Meet Sam. He's 10 years old, has strawberry blond hair and freckles, and he loves "Minecraft," the popular video game in which players mine for resources and use them to create buildings and environments.
In fact, Sam so enjoys the game that he decided to set up his own "Minecraft" server so he could play with more people.
"Regularly, you can only play ['Minecraft'] by yourself, and only people that come to your house can play [with you]. But if you have a server, other people could just come on from anywhere in the world," said Sam, whose mother asked that we not publish his last name.
Sam gave us a tour of his server, which includes a main lobby (a central hub for the locations on the server), four minigames and an "open-world" section. This area plays like a standard single-player game of "Minecraft" except that multiple people can mine and craft at the same time.
How he did it
The server is relatively small, but Sam seems to know everything about its ins and outs. As he walked us through the server, Sam pointed out the custom features he had added, projects he was working on such as a "Hunger Games" style minigame, and bugs on his "to do" list.
It's possible to use a home computer to host a game server, but the computer would have to be running constantly — and pretty powerful to handle a high number of users at once. That's why Sam rents his server space (with help from is parents) from a company called Fadehost, which specializes in hosting "Minecraft" servers for as low as $2.49 per month.
Sam set up the server so he could play with his friends and family. He doesn't just play "Minecraft" with friends, though. "I let anybody [onto my server] if they're not bad," he said.
That's another reason Sam wanted to set up his own server — so he could create the kind of positive, kid-friendly play environment that many other servers lack.
On his server, Sam preemptively bans anyone with a reputation in the "Minecraft" community for nasty behavior or "griefing" — intentionally destroying other people's creations just for kicks.
Sam's server has a code of conduct written on signs in the main lobby. If any users break his rules, Sam can throw them in jail, which confines their avatars to a tiny space for the duration of their sentence. Or, he can simply kick them off the server. Sam hasn't had to bust anyone yet, he said, though he's been tempted to put his sister in jail.
This is actually Sam's second server. He abandoned his first one because it was, as he put it, "bad."
"I couldn't protect anything. Nothing worked."
This time, Sam's server supports plugins, or pieces of code that add a function or scenario to the game's code. One such plugin enables the jail, and Sam also has plugins for four different minigames that people can access from his server lobby. Another plugin keeps people from griefing by preventing anyone other than the creator of a building from destroying it.
Sam made this server about two weeks ago. Currently it has about 15 members, including his sister and his older cousin, who help him out as administrators.
Sam says his parents love that he's set up his own "Minecraft" server. Ask his mom, though, and her answer isn't quite so simple.
"The experience allows him to learn how to manage not only his own 'business,' but it's [also] all about allocating resources and making strategic decisions," Sam's mom, a friend of this writer, told Tom's Guide.
"My main concern is his safety," she said. She's taught Sam to never reveal his name or age online, and Sam only plays on his laptop when another family member is in the room.
The possibility (or probability) of encountering foul language and even harassment online is a concern, as well. But avoiding those things is part of the reason Sam's mom allowed her son to make his own server.
"I don't think he's going to be exposed in 'Minecraft' to anything he's not exposed to in middle school," Sam's mom said.
"This is his passion," she said. "So I feel like I need to just get out of the way and just let him explore it … within the parameters of what it means to still be monitoring him."
Sam says setting up a server has taught him a lot about ownership and managing people. "I own [the server], so if people come on, I have to be the boss and tell them what to do."
The most important thing about his server, though, is that it's fun. "I like building a lot, and I like playing with my friends," he explained. For Sam, it's as simple as that.
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.