Minecraft has been around for more than a decade, and it’s still a huge hit with kids everywhere. But that doesn’t make it any less mysterious for grown-ups who haven’t played much themselves. Why are kids so enthralled? And what do parents need to understand about the game? Read on.

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What exactly do you do in the game?Minecraft is mainly about building cool stuff. Wielding virtual chunks of wood, stone, and other materials, you scamper around a blocky virtual landscape and piece together whatever you can imagine—castles, amusement parks, underground hideouts, spaceships, you name it.Players can also craft items for their cute in-game avatars—anything from simple shovels to suits of armor made of diamonds.Is there a social aspect? Over the years, Minecraft has evolved from a mostly solitary experience to a more social one. Players can team up online to construct sprawling cities, engage in Hunger Games–style battles, or just hang out and build together in a shared virtual space.

Got it. How do you play?That depends on the mode!Survival mode plops you into a randomly generated wilderness where your goal is to explore, gather resources, and stay alive. Harvest raw materials—chopping down trees, mining rocks, and so on—build shelters, and craft weapons to fend off computer-controlled critters, such as Minecraft’s iconic Creepers.In the free-form Creative mode, there’s no need to worry about mining for stone or fighting spiders. Players have infinite resources to build whatever they want and can team up with others to bring huge structures to life. You can even defy gravity and fly around at will!There are also privately run Minecraft servers—elaborate online worlds capable of hosting thousands of people at a time. Many of these are home to robust communities and action-packed mini-games, like defending a castle against a dragon attack or battling other players on a set of islands floating in the sky.

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Is any of this violent?Though players can fight monsters—and one another—with swords, bows, and other simple weapons, combat is cartoonish and bloodless. When players die, they often simply respawn at the spot where they entered the game.Getting killed and losing a sweet stash of hard-won valuables can cause no small amount of anguish, though—especially for younger players. That’s why building secure places to store goodies is a big part of the Minecraft experience.Will my kid be talking to strangers?By default, players sharing the same Minecraft world can send messages using an in-game chat window. People tend to be friendly in the world—particularly on the more popular servers—and a filter blanks out most offensive words.The chat window has a handy toggle in the upper right corner that will mute all other players with a single tap. Once mute is turned on, it stays on until manually switched off again, even if your child starts a new game.

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How much does it cost to play?Aside from the price of the game itself, Minecraft is free. Dozens of optional add-ons are available for purchase from the in-game store, like sets of “skins” that change a character’s appearance (superheroes and monsters are popular picks) and massive prebuilt worlds with unique structures.These add-ons are bought using a currency called Minecoins—available as an in-app purchase—which are usually a few dollars apiece. Though it’s free to have up to four people join a game, a monthly subscription allows you to host your own private realm. These persistent worlds are accessible to invited guests even when the host isn’t online.

Should I play too?Absolutely! One of the best ways to learn about Minecraft is to jump into a game as a family and build something awesome together. Maybe an underwater mansion or mountaintop sheep farm? The sky’s the limit.OK, I’m convinced. What do I do?Simply download Minecraft to a device other than the one your child is using, then link up through the in-game friends list. (This step requires setting up a free Xbox Live account, as Minecraft is owned by Xbox-maker Microsoft.) After that, the two of you can play together in the same world. Unlike action-heavy games that require sharp reflexes, Minecraft can be a slower, gentler experience—one that stimulates imagination and creativity. Once you make your first diamond-encrusted suit of armor, you might become a fan yourself.

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