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Punch Wood: It’s a Family Affair

16 Feb

My family never had a Game Night. We hung around with each other at times, and I certainly played games with my dad–Mille Bornes was one of his favorites–but we didn’t sit around as a family to roll dice against a piece of cardboard once a week. I think the main reason we didn’t do this is because board games suck. This fact can be applied to all board games, without exception, and any person who postulates otherwise is possibly suffering from a mild hysterical delusion. Board games are “fun” when pitted against “sitting in a room of uncomfortable silence;” if the latter is a likely option, only then does playing a board game seem like an attractive alternative. But anything else is better than playing a board game, down to arguing with loved ones about politics and scrapbooking. You might actually take away some memories, bad or good, from scrapbooking with your mother and Aunt Matilda. You’ll never remember a solitary thing you did while playing a stupid board game.

However it’s also true that I was not instilled with much familial “team spirit.”. We didn’t have a goofy sign with our surname outside the house, we took no yearly Christmas photos of us in a huddle dressed like a group of used car salespeople. I was given the option to join every manner of extracurricular activity: Cub Scouts, Little League, after school art programs–but unlike many of my peers, it was my option to do these things, they weren’t forced upon me as requisites. Given the choice, I opted out, and there was never any fighting or further discussion about it. I was happy to read and draw and concoct my version of the world within the angular walls of my attic bedroom. I don’t think it’s for me to say whether mine is an enviable or regrettable way to have grown up, but I don’t feel in the least bit angry or bitter about having missed the camaraderie of playing sports I don’t enjoy with kids I regarded suspiciously. My eschewing of team experiences were just some of the lustrous fibers that wove themselves into the wonderful, loveable tapestry that I am today. Don’t cry for me, Auburndale Soccer League.

I am aware that Family Game Night is an institution in many homes across America, one begrudgingly attended by teenagers who then turn around and foist it upon their own children, perpetuating a cycle that allows the board game industry to exist. One pitfall of playing these games is that the learning curves are so steep: games appropriate for all ages are often suitable only for infants and morons, while more adult fare like Pornographic Pictionary is too ribald for pre-pubescent family members to appreciate. Today, many Family Game Nights involve playing video games, often computer graphic-interpreted versions of popular board games which have the same inane pitfalls as their cardboard counterparts. Most other video games are either a non-stop bloody sex carnage, or involve repeatedly bouncing a pink bubble from one rainbow cloud to another while an anthropomorphized woodchuck cheers you on in Japanese. Enter Minecraft, a game that is simple and pleasant enough for small children to play, but also entices older players with action and challenges. And perhaps playing Minecraft is a better pursuit than racing your plastic token around a crummy picture against other members of your own family, because success in multi-player Minecraft involves teamwork.

I don’t mean to sugar-coat it and imply that playing Minecraft is primarily a team-based effort. You can certainly play it quite happily all on your own, and you can also spend time on servers slicing other players to ribbons with your pixelated sword (though you must then watch your back once your target respawns). I furthermore don’t intend to imply that Minecraft is the only or even best co-operative video game: many team-based first-person shooters require precise, military-style group maneuvers to effectively extract a maximum number of bloody deaths from the opposing team. But Minecraft seems to be an equalizer, a compromise between the many different wants and needs of a family unit. Watching families play Minecraft on YouTube, you see how easily each member falls into their supportive roles, depending on their proclivities: one person might spend tireless hours gathering resources (like the interminably boring job of chopping wood and replanting saplings) while another concentrates on constructing a sturdy home and establishing an animal farm. Even the hormone-addled teenager can satisfy his wanderlust and carouse the countryside defeating monsters, only to return and use his valuable experience points to enchant tools for the rest of his clan. Or, more than likely, get blown up by a Creeper and be respawned back at the family’s virtual stead anyway. Now there’s one way to make sure your kid is home on time.

One of my favorite things about families playing Minecraft is how variance in levels of immersion from each player can still result in a productive afternoon of playing games. When a family plays Monopoly, it’s usually one person who cares about playing and winning the game, and a bunch of other people who half-heartedly push their top hat or terrier around the board until the one person actually engaging with the game wins. In Minecraft, one member of the family can be very pro-active in killing zombies and collecting iron, while other members lazily tend to their wheat farms and home decoration, and at the end of a session everyone will have something to show for it. Most of all, they have the collective experience of having created something together, existing in an equalized playing field where the youngest member can defeat the meanest monsters. Mom and dad don’t have to worry about providing for the family in Minecraft, they can let the kids distill watermelon into life-giving potions while the adults go off on a journey to punch sheep. When the goals aren’t explicitly defined, the only thing left to do is have fun.

Or be bored out of your mind. I won’t pretend that Minecraft doesn’t have its limitations, but with a long list of potential activities and ever-expanding and updated software being provided by Mojang, Ltd., not to mention all the mods available for the game, you could play for a long time before it truly gets redundant. The virtual world is also a good place to commune over family issues that might be too touchy or painful to deal with in real life, as evidenced by the above video. Luclin at Minecraft Workbench produced this episode as a memorial to his son, Devlin, and it features the construction of a virtual remembrance while the family recalls memories of their lost member. Sure, that could–and almost certainly did–happen in the real world, where there would be real tears, real hugs, real warmth. But mourning on a Minecraft server carries different implications, a sharing of thoughts and words, the collective creation of something unique and wholly from one’s mind. A little easier on the old heartstrings, I think. For someone raised without a Family Game Night, and therefore is emotionally detached from everyone, it speaks to me as a good alternative to sobbing over a casket.

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