Microsoft demos “Minecraft” on a HoloLens headset.

I spent much of my Christmas Eve this year playing “Minecraft” with my nephews — the same ones who taught me the ins and outs of the blockbuster game, which Microsoft bought for $2.5 billion in 2014.

This time, they weren't really explictly teaching me anything about “Minecraft,” but I learned something anyway: “Minecraft” is a lot more than a video game. It's a cultural touchstone; a thing that so many kids have in common that it just becomes a part of their lives.

This Christmas, we were joined by the kids' cousins, who live a few hours down the road, meaning that they only see each other a handful of times per year. “Minecraft” gave them a common language. They just had to pull out their iPads, and they were off and playing.

Oh, sure, they play more action-oriented games like “N.O.V.A. 3,” a first-person shooter with robots in the “Titanfall” mold. Or they have this car racing game that I can never seem to remember the title of.

But they always come back to “Minecraft,” where they work together to build things, explore caves, and cause the ocassional explosion, forest fire, or massive volcanic eruption. Even though they were attached to their screens, they were still managing to spend quality time with each other.

GameBoy Minecraft

A working Game Boy made entirely from “Minecraft” bricks.

And because they were able to visit each other's “Minecraft” worlds, they were able to show off the things they had built, the villages and cave systems they had discovered, and the armor and weapons they had forged. They experimented and tried building new things.

Looking back, it's probably a little healthier than all the hours that my cousins and I sunk into games like “Mortal Kombat Trilogy” and “GoldenEye 007” at family gatherings.

Then there's the other thing I learned: One of the kids found and used an unauthorized app that lets them cheat at Minecraft, getting all the items and supplies they could ever want in the game's more challenging Survival Mode. In a game that's supposed to be about building, it's a letdown that kids would want to short circuit the process. But also totally expected.

Ultimately, though, I find it really heartening that kids have settled on something that's ultimately constructive as the defining video game of a generation. They could be shooting each other or running each other over, but they're choosing to build instead.

I spent Christmas Eve playing ‘Minecraft' with kids — and I learned something important