Minecraft for Education – Part 1
[Note: This post was becoming too long, so I’ve decided to break it up over the next couple of days.]
When I was 10 years old I was hitting a digital puck across the screen with a digital paddle playing Pong. My son at age 10 was learning metallurgy and materials management in an online multiplayer game called Runescape!
I knew nothing of the game at the time, and he soon showed me how he learned to collect items in the world in order to make new things that he needed to complete quests and gain experience. In particular, he showed me how he needed to collect certain metal ores, take them to a smelter to extract metals, and then take those to a forge to create tools or to a craftsman to make other things. This is one of the reasons that I am still excited about Minecraft.
If you haven’t heard of Minecraft, what Luddite community do you belong to? I apologize. That is much too harsh. But, if you are a technologist who has not heard about Minecraft, go rectify that as soon as you’re done reading this post.
As for a description of Minecraft, I’ll leave that to the Minecraft Wiki:
Minecraft is a sandbox construction game, inspired by Infiniminer, and created by Markus Persson, the founder of Mojang AB. The game involves players creating and destroying various types of blocks in a three dimensional environment. The player takes an avatar that can destroy or create blocks, forming fantastic structures, creations and artwork across the various multiplayer servers in multiple game modes.
Minecraft has swept the world since its release in 2009, and it hasn’t even gone to a version 1.0 release, which is currently scheduled for later this year. In that way, I suppose, it resembles a Google product. While it is a described as a game, I would more accurately define it as a tool for play, since there is no particular goal to achieve. Even though there are creatures, both domesticated and wild, that you can kill or be killed by, there is no “mission” to complete that requires killing at all. There are no missions period.
In that way, Minecraft greatly resembles SecondLife. Minecraft is as much a user-constructed world as is SecondLife, with some significant differences. First, the Minecraft world looks like what SL might have looked like had it been developed in the early 1990s–it is decidedly low-resolution, a features that only adds to its charm. In Minecraft, there are no properties to own, no in-world currency systems, no stores, and no avatar rave parties (yet). But, there are also no presentation tools, no audio chat, and no online conferences. For me, SL is a social environment with lots of possibilities, but one that so often feels empty unless I enter for a specific purpose or event. Minecraft, on the other hand, is a private environment that I can choose to make a social one.
If SecondLife could be considered an alternate world, then Minecraft is an alternate galaxy. In SL, everyone inhabits a large, single, shared world. In Minecraft, each instance of the game is a unique world. There is a multiplayer version now, so many players can inhabit a shared environment, but the general Minecraft player is a master of their own collection of worlds. In the multiplayer version, players can text chat to one another, but the conversation is more likely to be about “building stuff” than about where they bought their avatar clothing. Building and exploration are the core of Minecraft.
In SL, I can’t tell you how many times I would go to a sandbox area to begin trying my hand at constructing 3D objects. Each time I became either bored or frustrated. I simply am not a 3D modeler. In Minecraft, though, construction is child’s play. Really! It is very much like playing with Legos–you create by simply laying blocks (of different element) or digging away blocks. But you also learn how to combine different block types into new materials, from which you can then create different tools, devices, and structures. Thankfully, there are complete “recipe” guides online to teach you how.
Through this system of materials collection and scaffolded construction, a Minecraft player resembles my son and the skills he was learning in Runescape. It is that combination of creativity, exploration and collaboration that educators are now starting to explore in Minecraft, which I will address in Part 2.