This holiday season, arguments about “screen time” are likely to arise in many households with children. In a recent survey of Australian adults, excessive “screen time” was rated as the biggest health concern for children, but the current time limit guidelines are not only criticized by some experts but also not very achievable for many families.
Fortunately, more practical advice is on the way. We are starting to see research that looks beyond the number of hours spent playing to more meaningful studies of what children are actually doing during their digital play.
Our research contributes to this by studying the characteristics of the children’s game Minecraft in Australia, shedding light on how children approach the game, assessing the social nature of the game, and providing a reality check on claims of gender neutrality.
Understanding the Minecraft phenomenon
Minecraft is a digital playground as much as a digital game. The player controls a character in a virtual environment that can be manipulated in various ways with varying degrees of difficulty. There is no definitive goal, and players are free to create and manage their own playful interactions with the landscape and its inhabitants – either alone or with other players.
Since its first official release in 2011, more than 120 million copies of Minecraft have been sold.
Despite these indications of its ubiquity, no previous work has established how popular it is with children in Australia.
We subsequently surveyed 753 parents of children aged 3 to 12 living in Melbourne and recently published our findings in New Media and Society and the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human-Computer Interaction in Play.
The results show that 53% of children aged 6 to 8 and 68% of children aged 9 to 12 actively play Minecraft. More than half of them play more than once a week.
It is now clear that Minecraft is not a fad, but rather a new addition to the gaming repertoire of the 21st century. We must understand in detail how children use the game and how it fits into their overall “play world”.
Minecraft is a social activity
Due to the increase in the use of tablet computers in children’s digital play, more than 70% of children between the ages of 3 and 8 play Minecraft primarily on a tablet. This drops to 50% for 9- to 12-year-olds, with a corresponding increase in PC gaming where more technologically demanding gaming is possible.
Despite the persistent myth that playing digital games is a solitary activity, 80% of the children in our sample have occasionally played Minecraft with someone else – including siblings, friends, parents, other relatives, or other online players. And almost half played with someone else most often.
Although there is evidence that co-playing between parents and children is one of the most effective ways to maximize the benefits of digital gaming, only 11% of parents said they have ever played Minecraft with their children.
Minecraft is not gender neutral
However, our study shows that this does not seem to be reflected in the actual demographics of gamers.
We found that girls between the ages of 3 and 12 play Minecraft much less than boys, with 54% of boys playing and only 32% of girls. This difference was greatest among younger children: 68% of boys between the ages of six and eight in our study played Minecraft, but only 29% of girls did.
This is important because young children’s digital play is linked to the development of their confidence and digital literacy.
What’s more, the players who most often play the more competitive “survival” game mode tend to be boys. Girls are more likely to play in the “creative” game mode.
The research that supports campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys suggests that this may be due to the wider marketing of digital games as “for boys”, even though Minecraft is for everyone.
While 32% of six- to eight-year-old boys watched YouTube Minecraft videos in the week before their parents took the survey, only 9% of girls did. The game of Minecraft is therefore not only gender-specific but also a timely immersion in the surrounding gaming culture.
Digital gaming can pave the way to a career in STEM
The government (emphasizing the benefits of STEM fields to the economy) places the tech-savvy child at the center of visions of “Australia’s future prosperity and international competitiveness”.
There is a piece of growing evidence that Minecraft can be used to foster interest and skills in the kinds of fields that are relevant to STEM careers. And involvement in gaming culture is likely to spill over into an interest in gaming and technology activities later in life.
This is why the dominance of tablet gaming and the significant gender differences are so important. We need to look at why these differences exist and understand them in more detail.
Only through this kind of information will we be able to ask meaningful research questions and create parenting advice that maximizes the benefits of Minecraft while minimizing any potential harm.
This work will ultimately mean that future advice will be based more on the reality of children’s everyday practices and less on the control of time.
In the meantime, we recommend checking out the ‘Parenting for a Digital Future’ blog for practical tips on how to strike the right balance when it comes to managing screen time – including playing Minecraft.