American Girl, Minecraft, and the Next Generation of Builders (Daily Update Sample)

While full-length articles on Stratechery are free, I also offer the Daily Update for $10/month and $100/year. Each day I write at varying lengths about 2~3 topics of the day, delivered to your inbox, private RSS feed, or via direct link on the right side of this page. The following is a sample of a Daily Update from September 16, 2014

I wrote on Stratechery about the Microsoft angle of the Minecraft acquisition, but I wanted to spend some time on why I’m so bullish on Minecraft in particular, and why I think it’s an excellent fit for Microsoft.

First, though, I want to talk about dolls: American Girl dolls, to be exact.

In graduate school for a design research class we had a semester-long project that was focused on American Girl: specifically, through design research methods (which are largely ethnographic in nature, including observation, shadowing, and in-context interviews), we were to understand what made American Girl such an unbelievably successful (and wildly profitable) business, and then use that insight to create a similar product for boys.

For those who aren’t familiar, American Girl is a line of dolls and associated paraphernalia, including books, clothes, and stores at places like 5th Avenue or Michigan Avenue with hair salons, hospitals, cafeterias, etc. The average purchase in said stores is in the multi-hundred dollar range, and the average American Girl family spends thousands of dollars by the time all is said and done.

The core of American Girl, and the original product line, is time-period specific dolls, such as Molly McIntire, who lived during World War II, or Kirsten Larson, who lived on the American frontier. American Girl didn’t just sell dolls, though: the key was the books. As Wikipedia notes:

The Historical Characters line of 18-inch dolls were initially the main focus of Pleasant Company. This product line aims to teach aspects of American history through a six-book series from the perspective of a 9- to 11-year-old girl living in that time period. Although the books are written for an eight to twelve year-old target audience, they endeavor to cover significant topics such as child labor, child abuse, poverty, racism, slavery, animal abuse, and war in manners appropriate for the understanding and sensibilities of their young audience.

What we realized through our research is that it was these books that were the key to American Girl’s success: while kids loved the dolls because dolls are fun, it was the books that made the parents feel like they were doing good by their kids by buying American Girl. They weren’t buying a frivolous toy; rather, they were buying something that would instill values, impart knowledge, and enable a shared experience. That created a powerful alignment where kids loved the dolls because they were fun, and parents loved buying the dolls because they were educational.

I’m sad to say the second part of our project – how to translate this insight into a new product for boys – wasn’t as successful. Our idea was pretty much a poorly thought-out ripoff of American Girl. It turns out, though, that the answer showed up in what should have been an obvious place: video games. Specifically, Minecraft.

(An important aside: the project I just told you about was by definition delineated by gender, but I do believe that’s a false distinction, and I won’t use it from this point on. Boys certainly play with dolls, and girls absolutely play with video games. And, I’m proud to say, my daughter has built some pretty mean Minecraft houses on the iPad)

Minecraft is a video game, and like most video games, it’s very fun and engrossing to play. Kids are interested. Minecraft, though, is also about building things, and design, and even community. You learn a lot, and that makes parents interested as well. Minecraft is the same powerful alignment of parent-and-children incentives as American Girl, and I think that’s a big part of its success. Satya Nadella certainly agrees. According to Geekwire Nadella told the Seattle Chamber of Commerce:

To me what Minecraft represents is more than a hit game franchise. It’s this open-world platform. If you think about it, it’s the one game parents want their kids to play.

Ben Popper explores why this is in a really great piece on The Verge:

Minecraft gives Microsoft an intergenerational success story that few other games or services can replicate. The Verge spoke with dozens of parents who see Minecraft not only as an incredible tool for bonding with their children, but a gateway to education in computer science that could restore some appeal to the Microsoft brand for the next generation…

A lot of parents are especially happy to spend time and money on Minecraft for their kids because they see it as a teaching tool. Minecraft teaches kids about architecture, and players can use something called redstone circuits to create simple mechanical devices, even entire computers, out of Minecraft blocks. And while Mojang offers a number of different versions and upgrades of Minecraft to download, the incredible variety of worlds to explore and items you can build comes from “mods”, modified software created by the community that can be installed on a server to reshape that world or the rules that govern it. For many young players, mods become a gateway to the world of computer programming, something parents, and perhaps Microsoft as well, are keen to encourage.

John Lilly, the former CEO of Mozilla – and certainly no Microsoft fan! – had a similar reaction to the purchase and what he thought it might mean to Microsoft:

So here’s the thing: the next generation of makers — 5 or 10 years down the road — they’re all building worlds in Minecraft today. Just look around. Watch what the most interesting kids around are getting obsessed about. Take a look at what they’re building, and the levels of complexity they’re grappling with before they even really can grok what they’re making.

They’re next.

And Microsoft buying Minecraft — and, hopefully, investing in Minecraft in a way that also lets it stay independent and vibrant — says, very clearly, that Microsoft wants to stand, again, with the makers.

That’s exactly why Minecraft fits so neatly with Microsoft’s productivity focus, why I’m such a fan of the purchase (read the Verge article and you’ll see lots of places Microsoft can improve the experience and make it more accessible), and why I so desperately hope it doesn’t succumb to the Xbox’s need to exist.

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