When we read Clive Thompson’s terrific cover story in the New York Times magazine on the Minecraft Generation, we knew had to get the author of Smarter Than You Think together with Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You. It turns out they are neighbors in Brooklyn, and they sat down to talk video games, parenting, and the crisis of self-replicating chickens. Here is the transcript of their conversation (condensed and edited for clarity).
Steven: Reading your piece reminded me of one of my favorite stories as a parent: one day, about two years ago, my then-seven-year-old comes into our bedroom on a Saturday morning and he’s sobbing. He’s in tears, and he’s talking about his older brother Clay: “Clay filled my castle with an infinite number of self-replicating chickens!” He was in Minecraft and somehow his brother had decided to taunt him by filling it with all these chickens and I thought, “This is a problem that my parents did not have.”
“Clay filled my castle with an infinite number of self-replicating chickens!”
Clive: That’s a good one. When I researched this story, there were all sorts of stories of kids showing up on their server one day and they had spent a week on some fantastic castle and they log in, and there’s just a crater 70 blocks deep, just big jagged hole where that castle used to be — and it was blown up by a friend of theirs. It causes some deep social negotiations.
Steven: One of the things that’s great about your piece, particularly for parents, is how you walk through what has to happen cognitively inside that space and how close it is to the kind of thinking that you need to do, for instance, as a programmer. Because from the outside, parents just see their kids running around and they’re not sure what’s happening in this virtual space.
Clive: When you watch kids play Minecraft, very quickly you’ll see that there are a lot of interesting intellectual layers. There’s this stuff inside the game that’s called redstone. It’s kind of like wiring inside the game, you can use it to attach a button to the wiring in a door, so you push the button, and the door opens up. Kids use it to create cool systems and little machines inside the game. You could also put little pressure plates down so when someone walks on something then the lights turn on or a trap springs on them.
When I looked at this wiring, it’s exactly the same circuitry as the stuff you’d see inside a computer. You can make what they call an “and gate.” If this switch and that switch are triggered, then something happens. You can make an “or gate.” If this switch or that switch is triggered, then something happens. And this iswe exactly the logical circuitry basis of an Intel chip. It’s also exactly like the Boolean thinking that you do inside programming where you’re writing “If this happens or that happens they have to make this happen,” and I would watch kids do these very complicated things. So I thought, “Well, this is amazing.
One of the things that really struck me is how much time kids have to spend debugging these things. They would make something and it wouldn’t work and they’d say, “All right. What’s going on?” They’d call their friend over and they’d look at it. They’d go through the circuitry. They’d experiment and get it half-way working, and they beaver away at it, and after another hour it’s really working. This type of persistence is, first of all, the classic grit thing that everyone’s talking about with kids, and secondly, exactly what programming is. Programming is not making something and going, “Oh, that was awesome,” and making something else. Programming is making something and you start running it and it doesn’t work — it never, ever works the first time. Every programmer knows this. Programming is not making things, it’s fixing the busted thing you made. So there are all sorts of great, intellectual and emotional layers to this that are astounding. And a lot of academic experts who’ve thought about this arrive at the same conclusion.
Steven: And the other side of it that I think is so interesting is the YouTube phenomenon of people watching videos of other people playing the game and talking about what they’re doing in the game. You wrote about this, that kids are going on these self-regulated learning quests where they’re like, “I need to learn these complicated skills and YouTube enables me to teach myself.” Think of the power of doing that, in having the mental muscle to say, “I need a new skill in life. I need to find resources online and experts that can teach me how to do this.” Sure, initially you’re doing it for Minecraft but that way of researching and thinking about a problem is now an incredible skill they have.
Clive: It really is, and there was not a single kid I talked to that did not have that skill because you need it, because Minecraft is ridiculously complicated. It’s a game that offers you absolutely no hand-holding. You start playing it and there’s nothing telling you that if you combine these two elements together, you’ll get a pick-axe, and if you combine these two things together, you’ll get this cool bow and arrow. You have to figure it out yourself, which means you have to talk to other kids. You have to look at YouTube videos. You have to learn how to learn, right? That is an incredible skill because it’s extensible to anything.
