NEW YORK – Like millions of parents, Aaron Sacharow welcomes those moments when his son – 7-year-old Tyler – takes a break from video games and picks up a book instead.
He will even settle for the book being a guide to Minecraft, a game that’s sold more than 50 million copies since it was originally released in 2011.
“I don’t want to say it tricks them into reading,” says Sacharow, an IT project manager based in Miramar, Florida. “But there are books kids are reading for schools and books that they hopefully like in their free time. And if ‘Minecraft' books are a motivation to read, that’s a good thing, right? At the very least, they’re developing skills, reading skills.”
Since last November, “Minecraft” has spun off into one of publishing’s most successful franchises with a series of compact, illustrated books, priced under $10. Three authorized guides – “Minecraft: Essential Handbook,” “Minecraft: Redstone Handbook” and “Minecraft: Construction Handbook,” – have already sold more than 6 million copies combined, through a combination of store sales and purchases made through clubs and school fairs, according to Scholastic Inc. The publisher plans “Minecraft: Combat Handbook” for late September and a boxed set for October.
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“We first heard from kids themselves about Minecraft, and we started watching a lot of YouTube videos to see what the buzz was about,” said Debra Dorfman, Scholastic’s vice president and publisher for licensing.
“Kids, parents and teachers were all saying Minecraft was good for you. Kids are given free rein to play, build and watch YouTube videos of other people playing. Teachers were talking about the educational aspects of creative thinking, geometry, geology and problem solving so parents were agreeing to let them play for hours at a time.”
Kira Porton, store manager of A Children’s Place Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, says the guides could well become as popular as such top-selling series as “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Percy Jackson.” Knowing little about Minecraft herself, she had initially ordered just a few copies of the guides and found herself repeatedly asking for more.
“They’re in the process of just exploding,” Porton says. “What’s amazing is that we usually have to personally recommend books for them to sell that well. These books just fly off the shelf without our having to say anything.”
“Minecraft” is set in a procedurally generated blocky world whose trees, terrain and bodies of water can be mined for resources to build things like shelters, tools and armor to protect players from the zombies, skeletons and creepers who come out at night. The calculatedly simple mix of survival gameplay and Lego-like digital construction has captured the imagination of players who’ve recreated landmarks like Walt Disney World, the White House and Westeros from “Game of Thrones” across the game’s sprawling virtual landscape.
The minimalist indie game was originally released by creator Markus “Notch” Persson almost three years ago and went on to become a phenomenon. The game, which costs $6.99 for an app and $26.95 for the current PC version, has earned honors from the Independent Games Festival and the Game Developers Choice Awards. Besides the Scholastic guides, Minecraft also has inspired at least 10 self-published novels and hundreds of fan fiction stories.
A senior editor for books at Amazon.com, Chris Schluep notes that other game-related releases have succeeded. Last year, “The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia” was a surprise best seller (published, fittingly, by Dark Horse Books). He also cited books tied to Halo and World of Warcraft.
“They’re immersive worlds,” Schluep says. “People throw around terms like ‘transmedia' and ‘ecosystem,' and this is a situation where it really works, where people really want to know about more about it and go into other media.”
At the Brandywine Wallace Elementary School in Pennsylvania, second-grade teacher Elizabeth H. Madarang learned of the Minecraft games because her students kept referring to them in their weekly writing reports. Earlier this year, she ordered the first Minecraft manual offered by Scholastic. Her students have since formed a book club.
“I definitely see Minecraft manuals encouraging students to read,” Madarang says. “Not only are they reading text, they are studying and analyzing the manuals. They use critical reading and analytical skills then apply their new learning to their Minecraft games.”