The Zombie Treehouse and Teaching Problem Solving

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It’s tempting to think that modern parenting is somehow fundamentally different from the generations that have come before. Kids have access to devices that carry access to the sum of human knowledge in their pockets; they plug machines more powerful than the entire Apollo program into televisions with more resolution than the naked eye can process and play elaborate games with them.

It is different; don’t get me wrong about that. There are social changes afoot that we won’t really see until we are all dead and buried – or alive and cybernetically enhanced, perhaps? – but it’s hard to know what is a superficial change versus a fundamental one.

Take, for example, Minecraft.

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I have a lot of good things to say about Minecraft for kids in moderation. Kids can build amazing things when they have the tools for it. My daughter builds elaborate roller coasters out of mine cart tracks. My son recently made self-harvesting farms using redstone circuits. I have hit the point with something on a computer where it is easier for me to ask my kids to do it for me, because figuring out pressure plates is too much for my middle aged brain.

Minecraft is both a lego set and a treehouse. It’s a place where kids can go – a virtual place, but that is still a place – and it’s a place where they can build whatever their imagination directs.

So, like parents of generations before, I set out to build my kids a treehouse and set up a Minecraft server at home.

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A few weeks ago I noticed that my Mac Mini where I’d installed Minecraft was suddenly really slow. Really, really slow. I checked in and saw that the server itself was crashing. My son was home on holiday and I would see the same pattern – he’d log in, do a few things, and then the server would crash. Grumpy noises would ensue from upstairs, and then a muffled “DAD RESTART THE SERVER” would float down from his high command post up in his room.

Finally, this happened enough that I logged in to see what was going on.

He’d spawned thousands of villagers in a single village and then flying around them, trying to interact with different ones. The Minecraft server couldn’t handle that kind of load (I’d limited it to 1GB RAM) and then … boom. Down it went.

“You have too many villagers in one place,” I called up. “They’re overloading the server.”

“Okay, Dad!” he called down. “I’ve got it.” Occasional server crashes followed, but I was working on other things so I restarted the server as requested but tried not to think too much about how he was solving it.

About an hour later he came downstairs.

“Dad, I have a problem. I went ahead and dropped zombies on top of the villagers.”

“Wait, you did WHAT?”

“Well, I dropped a zombie on them, which started turning everyone into zombies.”

“Buddy, that’s … kinda awful, isn’t it?”

“No, not at all. See, zombies burn up in the sunlight.”

Oh. Of course they do.

“But not the baby zombies.”

“What.”

“See, the villagers had kids, and they turned into zombies, only those zombie babies aren’t burning up in the sunlight and they’re still crashing the server.”

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“Okay. I will handle it tonight.”

“But…”

“No buts, this village is crashing my computer, it’s got to be fixed.”

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I don’t know much about zombies in Minecraft. I’ll be the first to admit it; I play with my kids in Creative mode, I can build things but I haven’t felt compelled to figure out all the ins and outs of the Minecraft ecosystem.

What I do know is that things burn if you pour lava on them.

Lots of lava.

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Now, the boy had warned me that the zombie babies were really fast, and he wasn’t exaggerating. I had to chase down zombies and fling fire on them as fast as I could at times. They roamed in large packs, swarming towards gaps in the fence line.

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I’ll be the first to admit that things got a little out of control.

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However, after about 20 minutes of flinging lava and burning down the village, I had rooted out the last pockets of zombies and restored stability to the server. No more crashes, no more zombies, and a somewhat eerily beautiful ruined town standing as a reminder of our folly as modern people.

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I showed the boy the village the next day.

“DAD. WHY DID YOU DO THAT???”

“What? It HAD to be done.”

“Why didn’t you just build an Iron Golem? That was what I was going to do!”

“A what?”

“A Iron Golem. You take four blocks of Iron and a pumpkin and make them into a Iron Golem, whose only purpose is to defend against zombies. It would have wiped them all out without you having to destroy anything.”

I just sat there, deflated. Oh, of course, just build an Iron Golem, anyone should have known how to do that. Just stick a pumpkin on it.

“Sorry, bud,” I said.

“It’s okay, Dad. You didn’t know.”

“Let me rebuild your fence for you.”

“Okay. I’ll get started on cleaning up the lava.”

While I might not have approved of his Rube Goldberg-esque approach to problem solving, it certainly would have involved less cleanup.

(But burning down a zombie village is kind of fun, let’s be honest here.)