minecraft characters

Minecraft and the Single Girl

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It should come as no surprise that my daughters love Minecraft. With over 60 million copies sold, it’s hard to find a kid who doesn’t. But I was a little surprised to see how just one “little” thing could make them love it even more.

Let’s not understate that love of the game, by the way.  Minecraft is easily my daughters’ favorite computer-related activity. They will play for hours if we let them. (We don’t. Well, not that often.) A recent birthday sleepover involved a lot of four-player shared world play and sharing of Dogcraft videos.

Even my pre-K daughter loves the game and plays it solo on her mother’s tablet. That’s an amazing impact, especially for a game that requires patience, sustained attention and the mastery of wonky controls.

Throughout their time with the game, there has been just one fly in the ointment. It’s this guy:

minecraft skin
Not a little girl.

Meet Steve. He seems like a nice guy. A bit of a blockhead, maybe, but an adequate protagonist for years of Minecraft adventures. Unless, of course, you’re a tween girl who wants to play someone who looks kind of like you.

My girls didn’t dislike Steve, but they didn’t want to pretend they were hairy stubbly guys. Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t see why they had to. Which makes sense, given that the whole game is about being able to mold the world to your liking.

Alex Comes to Minecraft

It took the makers of Minecraft about three years to catch up with the typical American tween girl. Original developer Markus Persson did not do himself any favors by writing that Minecraft was a genderless world with a simple “Human Being” (who just happens to be named Steve and to look like a guy). There were also premium skins available on some versions of the game, but as Madeline Messer has pointed out, why should girls pay extra to get the same sense of identity that boys get for free?

Change did come, though, and Alex arrived on my elder daughter’s Kindle two weeks ago. My daughter was overjoyed, immediately firing up the app and switching skins. She then carried on playing, just as before.

I was happy too, not least because months of grumbling were over and I could stop apologizing for the slow pace of change in game development. (In this instance, at least.) But I also couldn’t help but wondering: how can Minecraft’s creators measure the value of this change?

My daughters weren’t going to stop playing Minecraft because they had an avatar named Steve. The game is too much fun, and all of their friends are doing it. This change just makes them a little happier when they play, and player metrics will only reflect that feeling in the most subtle and circumstantial bumps to play time and retention. Those bumps are hard to sell to a product manager who’s focused on getting the biggest bang for the development buck.

Take out the cost-benefit hairsplitting, though, and it’s obvious that Minecraft is better because it has Alexes and Steves. (And imagine how cool it would be if Alex didn’t sound like a guy’s name.) That’s why I try to put multiple avatars near the top of my priorities when beginning a new game design, when it’s simple to include them. My reasoning may be selfish — I just want my kids to enjoy the games I make! — but I want my daughters to be self-ish when they play.

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Copyright 2015 The Roaming Designer