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"Is Too Much Minecraft Bad for My Child?"

How to make a passion for gaming—or anything else—into a passion for learning.

Does your child want to spend all of their time playing video games? Are they one of the million or so people planning on attending the upcoming Minecraft Live, for example, or one of the 202 million active monthly users of the game Roblox? Or perhaps, rather than games, your child is fascinated by dinosaurs, a popular Disney movie, or making videos on TikTok.

Parents frequently observe their kids becoming very involved in a specific interest, sometimes becoming an expert with seemingly endless knowledge about their favorite topics or activities. It is common to see a 5-year-old boy who appears to have a degree in paleontology because he knows so much about dinosaurs, or an 11-year-old who must be planning on a career as a movie critic because she can recite every line from both "Frozen" movies and can’t wait for 2023 (or 2024) when "Frozen 3" will be released.

A common “obsession” for kids in 2022 (and for the past few decades) is video games. Parents often ask me, “Is too much [game] bad for my child?” When examining their kids’ infatuation with a game (or anything else), many parents wonder if the intensity of their interest might be harmful or reflect some underlying psychiatric issue.

Yet for the vast majority of kids, these passionate pursuits are likely to be healthy aspects of a curious and engaged approach to their world. Many kids have particular areas of interest that keep their minds active and reflect a desire to learn more about something. Whether it be popular musicians, sharks, video games, Legos, or sharks, there is ample opportunity for learning and exploration.

And when a child’s passion is also popular amongst their peers, it provides a chance to share experiences and interactions. These intense interests help a child to share expertise that is often valued by peers or adults.

Video games are a 21st-century example of an interest that is easy to overdo but also to share with others. Many parents are concerned that their child's overzealous focus on one specific game minimizes their interest in other activities. In this respect, they have reason to be concerned if the child does not have a healthy play diet.

Their fascination with games can also have an impact on friendships. They may choose to spend more time with other players because their gameplay may become the primary topic they want to talk about. Fortunately, because certain games are so incredibly popular, your child is likely to have many friends to choose from who are involved in this (usually) relatively wholesome activity.

Obsessions or Intense Interests?

Intense interests can occasionally become obsessions and problematic for a child. One way to determine if your child’s intense interest is problematic is to examine whether it is restricting them in social relationships, interfering with their performance at school, diminishing their interest and energy for all other activities, or isolating them from others.

If they are inflexible in their willingness to participate in other activities or seem to lack the ability to have fun when they are not allowed to pursue their passion, it is time to act. However, for the most part, these intense interests have many positive features that can serve your child well in the present and in the future.

One reason that certain things might be better choices for a child’s intense interest, rather than others, is due to the nature of the activity. Minecraft, for example, is what's known as a "sandbox game." When you hear this phrase, the image might come to mind of a child sitting in the sand among a bunch of plastic toys, building castles, moats, and cities only to tear them down and start all over again—and you wouldn't be that far off.

Sandbox games give the player a great deal of freedom in how they approach gameplay and the goals of the game if there are any to start with. Sandbox games encourage free play, meaning that the player can build, explore, or destroy without being constrained by a narrative or other devices that encourage structured play.

The type of free or unstructured play experienced in a sandbox game is less repetitive and limiting than other video gameplay. While this type of digital play is screen-based, it also provides an opportunity to engage in imaginative and free play and build their sense of creativity as well as various executive functioning and problem-solving skills. When your child builds something new in Minecraft or tries out some basic programming in Roblox, they are experimenting with free play.

The downside to the open-ended nature of sandbox games is that they are particularly hard to quit. It is incumbent upon parents to set limits (though with certain games, I suggest being more liberal) with how much time you allow for gameplay. (One suggestion: Prior to starting, discuss a place within the gameplay, rather than a hard and fast time limit, as an ending place.) More importantly, parents should strategize about how they can leverage these intense interests into other opportunities for friendships, engagement, and lifelong passions for learning.

3 Ways to Make Intense Interests Good for Your Kids

  1. Ensure that your child’s interest is expandable and flexible. Help make their interests multimodal by finding other toys, books, videos, real-life examples, and educational opportunities to expand upon their passion. Don’t let the interest become too narrow. Certain sandbox video games, for example, can be easily connected to interests in history, architecture, or mathematics, or become an opening to learn about computers and coding.
  2. Accept the intense focus and sustained attention that accompanies these interests. Encourage your child to look for and identify other areas of their lives where they find a similar intensity of engagement and provide opportunities for these experiences.
  3. Model your own intense interest. If you don’t already have a hobby or a passion, find one that fits you. If necessary, try a few that meet your needs today and can be cultivated when you are not spending all of your time parenting, working, and just keeping up with daily life.