The last video game I played was Pac-Man, when I was 10 years old, sitting on the faded blue wall-to-wall carpeting of my family’s living room. Decades later, my 8-year-old son sat beside me in our cluttered Brooklyn apartment and announced that he had built me a house. “Really?” I asked, “Where?” It sounded sweet, but I knew it was a setup. At this point in his life, he was obsessed with Minecraft — a video game where players build and battle. Unlike games where you follow a rigid structure to reach the end, Minecraft is a “sandbox” game, allowing players to have a series of unstructured adventures. All conversations with my son led to him either recapping something that happened in that day’s game or trying to find a way to sneak in another hour in this dark universe, which many parents claimed was “semi-educational.” My Luddite personality left me resistant to that idea.
Despite wanting him to wind down and go to sleep, I let him show me the house he had built for me in a meadow biome in Minecraft. I was happy with the airy wooden design and verdant (though rather blocky) landscape surrounding my new abode. I felt as if I was watching the Minecraft version of House Hunters as my son gave me a tour of my new home, including my spacious bedroom and a bed fitted with red sheets. In the Minecraft Universe, we were neighbors. Although he didn’t want me to live in his house, there was something so touching about him having built mine next to his.
When I put my son to bed that night after he showed me my Minecraft house, I thought that had been the beginning and end of my education on the game, but I was wrong. The next morning, during my daily search for freelance opportunities, I spotted a job posting about working on an adventure series for gamers. When I reached out, they told me that they needed a writer to create a middle-grade novel set in the Minecraft world. The main characters wouldn’t be real-life players, they explained, but imaginary characters that live in the world of Minecraft. I told them about my house in the Minecraft Universe, shared some writing samples, and was hired. I never mentioned that the only thing I knew about the game was that house, which I believe was destroyed a few days after my son gifted it.
This job seemed like another gift. As a widowed mom of two young kids, I was on constant lookout for writing gigs to keep up with the never-ending stack of bills that my other editing and writing jobs couldn’t cover, and I needed flexible hours because an office job had proven untenable while parenting two elementary-aged kids alone. My husband had died three years earlier, when my children were 5 and 8, and we were both in our 30s. He had suffered a severe bout of depression, and while I had naively believed that because he was undergoing treatment, he’d get better, he didn’t. As I tried to process the complicated emotions surrounding his suicide, while nursing my shattered heart, I also had to maintain a stable home for our children. My late husband and I both had family and friends nearby, and I couldn’t sacrifice this loving community in Brooklyn to move somewhere cheaper. So in order to survive in an expensive city and support my grief-stricken family, I worked a lot.
Upon accepting this new writing gig, I was given two weeks to write a 20,000-word book set in a world I had only briefly visited. Faced with such a tight deadline, I realized I needed to immerse myself in the world of Minecraft to find my bearings. It wasn’t as easy as I imagined. During a sleepless night watching YouTube videos about how to gather wood, survive various difficulty levels, and slay the Ender Dragon, I started to seriously question whether I had enough time to grasp this world and write a whole book about it. In fact, I was all but ready to email the editor and ask to cancel the contract, when I came up with an idea.
The next morning, I reached out to some parents and said I’d host a play date that day after school. Then I gathered my son, our neighbor, and another friend in my living room for this “play date,” which involved me plying them with Goldfish crackers, Tings and fruit, as I gathered the facts I needed. I asked who the villains were and what the kids’ biggest challenges were when playing the game, taking notes so I could craft a hero’s journey around my character.
“You have to watch out for Creepers,” my son explained. “Creepers are silent mobs that explode when you get too close to them.”
“Yeah, Creepers!” the other kids said, as I pulled up an image of a Creeper from the list of “hostile mobs” on the Minecraft Wiki site, which had become my instant bible over the past 24 sleepless hours.
To me, a Creeper was a cute green creature that looked like a cross between Gollum and Gumby. If I were writing a kids’ movie, I’d cast it as the lovable sidekick, but in this world, it was apparently a suicide bomber. I made a note to myself, along with reminders that my characters had to be prepared for skeletons armed with bows and arrows, zombies, a baby zombie riding a chicken, a witch who lived in the swamp, a three-headed monster named the Wither who flew through the air while shooting skulls at you, and other cruel creatures, all of which could attack at various times throughout a Minecraft day (Minecraft days move a lot quicker than ours).
After reviewing my notes, though, I still felt lost. So I handed each kid a yellow legal pad and asked them to write down what they loved about Minecraft. Also, if they could set a story in the Minecraft Universe, what would they want to read?
“I thought this was a play date,” one of my son’s friends said plaintively, looking down at her blank pad. There was a brief tinge of guilt, but I comforted myself with the thought that it wasn’t entirely unpaid labor for them, since I did promise all of the kids I “mined” for Minecraft information that I’d name the characters in my book after them.
I had tried to play the game with my son, but I wasn’t very good at it, so I relied on these secondary sources. My son reassured me that being bad at Minecraft was probably normal for an adult.
