Parents are uneasy enough about their kids playing digital games. Are video games isolating kids, or connecting them with others? How much screen time is too much? And now there’s a new and alarming twist: Kids aren’t even actually playing Minecraft—they’re using YouTube videos to watch other people play Minecraft.
My kids aren’t into Minecraft yet (we’re still working on Old Maid) but when I brought this up to other parents they shuddered. “Stampy’s voice is unbearable,” said a friend with a 9-year-old, referring to one of YouTube’s biggest Minecraft stars. “Stampy is the reason kid-sized headphones were invented,” said another. “Death to Stampy,” said a third.
So exactly how bad is this for kids—watching instead of playing? Is this the death knell for any kind of active, creative learning that might come from Minecraft? I contacted a few games-and-learning experts to get their take on this latest phenomenon.
The good news: They all agreed that watching videos on Minecraft is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact might even support the creative learning that Minecraft encourages.
Says Brendon Trombley, a game designer at the Institute of Play: “This is an example of connected learning—the idea that learning happens in multiple areas of a kid’s life. If they’re only playing and not watching, they can get stuck, limited by what’s in their head. But if they’re looking up things they’re interested in on YouTube, watching how-tos and tutorials, and bringing it back to the game, that’s enhancing their learning. Maybe they’ll be so successful they’ll even make their own videos.”
The dividing line, for Trombley and others, is whether kids are only watching—or if they’re using the videos as inspiration for their own game-play. If they’re learning about what’s possible, in the same way that chess players or pianists might watch videos of more experienced practitioners, it will open up their understanding of what’s possible in the game. It’s passive media consumption that’s not great for kids.
I spoke with Jordan Shapiro, PhD, the author of a Forbes.com article last year called “Is Everything Good About ‘Minecraft’ Gone?” and the parent of two game-playing boys. He says that there’s nothing wrong with sometimes being in the passive role, “but you have to make even the passive role useful. In an ideal world, I guess you’d watch the videos with your kids, but no one’s going to do that because they’re really painful and horrible. So instead, have some conversations with your kids about what they’re actually getting from the videos that’s useful.” By doing this, Shapiro says, you’re continuing a dialogue on what your family values—that you value making things and being active, not just watching what other people are doing. “So even if you’re not going to watch the videos, ask your kids to explain to you what they got from the videos—what are they learning? We want to push past just passively watching and emphasize that in our families we actively do things.”
Fair enough. And if you’re still worried, here’s one way to make absolutely sure that your kid gets something educational out of Minecraft: Sign them up for the Institute of Play’s Connected Camp, a four-week virtual Minecraft camp this summer in which kids can learn the basics of coding, problem-solving and cooperation. The camp has adult facilitators, so kids can learn in a safe online environment.
So this is all good news for parents of Minecraft-obsessed kids. “But … what about that annoying voice?” I ask Shapiro, on behalf of all tormented parents, and he basically shrugs. “Lots of children’s characters have annoying voices. Barney’s voice is pretty annoying too.”
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