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As for YouTube, I’ve written about this before but it was amazing to see it so strongly: people look at YouTube and they think music videos, et cetera, and that’s a big part of it, but what YouTube really is, culturally, is this fascinating explosion of visual rhetoric. It’s everyday people using it to explain things to themselves and to each other that are difficult to do any other way.
Up until now, the main rhetorical mode we’ve had for explaining things is text. We write it down, we show it to someone else, and it worked really well for a lot of things, but it turns out that we’ve systematically ignored all sorts of human knowledge that are hard to capture in text. Visual things are like that. Minecraft’s like that. Any time I break something in my house, I go to YouTube and someone’s done a video: here’s how you get the pilot lights started. I can read the manual, but watching someone do this complicated physical thing is a way to transmit that knowledge, and so this is about the encoding and transmission of knowledge that was previously invisible.
Steven: My 12 year old decided about 3 to 4 months ago that he wanted to build his own computer, he wanted to build an ultimate gaming machine. He spent 3 months obsessively watching YouTube videos and researching it online and though we didn’t really need another gaming machine in our house, we eventually caved, and it was such an amazing experience. Now through that process he knows more about how to assemble a Windows PC than I do — and I write about technology for a living and I’m a grown up! That moment when your kid has mastery over something that you don’t is a really wonderful thing.
It brings me to the parenting question. One of the things I would tell people in thinking about games and their kids is to sit down with your kid and watch them play and if you can, play yourself. You’ll learn it’s really hard and challenging. Your child has all this expertise that you don’t have. Also, ask them what they’re thinking about as they’re playing — and this is true of even violent games like Battlefield — there’s a lot going on. If you ask them, what do you think of in terms of local objectives, short term objectives, long term objectives, what’s happening on the screen, and get them to walk you through it, it’s an incredibly rich world.
Clive: I agree. My kids play a lot of Minecraft. I actually played it before they did. I knew about it, but they’re way more expert than I am at this point. The redstone, for example, I used a very little bit of it myself. I made a button and a door. I said, “I really want to learn more. Show me how these more complex gates work,” and so we all logged in, them on their computers, me on mine. We all went into the world together and they said, “All right, here’s …” and they gave me this lesson and it was fantastic. For two reasons. One, I learned a lot, and two, one of my kids raced really far ahead and I had to help him. I had to teach him how to teach other people. “No, you’re explaining things that are too advanced … I don’t even know the terminology you’re using. If you want to explain something to someone else, you’ve got to slow down.” And he was like, “Oh, okay. I got it,” and he dialed it way back and it was great.
Steven: [Laughs] “I’m speaking very slowly, Dad.”
Clive: These interactions are it. There are always going to be games that my kids play that I don’t play, so as parents all that we see is what’s happening on the screen. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg because most of the game is inside your kid’s head or it’s in this rich culture around the game. If you just watch Minecraft you wouldn’t know that there are millions of fan fiction stories on Wattpad that your kid’s also reading, or novels, or resource guides. Talking to your child about what they’re doing is super interesting and they love to communicate about it. They’re experts in it. They often love to talk about it. It can dispel a lot of fear too about the idea that this is hazardous, dangerous, or scary.
Steven: Well, it’s the only form of entertainment that we have right now where it’s not just interactive and participatory, it’s predicated on making decisions and following objectives. Even relatively simple games, but even more so with the complex games, it’s all about these complex nested objectives, right?
Yeah, that’s right.
Steven: You have these long term goals and short term goals and lots of things you need to do to be able to get the intermediary goal. Exercising that cognitive muscle is an incredibly important thing–and you just don’t get that from reading a novel. You don’t get that from watching a movie.
