How Minecraft Actually Builds Social Skills

The Evolutionary Psychology of Gaming

Posted Jun 14, 2015

Do you have a kid who seems obsessed with Minecraft? If you’re not sure, here are some possible clues:

  • Your kid wants to play Minecraft nearly all of the time.
  • Your kid has set the alarm clock to be able to play Minecraft before school.
  • Your kid spends as much time playing Minecraft with friends “virtually” as he or she does playing with other kids face-to-face – and doesn’t seem to mind this a bit!
  • Your kid can watch YouTube videos of others playing Minecraft for hours on end – fully engaged - with the volume blaring.
  • Your kid knows exactly who the Bajan Canadian is.

If your kid fits these criteria (as my 11-year-old son Andrew surely does!), I’d say that there is no cause for alarm! Sure, you may find yourself saying phrases like “turn the volume down!”; “get off the computer!”; or “how in the world can you really find that YouTube video interesting!?” all the time, but, in the scheme of things, there are worse things in life.

                      Minecraft: A Brief Summary

If you don’t know what Minecraft is, here’s a brief primer (that I doubt would win the approval of my son or of many other Minecraft experts from around the world!). It’s a video game – with graphics that are vintage 1985 or so. It can be played on computers or on a number of devices – and kids can play in the same “world” together, even if they are separated by oceans. When you ask a kid what the point of Minecraft is, to my experience, you will probably not get a clear answer. You may get no more than a quizzical look or a “you just won’t get it” kind of response. But as I see it, it’s primarily about building. In the game, you can create buildings, farms, roller coasters, castles, and more. One time Andrew created a ship designed to go to the center of the earth. I guess it’s about creating – and it’s actually quite powerful in this regard.

But Minecraft also has a major social element – kids (or “gamers”) can play on the same “world” concurrently – having their avatars build things or play Minecraft games together. It’s actually really cool. They play Capture the Flag, Hide and Seek, and a number of other group games.

But as often happens in social life, there are often problems. Sometimes kids will “grief” others. Suppose I spent two weeks building a to-scale replica of Yankee Stadium - only to find the next day that it’s completely gone as someone used TNT (a common tool in Minecraft) to destroy it. That’s called getting griefed – and, as you can imagine, it can be unpleasant and can cause trouble!

                                          The Grief Trial

Andrew has been playing with the same group of kids from his school in a particular Minecraft world for a few months now – and they seem to have a lot of fun. Recently, Andrew was telling my wife and me about an online trial the kids organized and implemented. Wow! I was floored – really impressed at the action that the kids took – and, being me, I was also impressed at how many basic evolutionary psychological processes were manifest in the process.

There are about 10 kids (almost all 6th-grade boys) who regularly play in this one particular world. And only these particular kids play there (it’s not open to outsiders). One day, one of the kid's structures, that took a while to create, was demolished. There was a griefer in the midst!

The kid who “owns the server” and some others put together a trial – they concluded that they must find out who the griefer is. You just can’t have a traitor among your ranks!

Using an online messaging component of the Minecraft software, each kid was, one at a time, put through the ringer. Where were you when this situation happened? Did you do it? Why should we belive that you would never do such a thing? etc. The kids had this down. And I think they eventually found someone guilty (who apparently ended up not actually being the culprit, but, honestly, I’m a little foggy on some of the details). In any case, from the perspective of a grownup who is also a psychologist, I was like “wow – this is pretty cool what these kids are doing!”

                     Evolutionarily Informed Minecraft Lessons

With the griefing trial as but one instance, I’ve come around to seeing that Minecraft is not so bad! And I think that situations such as the griefing trial actually have the capacity to help build social skills. Below are some of the social lessons learned via Minecraft. And you’ll see that these strongly relate to work in evolutionary psychology (see Geher, 2014)

Tit-for-Tat Strategies

In life, we find ourselves in games of sorts all the time. Many of these games can be thought of in terms of whether we do some move to help ourselves at a cost to our opponent. For instance, if I’m playing Minecraft and you are not currently on the “world,” I can sneak into your structure and steal some of your resources (TNT, iron, diamonds, etc.). That would benefit me at a cost to you. But you know, this may not benefit me in the long term, because you might find out it was me and then retaliate. So what do you do? Well lots of research on the evolution of cooperation (see Axelrod, 1984) shows that there are costs to being too nice and costs to being a constant griefer (or "defector"). If you are always nice and never retaliate, others will destroy your stuff and take your resources. But if you always destroy the stuff of others (incurring costs on them), then you get a reputation as a griefer and others will be unlikely to cooperate with you. Simulated computer models have shown that an optimal social strategy, then, is a tit-for-tat strategy, in which you start out nice in all social relationships, but you retaliate once each time someone does you wrong. If someone griefed you, you owe that person a grief back – or at least you need to retaliate in some manner. On the other hand, you shouldn’t retaliate too much, as this could have damaging effects on your social relationships moving forward. As an evolutionary psychologist, I’ve known about this idea of “tit-for-tat” strategies for years – but have never seen it so much in action as in the world of Minecraft!

Reputation as a “Good Guy”

In some species, individuals live together in small groups for long periods of time – and guess what? Humans fit this bill (see Trivers 1971 and Trivers, 1985)! In such a species, it’s critical to hone a reputation of oneself as “good” or “altruistic.” Essentially, such a reputation as a “good guy” is a reputation as someone who:

  • Can be trusted by others to be honest.
  • Can be trusted by others to not inflict costs on them.
  • Can be trusted by others to help them when they are in need.
  • Is not selfish in his or her approach to social relationships.

In Minecraft, the evolutionary psychology of reputation is there in spades. The kids all have a very clear sense of who they can trust and who they can’t trust. This partly has to do with specific alliances (there are particular kids that you are more likely to cooperate with) but it also has to do with one’s general reputation in the community. As in real life, in Minecraft, you benefit from gaining a reputation as someone who can be trusted.

Social Benefits of Being Technically Skilled

There are stereotypes of kids who are highly technically skilled as being socially inept – we can all picture the high school nerd with those weird glasses and pocket protecter from our own upbringing. You probably remember that kid’s name! But this said, in looking at the world of 6th-grade Minecraft, I’ve actually come to see that there are social benefits of being technically skilled. Being an ace at Minecraft obviously makes one popular in the Minecraft context – if you can turn some blocks into a European castle with trap doors and a moat, then kids will want to have a Minecraft party with you! So not only does Minecraft help shape skills related to developing solid social strategies and reputations – it also provides social benefits to kids who are particularly technically skilled - not a bad thing!

                                         Summary

So if your kid is constantly on the computer playing Minecraft – and watches those crazy Minecraft YouTube videos, and laughs his or her head off at the antics of Bajan Canadian, I’m here to say this: As evolutionarily unnatural and technically antiquated as it may seem, Minecraft has potential as a great tool for developing social relationships and social skills in the next generation of leaders.

                                         References

Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.