My son has been asking my husband and me for a Nintendo Switch for the past three years. But three months into quarantine and a week before his ninth birthday, he asked to be gifted a desktop computer instead.
With camps and sports cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, he spent much of this summer rekindling his obsession with Minecraft. The more invested he was in the game, the more limited he felt by his tiny iPhone 7 screen. Further, many of the group educational classes he wanted us to enroll him in, such as this game-design camp on Outschool, required students to use the PC or Mac version. Unbeknownst to us and, according to myriad Chromebook reviews, many other befuddled parents, it hasn’t been possible to play Minecraft on a Chromebook, even a “nice” one. (Well, not without a complicated Linux workaround—or nowadays, an Office 365 Education account.)1
I didn’t require much convincing to buy him a desktop PC; as soon as he uttered the words, visceral waves of 1990s nostalgia raced through my brain as I remembered the limitless joy of our big honkin’ family computer. That PC took up a quarter of our living room for over a decade, and it was my lifeline as a tween and teen, providing me with much-needed outlets for my early writing and artistic creativity, as well as important educational insights into a world beyond southern Virginia. One fateful summer, it also gave me the unmatched opportunity to play SimCity 2000 day and night for hours on end until, after one final 20-hour push, came the multi-minute mass-exodus arcology explosion finale (video), still one of the greatest achievements in my life to date.
I wanted my son to have the computer equivalent of that first beater car that savvy parents give some lucky kids.
I wanted my son to have all of those charming, wholesome, indulgent experiences and more. But knowing I wanted to get him a desktop computer was not the same thing as knowing what configuration would be best for him and his novice gaming needs.
His wonderful grandparents wanted to treat him to a fancy PC with all the bells and whistles, a generous offer I eventually declined. Something felt off about buying a perfect tool in this imperfect time. And I didn’t want my son to be afraid to experiment on his computer because I had instilled fear in him that he might ruin such an expensive piece of equipment. Instead, I wanted him to be able to figure out how to do whatever he wanted, making mistakes along the way, with few repercussions.
I realized I wanted my son to have the computer equivalent of that first beater car that savvy parents give some lucky kids. A beater desktop doesn’t need the white-glove treatment; you can do almost anything to it, and the stakes are low. That’s the point—it’s fun and freeing and the best way to learn, and not just hypothetically.
Back when a VTech Learning Laptop was the only type of computer our sweet toddler son wanted, I listened to an inspiring NPR interview with Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology. He had traveled to dozens of remote villages around the world for over a decade, unceremoniously placing kid-accessible desktop PCs in places where computers hadn’t yet been heard of, much less used. Despite the lack of any instruction manual or teacher, in every instance around the world, local children figured out how to surf the internet, use complex programs, play games, and much more. Mitra proved that self-directed learning is not only possible but also effective in developing deep knowledge of subjects. In fact, conquering desktop computers encouraged those children to enroll and attend school at higher rates, with demonstrated improvements in concentration, self-regulation, and attention span—all capacities that children could use opportunities to work on during this isolated time.
I’m aware that I’m expecting quite a lot from my son’s beater computer, but it already seems to be working. On his birthday, he downloaded three things: Minecraft for Windows 10, Minecraft Java Edition, and a potent pop-up virus, natch. I nudged him in the direction of Wirecutter’s free antivirus software pick, and he downloaded it and put it to work cleaning up his computer by himself. Self-directed learning success!
My son has no idea that his computer is a “beater.” To him, it’s a magnificent machine more valuable than the Mona Lisa.
Before Wirecutter published advice on buying a cheap desktop PC or finding a great used computer, I spent a bit of time determining the bare-minimum specifications that would let him play Minecraft “without lagging.” To my surprise, I found the perfect specimen in the Amazon Renewed store with a 90-day warranty and free Prime shipping to boot. For under $400, my son is the proud owner of a very old Dell that seems to have been rescued from an abandoned office, cleaned up, given a USB Wi-Fi dongle, packed with a new generic keyboard and mouse, and sent out into the world for my son to love. The computer looks new, took less than five minutes to set up, and has worked perfectly from the beginning. Its hardware is just barely good enough to play Minecraft and Minecraft Java Edition (he’s learning how to toggle the computer settings for optimal play), and it’s not quite powerful enough to play Minecraft Dungeons, so he’s slowly figuring out the bits and pieces he’ll need to upgrade, all on his own.
My son has no idea that his computer is a “beater.” To him, it’s a magnificent machine more valuable than the Mona Lisa, and to us it’s a work of art in progress—and we won’t freak out if he spills his water bottle on it.
Like sneakers and chapter books, my son will outgrow his beater desktop in a few months to a year, which we’re both prepared for and excited for. Maybe he’ll find ways to upgrade it further; otherwise, we’ll suggest he “sell” it back to us to give to his little sister. He can use the proceeds to buy himself a better system, which he’ll be ready for, and which we’ll both be excited for him to have.
1. In an example of self-directed learning, the day I turned in edits on this article, my son proudly told me he had figured out the Chromebook Linux Minecraft workaround on his own so his little sister could play with him. I couldn’t be prouder.