Even great television doesn’t force you to do that. You are sitting there passively listening to a story which is rich and may trigger your imagination in nice ways, but the process of really thinking “what do I want to do and how can I reach that goal?” Kids sit around and do that for hours on end without realizing that they’re doing something complex because it’s so fun.
Clive: I spoke to a lot of parents too while I wrote this story and it was interesting that even when some of them didn’t understand Minecraft at all, they got the idea that there was something creative going on. The thing that unsettled them about Minecraft, as with all games, is that it was so compelling an activity that the kids would rather do that than almost anything else. And this is where I think their concerns are accurate, because you and I played games for a long time. We both wrestled with the fact that it can be more fun to do that than anything else. I remember vividly, I think it was in 2009, I got addicted to Burnout Revenge, a racing game. It’s very clever because when you crash, you enter this bullet time and you can try to hit other cars with your tumbling car. They took the fail condition, crashing, and made it into a new game.
Steven: Yes – I played that game!
Clive: Anyway, at 10 in the morning I’d say, “I’ve done an hour of work. Let’s reward myself with a quick round of Burnout,” and then 5 hours later Emily, my wife, would come in from the other room where she’s been working, and I’m sitting there playing games, and she’d say, “Look, I never say anything about game playing. You run your own stuff, but shouldn’t you maybe… stop playing?” And I was like, “Yes, I should. I should stop now. I have 19 emails from my editor.” So when parents worry about how compelling and compulsive game playing can be, I agree with them because I’ve experienced it myself.
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Clive: I talked about this with my kids. A good game is designed to create a system that’s really hard. It gives you a goal that’s hard to achieve, but if you work hard enough you can get it. Then it gives you a slightly harder goal and this is a wonderful, thrilling, existential experience. It’s more engaging than what we do everyday in our lives… but it’s so engaging, it can be hard to step away, and so an emotional and spiritual challenge of living in this world is learning how to enjoy that and step away. And I told my kids, “I wrestled with this. You’re going to wrestle with this.”
Steven: I was talking to a friend of mine just the other day whose son is a big Minecrafter and I was saying, “Listen, the way you should think about it is if they’re playing Minecraft or a complex simulation, Sim City or whatever, and your kid is addicted to it, you should think about it as though your kid is addicted to practicing a musical instrument. Or playing chess. And it’s a drag, because they should do something other than just practicing piano all day long, but if your kid were addicted to piano, you would be kind of proud of it, recognize that something good was going on.
Clive: You’d still want them to go play baseball. But you’d think, “His piano obsession is pretty cool.”
Steven: What are your household policies around gaming?
Clive: Well with a complicated game — not a simple game like Candy Crush — it takes a little while to get inside it and figure out what you’re doing. In the same way that if you had to write a report for work, you’d clear aside five hours because it’s going to take one hour just to figure out the dimensions of what you’re doing and if you get interrupted you’re going to have to start all over again. Games are like that.
So if my kids want to play on a school day, they can play for maybe half an hour, but on the weekends I say, “You guys can play for as long as you want until your mother and I get up, we’ve had our coffee, read the paper, and are ready to go and do something in the world.” They get up way earlier than we do, so they might get 4 to 5 straight hours of really deep immersive play on Saturday and Sunday. And this tends to be unbelievably satisfying, because they can do the super complicated deep dive.
It gets that need out of their system, and they look forward to it. The problem parents have is when they try and restrict it to a little driblet every day. Of course, every kid’s different. I’m saying what works for me. I have no idea if it would work for someone else.
Steven: We do a similar thing. They have Saturday and Sunday mornings, and occasionally there can be rewards of game time during the week.
Clive: I also try and pay attention to what’s going on because not all games play the same. Suppose you were building some unbelievably complicated redstone thing, that is akin to building a treehouse and if you want to go for longer, I’m fine with that.
