Technology

In hit games such as ‘Minecraft,’ tech giants see more than fun

Adnan Agha played “Minecraft” last December at the “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
Adnan Agha played “Minecraft” last December at the “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The New York Times

Parents like “Minecraft” because it can be a creative outlet for their children. Teachers like the game because it can bring lessons to life. And Microsoft likes the game so much that the tech giant wants to buy its parent company for more than $2 billion.

It is not flashy graphics or an intricate story line luring these groups to the game, however. “Minecraft” has become a global phenomenon by breaking with those conventions.

The point of the game is building things — and tens of millions of people spend hours constructing elaborate structures with digital pickaxes and other tools — and helping others make their own creations.

The game’s popularity has been clear for a couple of years. But the possible deal with Microsoft is the clearest sign yet how important tech giants view games such as “Minecraft” and their growing fan bases. Already, Facebook bought a virtual reality headset maker for $2 billion, and SoftBank of Japan spent $1.5 billion for a stake in a mobile game developer. Last month, Amazon agreed to buy Twitch, a streaming video site, for more than $1 billion.

More than any of those other deals, though, buying “Minecraft” for billions would be an acknowledgment that gaming is central to many people’s lives. The rise of mobile devices has put games at the fingertips of practically everyone, an engaging mode of entertainment or merely a time killer.

“Minecraft,” created in Sweden, has been a hit on nearly every digital device. It ranks as the top paid app for the iPhone and second for the iPad. Mojang, the game’s parent company, said in June that nearly 54 million copies had been sold.

“Minecraft” has succeeded partly by demolishing generational and gender boundaries that usually carve the games business into separate categories. In addition, Mojang lets its users create their own game servers on their computers so they can meet up with friends in their own private online worlds.

Joel Levin was a teacher at the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York in the summer of 2010 when he began playing “Minecraft” with his daughter, who was then 5. Levin was so excited about the educational potential for “Minecraft” that he began using it as a teaching tool in his second-grade technology class.

He eventually quit to co-found a startup, TeacherGaming, that sells custom-made versions of “Minecraft” to classrooms for educational purposes.

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