FARGO -- You might think of Minecraft as just another video game, but don't tell that to the legions of parents, teachers and other fans in this area who think it's not only educational but can build social connections among those who have trouble doing so.
Middle school students are crazy for the "virtual Legos" game, as are 20- and 30-somethings, some of whom picked it up in college and are introducing it to their own kids.
"If I'm hanging out with younger kids, I can almost always talk about Minecraft and seem really cool," said Joey Noel, president of the tech side of BNG Technologies in West Fargo. He plays Minecraft regularly with his wife and kids.
"It's something that appeals to so many people in so many different aspects," said Matt Helander, a headhunter at Express Professionals in Fargo, who hosts a Minecraft realms server for friends.
Minecraft's website states that the game's basic concept is breaking and placing blocks, but it's much more than that.
"I learned that you can't explain it 'cause it sounds really stupid," Noel said. "You just have to say 'Here, play it.'"
What started as a simple online building game has grown into a way for players to work as teams to create imaginative worlds or realms.
Dan Sederquist, a social studies teacher who leads a Minecraft club at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead, considers it a life preserver for some students who were struggling with or even failing their classes.
"Since this club started, it's been a complete turnaround," he said. "It's not just a game."
Breaking down barriers
After the year's first parent-teacher conferences, Sederquist said he and fellow teachers shared concerns about some sixth-graders who were having difficulty transitioning from elementary to middle school.
He wondered how some of the students were even going to make it through the school year.
"If they weren't plugged into orchestra or theater or sports, they were just really starting to fall through the cracks," Sederquist said.
That lack of connection led to poor work habits and poor grades.
He decided to try to pull those kids together, along with others interested in technology, through the Minecraft Club.
The club was in place last school year, but Sederquist, in his first year of teaching, thought he would give it more structure with a daily theme.
The club usually meets twice a week for 90 minutes after school.
Sederquist said dozens of kids showed up on the first day. As the weeks went on, he began to see things click and the barriers start to break down.
"We had kids that I hadn't even heard speak for two months of the year, and they were sharing these ideas," he said.
With Minecraft, several students at a time can work together on creating and building things in one realm or world.
Some students bring their own iPads because the school has only four of them for Minecraft play, but the school's parent-teacher advisory council has ordered about 10 tablets to reduce wait time for the kids.
There are multiple math, science and engineering components to the game, and Sederquist often first has the students create blueprints for their creations on graph paper.
Their favorite thing to do is to build forts inside mountains, he said.
"You might see just a doorway on the mountainside, and you go in and it's this huge, elaborate maze of floors, levels, stairs and trap doors," Sederquist said.
"I'm absolutely shocked at what these sixth-graders can come up with."
Some students who rarely turned in homework and who were failing classes soon were passing them, he said.
What they were learning in math, they were able to apply to the game.
"With this younger generation and video games, every group seems to have that connection," Sederquist said.
Kids with autism benefit
Another local group also finds value in that video connection.
The Red River Valley Asperger-Autism Network sponsors gaming outings twice a month at Section 9 Cyber Café in downtown Fargo for middle and high school kids who have autism.
A half-dozen or so boys and one girl choose to play Minecraft every time, said JoAnne Vieweg, president of RRVAN. Her 15-year-old grandson is among the Minecraft enthusiasts.
She dismisses the popular notion that kids involved in gaming aren't learning anything.
"I see exactly the opposite," Vieweg said.
Through Minecraft, they're creating, building and interacting with one another, and learning to negotiate and advocate for themselves, she said. "I'm really excited for how I see these kids growing."
She said the game is also a tension reliever for kids with autism.
Her grandson plays Minecraft for an hour every day as a way of transitioning from school to home life.
Some people are drawn to Minecraft for the sheer fun.
Joey Noel, 27, and his wife, Mary, 26, of Baker, Minn., play the game with their son Avery, 6, while daughter Willow, 4, and twin daughters Aurora and River, 2, sometimes watch them.
Joey's older brother, who plays Minecraft with his teenage daughters, introduced him to the game. Joey, in turn, got his wife hooked.
"We got on the Xbox one time and played for eight hours straight," Mary said.
The family most often plays the game at home in separate rooms, but as a treat, they'll have Friday night gaming parties at Joey's office, where they can sit next to each other at the computers.
Mom and Dad use Minecraft as a reward for Avery when he shows good behavior in his kindergarten classroom.
His skill for the game is evident as he uses virtual materials to build circuits and move pistons -- most of which he picked up watching YouTube videos.
"He does things I don't even know how to do," Joey said.
In fact, Avery has his own Minecraft video posted on YouTube, where he begins by proclaiming, "I'm going to make the best TNT cannon you've ever seen, so let's get right to it!"
Vessel for creativity
Matt Helander's son is only 2, but he said he envisions them playing Minecraft together when the boy is a little older.
For now, the guy who calls himself a huge Lego nerd will have to build stuff virtually with his friends -- but that's only fitting.
"Most of my generation still plays video games just as much as we did in college," he said.
Minecraft came out in 2009, but Helander thinks its popularity is still on the rise, with newer versions only recently introduced.
The Fargo Public Library capitalized on the game's popularity when it held a Minecraft In Real Life event in November, offering games, crafts and activities to bring the things done in the game "to life."
Sederquist thinks Minecraft Club should someday be an extracurricular activity funded by schools, complete with tournaments.
"These sixth-graders are proud to be Spuds and would love to see and show off their creations to their friends in Fargo and West Fargo," he said.
Instead of computers and smartphones being seen as a hindrance to social interaction, gamers think the potential is there to bring kids back together.
"Minecraft is a real vessel for whatever creative things you want to do," Helander said.