Similarly, sometimes my kids will want to go on because a friend has invited them onto their server and there are going to be a bunch of kids there and it’s a social scene. Today, we don’t allow our kids to roam around — society doesn’t allow kids just to go out and roam to streets the way they did when I was young in the 70’s. But kids still want to be together away from adult supervision and a Minecraft server or a World of Warcraft raid is a little bit like that, so if there’s a social aspect of what they’re doing online, we’ll let them do a little bit more of that.
This one boy, 12 or 13, had his own personal server, a Minecraft world, and he’d log in after school and one by one these various kids would blip into existence. Some of them were friends that he had from elementary school. They’re not in the same middle school, so this is how they get to see each other during the week. They would start building things and horsing around, but mostly what they were doing was text chatting, it was just this long stream of chat like, “Oh, man. Math class sucked today,” and they’re talking and they’re BS-ing.
Steven: [Laughs] Hanging out on the side of a volcano or something.
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Clive: Yeah. This is like going to the mall and hanging out and socializing. So sometimes it’s worth inquiring what’s really going on. Are they playing a game or are they just hanging out? Hanging out is not necessarily a bad thing to do for a certain amount of time too.
Steven: Last question, and it’s a two-parter: what was one of the early games in your life that really got you interested and the kind of platform? Second, what’s been the most interesting game, not counting Minecraft, for the last couple years, or that’s coming out soon that you’re intrigued by?
Clive: I’m a creature of the early arcade games, so I think in some respects it might’ve been Robotron.
Steven: God we’re old. We’re really old.
Clive: Yeah, we’re really old. Although, I took my kids to an arcade and they love it. Robotron still stands up. The thing I like about Robotron was that it’s one of these games where you have a little creature running around on the screen and there’s robots swarming in and attacking and you’re trying to kill all of them before they kill you, and there’s a sense of claustrophobia because it’s just one screen. You can’t leave the screen. It doesn’t scroll around. And the difficulty begins fairly simple and quickly ratchets up to just insane, to the point where I’m thinking, “I’ve never played a game of it for more than maybe 8 or 9 minutes.” I loved that feeling. The way that the game designer was architecting this increasing sense of panic and insanity. It reminded me, in a way, of how Monty Python builds a skit.
They start with something simple and within 15 seconds, there’s a level of absurdity that’s heightened. And within 7 more seconds, it’s doubled. Within 3 more seconds, it’s tripled, until it’s just ridiculous after 45 seconds. That acceleration of insanity, as a design principle, I just loved and I could see how it was different from the way another game was paced. It got me interested in the idea that games had rules and that the rules you picked were really what game design was. The game design was not the pretty pictures on the screen. The game design was the rules.
Right now, I’m in the middle of looking for a new game. Because I have kids and a job, I don’t have time to do these 5 hour long game sessions. When something comes along that’s a great big complicated game, I’d love to play it but I can’t. One thing I’ve been a little bit addicted to is Hearthstone, a spin-off of World of Warcraft. It’s been around for 3 or 4 years now. I just discovered it recently, and it’s a very complicated, nuanced card game. I like how the strategy is incredibly deep but I can just play it for 15 minutes on my phone before bed. It’s a delightfully tuned game. I would encourage anyone who likes complex card games to give it a try.
Steven: I’ve gotten really into a new urban sim game called City: Skylines. It has the best traffic simulator I’ve ever seen. You design your roads and you have multiple kinds: one way roads, highways, dedicated mass transit lanes, bike lanes. And the graphics are lovely. I will find myself late at night with a glass of wine sitting there zoomed in on an intersection and watching people queue up at the light and watching others having trouble with the right turn. You could spend 20 minutes just watching …
Clive: One of the really great delights of 30 years into this world of gaming is that there are now so many different games, that asking whether someone likes games is like asking: Do you like prose? By which do you mean Jonathan Franzen or do you mean the back of a cereal box? The world of gaming is so huge that you could find two people that are completely passionate gamers who have zero overlap in the types of games they like. And the fact that it’s woven into your phone and your computer has made it a really interesting part of our multi-faceted modern life.