Death has been a ubiquitous feature of computer games since their inception. So it’s tempting to think that a game like Minecraft with little aggression, player respawns and animals to kill for food might help children think wisely about the essential but terrifying finality of death. Sadly, it doesn’t.
Although everywhere, death in video games is an illusion. Not because you can come back to life but because it’s nothing more than an unimaginative way to cloak failure in narrative and present it to the player in an understandable form.
That’s a complex idea, but children seem to grasp it instinctively. My family is vegetarian, and my daughter responds to the idea of killing and eating animals with the earnest self-righteousness only a six-year-old can muster. Yet she glosses over my indiscriminate slaughter of virtual pigs, chickens, cows and others in Minecraft without comment. She appreciates that not only is it not real, but it’s not really even death.
You can play Minecraft in ‘Hardcore’ mode where death leads to the deletion of your character and the unique world they inhabited and shaped with their labours. But few people try, almost certainly no children. Torn between the desire to explore and the need for stability they shy away from the permanent change and its worrying implications. There’s nothing to be learned there.
I believe video games are a powerful tool which, used correctly, can aid learning and imagination at the same time as providing incredible amounts of fun. But some things are a step too far for a child. There are subtly nuanced art-games like Dreams of Your Life that can help adults explore the rawness of loss. But children react with simple sadness and pain, and perhaps it’s best that way.