Fiona McCade: The craft to mine a rich seam online

Prejudices are there to be shot down, and Fiona McCade is prepared to admit her antipathy to computer gaming has now taken a major hit

Paddy Burns of 4J Studios, a Scottish company which developed Minecraft for Xbox. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

We just can’t get enough of spectator sports. Already this year, hundreds of millions of us have watched events such as Wimbledon and the World Cup. And 32 million of us watched the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship.

OK, League of Legends isn’t going to appear at the Olympics, or the Commonwealth Games, any time soon, but those are pretty impressive viewing figures for something most people have never heard of. It’s a competitive, online, real-time strategy, role-playing game, but apart from perhaps having a little less muscle tone, are its players any less worthy of applause than the athletes competing in Glasgow right now? Bear with me, here. I’ve recently had an epiphany regarding what actually constitutes a good spectator sport, and I’d like to share it with you.

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The other day, as usual, I was berating my eight-year-old for spending too much time on the computer. One of Junior’s favourite things is to watch YouTube videos of bigger boys playing Minecraft, and this baffles me. I did the whole “You never go outside unless I push you!” rant; I did the “What’s this got to do with real life?” rant; and then I did the most stupid thing of all. I said: “Why on earth are you just sitting there watching other people play? What’s the point of that?”

Oh dear. Excuse me a moment while I adjust my excruciatingly embarrassing double-standards. If he showed even the slightest inclination to go to the Games and sit in the stands at Hampden Park and watch someone run the 400m hurdles, I’d be delighted. I’d think: “How healthy! He’s showing an interest in sport!” So why don’t I encourage him when he wants to sit in his own home and watch someone design and build an Olympic-sized Minecraft stadium, and then run track and field events on it? Because I’m a technological dinosaur, who is inherently suspicious of the virtual world; that’s why.

Traditionally, spectator sport consists of nothing more than enthusiastic fans watching other people, who are more skilled than they are, demonstrating their talents and expertise. The feats these champions accomplish don’t have to be particularly physically challenging to qualify as a serious sport. Darts is a sport; snooker is a sport. People crowd around to watch Grand Masters play chess. The only difference between fans of these long-established activities and people who enjoy observing online gaming is … well, nothing at all, except perhaps the outdated prejudices of people like me.

Virtual gaming doesn’t interest me much, but although this might sound heretical to traditional sports fans, I think it’s as valid an activity as anything happening in Glasgow this week. So long as our kids get enough exercise and retain enough muscle-mass to lift a fully packaged Xbox One, I don’t care if they watch Mo Farah run or mushroom-cows float around on pixellated water. I suppose I was expecting Junior to get on with his own version of Minecraft, and not need to get hints and tips off other people. But if he gets inspiration from seeing how other, more experienced players handle challenges, how is that different from a footballer checking out recordings of rival teams’ performances, or jockeys watching races to see how well it can be done?

Interestingly, these game-playing videos are probably more helpful to their aficionados than watching ordinary sport is for ordinary sporting fans. I can see how much more proficient and imaginative my son’s playing has become since he started watching the doyens of Minecraft on YouTube. He’s entertained, inspired and excited by this stuff, and it’s clearly helping to hone his problem-solving powers. Back in the “real” world, he could study Usain Bolt until the cows came home, but it’s unlikely he could ever run 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. So, despite my ingrained predisposition to sneer at online gaming, I have to admit that it’s helping my son to discover new ways of thinking. And, let’s face it, when you’re playing any sort of sport, how good you become is all down to how quickly you learn. And if you learn from others’ mistakes as well as your own, you’ll get good very quickly indeed.

Of course, some of my snobbery is due to my deeply entrenched belief that being good at Minecraft isn’t ever going to win my cherub any medals, but maybe that’s also disappointingly short-sighted of me.

One of the players my son most enjoys watching is an English lad called Dan, whose YouTube channel, The Diamond Minecart, currently has over three million subscribers. Dan is the sort of sporting superstar any small boy would look up to. He’s clever, enthusiastic, funny, and his entertaining videos are fine for family viewing. Dan is becoming extremely wealthy, thanks solely to his own skill and endeavour, and I bet he’s not even 25. I’d rather my son idolised him than Luis Suarez any day.

When he started watching these Minecraft videos, I was worried that he wouldn’t get enough exercise, but he jumps up and down in front of the computer more than he ever could in the cheap seats at the velodrome. Just because I don’t understand why it’s so important to find out the best way to kill the Ender Dragon doesn’t mean it’s a less useful activity than sitting watching other people jump over things. In fact, quite honestly, the dragon sounds much more interesting.

But the huge success of online gamers like Diamond Minecart’s Dan has got me thinking. Now I no longer want to beat them, why not join them? I’m no good at computer games, but if I set up my own YouTube channel, do you think people would pay to watch me play stuff like Monopoly and Scrabble? Or, even better, I could play Subbuteo. I bet there are a few million disillusioned England football fans who would rather watch that than the real thing.