Actually, I said, I’m Gen X. And yes. Yes, it is.
Recognizing our kids’ growing social isolation, my wife and I tried to compensate by adopting a puppy. We also bought an Xbox, so they could join their friends for online Minecraft, the hugely popular video game that lets users explore vast digital realms and use animated 3-D blocks to build whatever they can imagine.
This is still OK, I remember thinking. Sure, my kids will be in front of screens more. But Minecraft is rich with opportunities for collaboration and creative problem-solving and all the other good stuff experts encourage.
It was a Saturday evening in late August when my illusions finally shattered. Instead of creating their own Minecraft worlds, my daughters were starting to spend hours watching other people play the game on YouTube. I tried to take advantage of their new habit, cleaning the house and chasing the puppy and catching up on overdue work. By 8:30 p.m., I was beat, so I scavenged cold leftovers in the kitchen, then crumpled into the sofa and turned the TV to an NBA playoff game.
Twenty minutes later, my 10-year-old wandered into the room, bleary-eyed and hungry. I had lost track of her, and she had lost track of time.
“It’s almost 9 o’clock,” she said. “Are we going to have dinner?”
Making ‘The Dream SMP’
The YouTube content that came to consume my daughters’ attention was called “The Dream SMP.”
The “Dream’” part refers to the username of a popular online gamer. According to his Wikitubia fan page, Dream is a 21-year-old former AppleCare worker from Orlando, Florida. He has yet to publicly reveal his face or full name, creating instead an online identity around a white blob with a smiley face. He did not respond to my requests for an interview.
“SMP,” meanwhile, is shorthand for “survival multiplayer.” This refers to the private Minecraft server that Dream launched in April 2020 so he and a few gamer friends could explore a new update to the game. Starting in July 2020, however, dozens of other prominent Minecraft YouTubers with usernames like Quackity and Technoblade and CaptainPuffy began joining in, turning The Dream SMP into a sprawling collaborative experiment. By late 2020, gameplay on the server was being guided by “Hamilton”-inspired narrative storylines and loosely sketched character arcs, with more than 30 players taking part in improvised role-plays that were streamed on multiple Twitch and YouTube channels, allowing millions of kids like mine to follow along.
It was the Minecraft equivalent of Marvel Studios’ superhero-filled cinematic universe. My whole body sagged with age when my older daughter first tried to explain it to me.
“So basically, there’s an evil egg on the server, and it like infests everything, making you evil and power-hungry, and it kind of like whispers you things inside your head. And then there’s like a whole faction, the Eggpire, and they held a Red Banquet, which was supposed to be like, ‘Oh, we come in peace,’ but then really they were actually gonna kill everybody,” she told me one evening in the kitchen while I chopped peppers.
I grimaced and nodded along, trying not to slice my fingers as I fought to keep the puppy from eating the placemats.
Related: Why all screen time isn’t created equally
On the one hand, my children’s fascination with The Dream SMP was a relief. They certainly seemed to enjoy it more than the family viewings of “Stranger Things” I had arranged in a failed attempt to reclaim their focus.
At the same time, however, The Dream SMP also gave me plenty of reason to worry. When I came downstairs, my girls would immediately pause whatever video they were watching, setting off my dad alarm. When I insisted that they let me watch along, I saw a pale-skinned, mop-haired British teenager who seemed to communicate mostly via screams, braying laughs, and random phrases he seemed to feel obliged to repeat at least four times.
“Dude, I’ve never been that close to weeing myself on stream,” was one of the few complete sentences I caught through the din.
This, I learned, was Thomas “TommyInnit” Simons, a hyperactive chaos agent who liked to burn down other players’ Minecraft houses and was in hot online water after sharing his platform with another gamer who had a history of uttering transphobic slurs. My daughters seemed captivated by his incessant trolling, filling my head with panicked visions of once-sweet children being transformed into obnoxious adolescent QAnon adherents who railed against cancel culture.
When confronted with such moments, experts urge parents to play the long game, creating a safe space for open communication by asking lots of open-ended questions and offering non-judgmental statements of our own values.
“If you’re able to make them feel like you truly care about their interests, you’re setting the stage for a future of important conversations,” said Yalda T. Uhls, who studies the ways media influences children’s development for the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In the moment, of course, I fell well short of this advice, fixating instead on my own fears.
“So, do you have a crush on this Tommy guy?” I asked my older daughter, by then 11 years old and attending a new school where she’d never met her teachers or most of her classmates in person.
“Ugh,” she responded, storming out of the room.
‘A very beautiful ecology’
The YouTube content that finally brought my family together featured two of the biggest stars on The Dream SMP: Dream and George “GeorgeNotFound” Davidson, a 24-year-old gamer from Britain.
The video started with the duo explaining how they hacked an electronic dog collar, using computer code and a pocket-sized microcontroller to reprogram the device to deliver electric shocks each time the wearer’s Minecraft character took damage during gameplay. From there, the tension slowly mounted, reaching a crescendo when GeorgeNotFound got zapped in the arm and started howling wildly.
For a few glorious minutes, I felt young again, transported back to the hours I used to spend watching ‘Jackass’ reruns and recording dumb skits on cassette tapes with my brothers.
“Look, Dad is actually laughing!” my younger daughter told her sister in amazement. “Usually, he only laughs at his own jokes.”
