what kind of software a generation that's grown up on Minecraft comes up with. I keep waiting for the first UI where to create a thing, I have to bash down a tree with my hands.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:11 PM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

> I keep waiting for the first UI where to create a thing, I have to bash down a tree with my hands.

That's the feeling I always got trying to fix Word stylesheets.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:05 AM on April 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wrote a research paper published last year that deals with a lot of what the article in the FPP is talking about. I think that they get a lot of stuff right. Primarily:

1) That Minecraft's obtuse nature (part of its legacy as a one-man project) is what drives a lot of enjoyment in the game. Not having a tutorial means that you go to the Internet and look at a wiki, which means that you're also getting drawn into social spaces related to the game, which means that you now have not only a fun digital LEGO set, but also a built-in social network of people to talk about your gameplay with.

2) The moddable nature of the game further enhances its power as a social object, and you have a really fun and interesting meta-game that develops where people mod, configure, hack, and develop for the online experience. My focal participant in my study would frequently partner with other players in order to pay for server space, perform the complicated technical tasks associated with server ownership, and delegate responsibility for building, graphic design, and administration duties. It's less like he was learning about programming (although there was also that), but more that he was learning how to design and manage a socio-technical system. Therefore, in terms of leaning, we're talking less about the game itself and more about the social artifacts that surround the game. That shift is something that's been talked about for a while in games-for-learning research, but I think it's found its strongest expression in the popularity of Minecraft.

However, I think that the article glosses over two important aspects.

Being able to participate in the meta-game requires money, time, and knowledge. Being able to screencast takes a beefy computer system, or a capture card. Being able to host a server means having a monthly source of funds, and a way to distribute those to an online system that accepts credit cards. Configging servers (as the article mentions) is a constant fight against the latest patch of the game, the latest patch of your mods, and the hundreds of conflicts between both. Therefore, you find that the top-end of production in Minecraft become elitist. It also leads to strict hierarchies. Owning a server means you are an admin, and can make decisions about who has power and access on your server. The article touches on this a bit, but misses out on a second aspect of gameplay that is vital.

Most Minecraft socialization takes place in spaces that are ancillary to the game. My focal participant spent close to 100% of the time that he was in Minecraft on Skype as well. Skyping means that players don't have to take the time to type, which means that collaborative work can move much more smoothly. However, Skype also reveals a lot of the stuff in your day-to-day life that we would normally think of being "backgrounded" in online game interactions. Primary among those details are your voice, which reveals age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Therefore, it's very, very difficult for people from non-dominant backgrounds to participate smoothly in a meta-game that's already heavily hierarchical and elitist. Both of these combined together makes me wonder how much Minecraft as a formative experience will be transformative to current tech cultures, and how much it will simply reproduce what already exists.

I think that the degree to which Minecraft has been adopted by educators might be a good sign. A lot of the problems in game culture, in my opinion, stem from its position as a wild west sort of frontier, where talented nerds suddenly find themselves as kings who are anointed by their ability to be cruel, clever, and knowledgeable. I feel like if gaming were more normalized, and treated as less of a mysterious, wild frontier, then you might see improvements in game cultures, especially in the games where it takes root, such as Minecraft.
posted by codacorolla at 12:22 PM on April 18, 2016 [14 favorites]

As both a MC server operator and a MC modpack creator, I really loved this article. I'm in my late 40's and started playing MC very early in the Alpha days. Upon discovering 'modded' MC, I was lost forever. The things people have cooked up to add to the world are so many and varied.

One quote that always stuck with me was 'Vanilla Minecraft is for Architects, Modded Minecraft is for Engineers'.

From modded MC, I've learned programming in Java, a lot of Linux server administration and of course, a lot of interpersonal politics. My server is not hypixel, but it has a dedicated core of lovers of our Modpack. This Modpack changes the MC experience entirely, where the blocks are found, what the weather is like, what animals are found where. It's breathed new life into a world that has continued to give me great pleasure for almost a decade now.

I can't imagine what will replace Minecraft, but I sure look forward to finding out.
posted by AnodeCathode at 7:19 PM on April 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Interesting to me were some comments up thread that describe Minecraft's shortcomings as being key parts of its value. I certainly learned all the important stuff I know about computers, which has been enough to largely found a career on, from making them go again after I broke them. I learned about disk partitioning after I got a virus that needed to be napalmed, I learned about memory management from playing DOS games, I learned about BIOS and other HAL stuff from adding in exotic hardware.
And I did this to make my computer work. But I also did a bunch of stuff, like loading OS/2 (actually a couple of times, I was a slow learner and win3.1 kept blue screening) or messing around with linux installs that, on reflection, was about seeing what I could do with a computer a bit like an extreme skateboarder or rally driver does their thing.
So far, Minecraft has my kids doing the learning, but not yet the 'what can I do' extreme stuff.
It is kind of weird, when I look back at the stuff I did that would regularly disable my PC for half a day till I could restore an OS or something, yet my kids who could in a pinch, go use mine or my partners computer, are very nervy about making software changes at all to their PC. It is kind of like the expectation has hanged from the old, 'you must be able to sort out the issues' to 'you my introduce issues'.
posted by bystander at 7:06 AM on April 22, 2016

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