Instead of continuing the game, I sat beside him as he skillfully battled the undead. I was surprised that he wasn’t annoyed that I was barraging him with questions as he played, and that he sincerely seemed to enjoy my company. But I soon realized that he was gaming me as well, assuming that he’d get additional screen time out of this “research.” He wasn’t happy to hear that this wasn’t the case. But he needed sleep, and I needed to write.
That night as I worked on the book, I tried to craft a story that went deeper than having a character simply survive a zombie attack (even though that didn’t look particularly simple to me). Although I only had a two-week window to write the story, I didn’t want it to be superficial, so I tried to develop characters that had the capacity to learn from their challenges and grow stronger and wiser in the process. In retrospect, I think I was trying to convince myself that I was capable of doing the same after my husband’s death. At that point, I definitely didn’t feel like the characters in my book, who always triumphed after surviving the formulaic challenges of a hero’s journey. The main thing I felt at that point in my life was exhaustion.
In the end, through a combination of grilling the kids in my world, working weekends, and losing lots of sleep, I made the deadline. When I handed in the book, there was a sense of relief mixed with a surprising realization that I would actually miss my nightly research and the escapism surrounding it.
Due to the popularity of the game, the publishing house produced the book within a month, and they wanted a second one a few weeks later. When I handed in the second book, I was told that the first one had made a national best-seller list. Because of this initial success, the series would continue, and I would have regular monthly deadlines.
At this point, I was an old hand at the Minecraft Universe and no longer saw these books as that much of a challenge. I did, however, see them as an opportunity to connect with my son. Now I had a deeper understanding when he told me what had happened in that day’s game, and I knew what questions to ask him. And since I was paid enough that I only had to take on a small amount of work to cover the rest of our bills, I had a lot more free time to be with both of my kids, and I could be there when they had school concerts or to pick them up from play dates. I no longer had worry that I’d have to take an office job, which had meant panicking about how much work I’d miss if one of my kids had a fever. A highlight of the gig was reading chapters aloud to my son in the evenings after dinner, before he signed on to his nightly escapades in the Minecraft world. He would finish his homework and then spend half an hour listening to my book and offering feedback. I think he liked that I took his opinion seriously, and I loved that he wanted to share it.
When I was almost two years into writing these books, my son stopped playing Minecraft and no longer wanted to read my books. I would try to chat him up about new upgrades, but he had moved on. Once he started middle school, he discovered early Stephen King books and didn’t want to talk about mine anymore. Several times, in fact, he asked me why I couldn’t write books based on a world I created myself and not on Minecraft. I never had an answer. I wondered if writing work-for-hire books was just a way to stop myself from creating something I cared about. I wondered if I even had the capacity to create anything that meant something to me. I was so caught up with responsibilities that I wasn’t sure I could muster up the inspiration or energy. I thought about all of my characters and how they took risks, but I didn’t. But then I remembered that none of my characters were single parents trying to process grief while keeping the family afloat.
In four years, I wrote more than 40 books, and in some ways each one was a snapshot capturing a month of my life in emotions, energies and struggles. In the initial books, the characters were simply trying to survive in the Minecraft Universe and understand how to play the game. Those characters lacked confidence; they never chose to be heroes. A few books in, my characters became stronger, no longer reluctant and timid. They had more independence. This too, seemed to mirror my life, as my kids were getting older and we were all becoming more independent from one another, and as we moved away from the first few years of grief and became stronger.
This past summer, my son returned from camp, plopped on the couch, and after a two-year hiatus, started playing Minecraft. He announced that for some inexplicable reason, everyone was playing it again. I sat beside him as he played and suggested we search for an Ocean Monument, which is an underwater temple. I can’t tell you how many chapters I set in the Ocean Biome. I knew the best strategy to defeat a Guardian, which patrolled the area around the Ocean Monument.
“I forgot you know all this stuff about the game. You’re like the only mom who does,” he said, and I couldn’t tell if he thought this was cool or weird.
“What’s that?” I asked when I spotted an unfamiliar Non-Player Character walking past him.
“That’s a new addition, it’s a Wandering Trader. They give you leads.”
He explained how a lead helped a player, and I asked more questions to just have a few more minutes alongside him. As we chatted and plotted, I realized that the tables had turned. This time, I wasn’t begging him to go to bed or hovering over him to remind him that screen time was over. Instead, I was savoring every minute of his Minecraft adventure as a way to spend time with him — which seemed ironic, given the years I’d spent fantasizing about a single moment where I could be by myself. Now that my kids were teenagers, though, I was faced with a balancing act: trying to stay a part of their worlds while giving them the space to develop on their own. Once again, Minecraft had become a kind of magical doorway between his world and mine, though this time I knew I would have to enter carefully or risk being tossed out.
That night, although I felt connected to my son, I couldn’t help but notice that in this new game, he hadn’t built a house for me.