It was then that I decided to make more of an effort to see The Dream SMP through my girls’ eyes.
Related: Paper beats pixels on most picture books, research finds
Part of what they found so appealing, it turned out, were the storylines, full of revolution and betrayal and shifting alliances. They also loved the characters, none of whom is entirely good or always bad. And they took great pleasure in digging through the multi-layered identities of all the players in The Dream SMP, each of whom is simultaneously an actual human being and a crafted online persona and a character being role-played for dramatic effect.
In other words, I came to realize, my children’s new online world was very much like the fourth and fifth grade classrooms they were missing out on as remote learning sucked the life out of their 2020-21 school year.
“It’s not that I didn’t like ‘Stranger Things,’” my older daughter eventually confessed. “But I love the chaotic-ness of The Dream SMP. It feels more realistic. There’s always multiple stories going on, and you have to consider multiple people’s points of view.”
By that point, Dad School was a distant memory, and my girls had started describing themselves as members of the “The Dream SMP community.” They spent hours online, searching out the digital artwork and fiction created by the other young fans with whom they now shared a connection.
“It’s a very beautiful ecology,” said Crystal Abidin, an associate professor of Internet Studies at Australia’s Curtin University. “By creating their own version of these fictive worlds, young people are taking spaces like Minecraft and making them their own.”
Inspired, I decided to join my kids in exploring the Dream SMP universe. I quickly developed a fondness for fan art featuring a participant named BadBoyHalo, YouTube-famous for saying “muffins” instead of curse words during his streams.
One of my favorite images featured a grinning boy and a smiling puppy, both holding fresh-baked muffins against a backdrop of multi-colored hearts. I texted it to my older daughter, saying that I too now thought some parts of The Dream SMP were pretty awesome.
“Dang ur on a roll that ones cool,” she quickly texted back.
From Friday movie night to Friday YouTube night
Although Dream wouldn’t discuss the phenomenal popularity of his Minecraft server with me, he did join YouTube interviewer Anthony Padilla for an online conversation this June.
By that point, he had amassed nearly 22 million YouTube subscribers, but ceded significant control of his Minecraft server to his fellow participants. As a result, TommyInnit’s videos had collectively been viewed nearly a billion times, while other players were adding hundreds of thousands of new followers a month and launching fresh YouTube channels for their other creative endeavors.
“I’m honestly not that surprised,” Dream said. “When I go through and add somebody to the SMP, I don’t want them to just be successful in the SMP. I want them to take that and be successful [elsewhere].”
Ironically, experts recommend that parents try to empower their children in similar ways.
“Your job is to teach your kids how to get through their digital adolescence by managing themselves, so they can do the things they want to do online with grace,” said Amanda Lenhart, who studies technology’s impact on families for the Data & Society, a nonprofit research organization.
Related: What are the effects of social isolation from coronavirus on kids?
That perspective reflects a growing consensus that guardrails around children’s screen time should take circumstance into account, while focusing more on quality than quantity. When the pandemic era is viewed through that lens, Lenhart said, it actually seems pretty great that many kids responded to a time of severe social isolation by going online in search of communities and stories that could help them make sense of the world and themselves. That’s an important lesson that adults can carry forward, even as the pandemic eases and many children return to in-person school.
“Things like The Dream SMP should expand our ideas of what is art and what makes for good narrative and where opportunities for creative expression now show up in our children’s lives,” Lenhart said. “It’s no longer just in the books they get from the library.”
To be sure, Minecraft YouTube still gives me plenty of reason for concern. I’m not thrilled with all the penis jokes. I worry about the growing subsection of Dream fans linked to toxic and threatening online behavior. YouTube’s algorithm, which feeds users an unrelenting tsunami of related content, constantly overwhelms whatever bandwidth busy parents like me have to monitor what our children are doing online, a problem the platform’s parental controls have yet to adequately solve.
The amazing thing, though, was that once I started trusting my children, they started to bring such issues to my attention on their own. My daughters wanted to know what my wife and I thought. Even better, they wanted us to know what they thought.
As the 2020-21 school year came to a close, my children suggested that maybe we could swap out Friday movie night for Friday YouTube night. I pouted a little at the prospect of changing a cherished family ritual, but quickly caught myself. My girls promptly rewarded my progress.
They started the evening by showing a recap of the first few months of The Dream SMP, made by fans who blew me away by painstakingly recreating the entire Minecraft world on their own server. Then my girls played streams from some of the seminal events in The Dream SMP storyline, including a full-on role-played political debate between the server’s competing political parties, SWAG2020 and POG2020. Our watch party closed with a heartbreakingly beautiful animation created by digital artist SAD-ist, who according to Wikitubia is an 18-year-old fan from the Philippines who splices together dialogue from Dream SMP streams with her own drawings and music by the German composers 2WEI.
The high point was a dramatic recreation of the scene that led to The Dream SMP’s most famous one-liner, since meme-ified by millions of fans like my daughters and me.
“It was never meant to be,” we yelled along when the big moment came.
When we finally turned the Xbox off, it felt like we had reached an important new milestone.
“Girls, thank you so much for showing me all this,” I said. “I’m sorry I can be such a difficult student.”
“It’s OK,” my children agreed. “It’s fun trying to teach you about the things we like.”
This story about The Dream SMP was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.