A zombie is banging on my door.  It might break through.  Didn't used to be like this.

Just another day in the world of Minecraft, a multiplayer online game as elegant in its simplicity as it is quiet in its advertising.

I first learned about it while reading an article in Wired by Jason Fagone, in which he told the story of computer programmer and game designer Jason Rohrer winning the 2011 Game Design Challenge with Chain World.  Chain World was described as a “mod”, or customized version of another program called Minecraft, which was making some ripples in the gaming circles but had not yet become mainstream.  Although the Chain World story revolved more around how Rohrer adapted Minecraft into a quasi-religious experience - the game existed as a single copy, on a single USB thumb-drive, passed on from one gamer to the next - I was more drawn to the capabilities of Minecraft, which the author called a "virtual Lego set."

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I had been looking for a multi-player computer game that I could play with my 6 and 12 year old kids for some time.  Since I spent much of my childhood growing up with video games and personal computers rather than sports, I thought it might allow us to bond in a setting in which I was most comfortable, as well as capable.  However, I was disappointed to find that most of the multi-player, virtual environment games that I encountered involved some kind of violence, whether against aliens, robots, or other humans.  My searches for games of first-person-player (like first-person-shooter or fps, where the player controls a character in a three dimensional virtual world, which is viewed on the screen from the character's perspective) hide-and-seek or capture the flag yielded many online discussions, but few products.  I gave up.

Fast forward a few months and my 12-year old told me that some of his friends were playing a new online computer game, and he asked me whether he could buy himself a copy for around twenty bucks.  After a bit of research, I realized that the game was Minecraft, the same game that I had read about earlier, and that it was on sale as a beta version prior to its official release in a few weeks.  It was also available as a free version that I could play online, and after a few minutes I realized that this was the game I was looking for.

What began as a free sandbox construction game for PCs in 2009 has grown into an explosive success in 2011 and 2012 with more than 8.5 million sales of the PC and Mac versions, in addition to X-box 360, iOS and Android versions.  Similar to first-person-shooter games like Call Of Duty or Halo, the player controls a virtual character in an online, three-dimensional world where they can explore and interact with the environment and with other players around the world.  However, unlike other fps games, the player characters and the world of Minecraft are created mostly from colorful, large blocks that are stacked and arranged to create an almost Lego-like world.  There are dirt blocks, and stone blocks, and wood blocks (from punching the blockish tree trunks until they break), and several other kinds of blocks that are used to build both the natural and artificial structures.  

Through a creative puzzle or alchemy-like process, the player can also craft other items from the raw materials - hence the name Minecraft.  The wood from a tree becomes the sticks and planks that make tools such as an axe, or shovel, or even sword.  Part of the joy of Minecraft is figuring out which combination and configuration of items will create something new, and in some cases something essential.

There is some violence in Minecraft, but the game takes a different approach.  First there are two main modes that are available, Creative and Survival.  In Creative mode, the player has immediate access to all of the blocks and tools of the game, and can build, roam, and fly as they please.  Yes, they can fly, all around the block-like world.  They can also swim in the deep oceans, far underwater where the light dims to darkness (until you figure out how to add light underwater, since you would usually use torches).  In Creative mode, the player is invincible.

Survival mode is quite different.  There are monsters that come out at night.  There can be many of them, and as the game has advanced into new versions, they have become smarter and more varied.  There are zombies, spiders, skeleton archers, Endermen and several others.  The player is no longer invincible and has levels of health and hunger that must be managed.  Luckily the player can rely on more than his or her wits and fists, and can craft and use both traditional (e.g., sword, bow and arrow) and nontraditional (e.g., cake) weapons.  There are no firearms, and projectile weapons are limited to arrows. 

The player can attack the monsters, push them off a cliff or into the water, or they can simply run (or dig) away.  If the player kills a monster, they gain experience points.  If the player sustains a mortal wound from an attack or a fall, they are able to "respawn" into the same world, but the items that they were carrying will remain at the site of their death for possible recovery.

Survival mode also requires the player to eat periodically in order to survive and to heal any wounds.  The player can choose to hunt wild animals such as pigs and cows for food, or to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle and live off apples, bread and other baked items.  A desperate player may risk eating zombie meat or spider eyes and risk poisoning in order to survive.

I like this game because it allows my kids and me to go on adventures in this virtual world, where we can explore the surface and dig deep beneath the ground, fighting off monsters, building houses, planting crops and raising livestock, all working together.  The capabilities of the game are too numerous to name in this column, and the incredible developers at Mojang are constantly adding new features to the game (including additional modes called Hardcore and Adventure).  Not only can a single player enjoy the game on his or her PC, but they could also "host" a Minecraft world on a home computer or website, and then allow other users at home or around the world to join in the game.  Most importantly, the game can be customized to be as family-friendly or as violent as desired, and I found a few Minecraft server sites that cater to families (e.g., MineSquishIntercraften).  There are thousands of "skins" available for download that can change the appearance of your character, as well as several amazing, player-built world maps - imagine playing hide-and-seek aboard the Starship Enterprise, or wandering around Hogwarts Castle.  The possibilities are endless.

Now back to the zombie.  In the early days of version 1.0, you would be safe hiding inside your house with the door closed.  After version 1.2.1 in March, 2012, they were able to break down doors, making them a more significant threat.  I quickly opened the door before it could splinter, and with my trusty iron sword (forged in my oven from the iron ore discovered in a nearby cave), sent the monster to his final rest - and added more zombie meat to my emergency stores.

For more information about Minecraft, check out Minecraft.net.  For families with small kids, I would recommend a server with a “whitelist” that requires registration before participation.  There are several other high-quality servers around – I recommend risingherorpg.com.