I have long avoided video games. I lost a good part of my youth to a ZX Spectrum. When I was in my twenties I bought my first “proper” PC from a friend who left the first-person shooter game Doom installed. Two weeks later I emerged bleary-eyed from my room, vowing never to play any more games. Aside from a few chapters of Candy Crush Saga and completing Snake on my mobile phone, I stayed true to my word.
Everything changed when my eight-year-old daughter, Lotte, discovered Minecraft. I’d heard of it: a platform that allows users to build fantasy worlds out of blocks. But Lotte’s friends had got there first and she wanted to be part of the craze. We would often find ourselves with her cousins or friends engrossed in it, but we didn’t know how to play – so we would watch, transfixed by multicoloured blocks, zombies and the lethal lava.
Eventually, I succumbed to Lotte’s pleading and installed the game on my laptop. Lotte’s mother and I split up almost two years ago and, as a father, I’d been concerned that video games would not be a responsible use of our visits together. How wrong I was. Games have changed. Minecraft is essentially digital Lego – without the agony of stepping on a piece barefoot. Multiple players can participate. The Swedish company that created it was purchased by Microsoft last year for $2.5bn, and I can see why. The endless ways Lotte and I can enjoy the Minecraft world together never cease to amaze me.
At first it wasn’t easy. Lotte was more than capable of operating the main character, but initially lacked the vision to build things of interest. So I would google structures that more advanced players had created, and find blueprints, plans or, ideally, step by step guides. I would then “project-manage” the build, showing Lotte what to do, layer by layer, putting in marker bricks and keeping the workforce’s energy up with Ribena. At each visit, our “world” would grow larger.
I would build, too – often making surprise creations for her to discover the next time we loaded the game. These have ranged from mansions to stations and mazes. Despite long since overtaking me in Minecraft skills, Lotte is still thrilled to find out what I have constructed. And those night shifts building brick by brick are long. There is no cheating.
Lotte recently turned nine. Her mum made plans for a party – to which I was not invited. The two of us did manage a “real-life” visit to Bekonscot Model Village, but I wanted to give Lotte a proper surprise, with cake and all the rest. I had seen plenty of Minecraft-themed cakes: blocky swords, characters, houses, all of them looking
like psychedelic Battenbergs, but such an offering would be way beyond my skillset.
In a flash of inspiration I decided to build the cake inside Minecraft itself. I wouldn’t have to buy a single ingredient, nor worry about baking times or even pick up an icing bag. I set to work. Minecraft blocks are a metre cubed, so this was going to be big: a chocolate brownie layer, royal icing (made out of snow), red blocks that would pass for cherries and nine monolithic candles. The final touch at the top of each candle would be blocks of netherwrack: a volcanic glass which, in the Minecraft world, can be set on fire. Oh yes. Those candles had to be smoking.
My good friend David had invited us round for Sunday lunch on the day before Lotte’s birthday. He has two girls of a similar age and when we arrived I secretly told them what was going to happen. After our meal, I nudged Lotte, who was curious why I had humped my not-so-portable laptop to lunch. I asked her, in front of the others: “Do you want to play Minecraft?”
She was stunned. My question broke two rules: first, playing video games in front of company is rude. Second, after eating we usually watch Minecraft videos on YouTube, which is another story entirely (this month the 23-year-old Minecraft vlogger Jordan Maron bought himself a $4.5m mansion in the Hollywood Hills – so we can’t be the only ones watching).
“What? Now?” Lotte said. She clearly thought I’d gone mad. I started up my machine and everyone gathered round. Minecraft opened with Lotte’s character standing in the stables she had built the previous week. Except now there was a staircase leading underground with a sign at the top: “Lotte’s Birthday Ride”. Excitedly, she navigated her way down the stairs to find a minecart – one of the fastest ways to travel around the Minecraft universe.
Lotte hopped in. The cart trundled into a tunnel deep beneath our world and lit only with torches, eventually emerging to reveal an epic roller coaster circumnavigating all of our past creations. The ride climaxed by rising into the clouds before launching free fall on to a platform that provided a perfect view of Lotte’s birthday cake – candles blazing.
On cue, everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday”. Lotte, however, had opened the in-game inventory of blocks and tools. “What are you doing?” I asked, between singing lines of the song. “You’ll see,” she said. I watched in amazement as she selected a bucket of water, closed the inventory and flew around putting out all nine of the candles on the cake. She might have even made a wish.
Everyone cheered. At the same time I pulled out an actual chocolate cake that I’d picked up on the way to add a bit of real-life sustenance to the proceedings – though if I still had any doubts that Minecraft was a real-life experience as far as Lotte was concerned, they’d been extinguished in a flash along with nine gigantic netherwrack candles.
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy