Making Sense of Minecraft for Learning

Can we succeed in bringing Minecraft to classrooms in ways that spark learning?

For a few years now, Minecraft has been the go-to app for kids. But, despite being around for a while, a lot of the game remains mystified for anyone over the age of 25. Minecraft is a “game” (although, that definition is used loosely for reasons I’ll explain later) that allows players to explore open-ended, computer-generated worlds and manipulate those worlds to their personal interests. Players change the world by collecting the very building blocks that compose the world and build creations with these resources. This game is played by virtually any kid aged 2–12, and given a chance, kids would likely love to see Minecraft in a classroom. However, before taking that step, teachers should really consider what they want to accomplish with it. Minecraft has some wonderful affordances for learning, but to realize them, some critical decisions need to be made about what it will be used for.

First off, I’d like to start this review by arguing that yes, Minecraft has many educational properties that, if properly applied, could really expand learning opportunities in many classrooms. It is saddening to see immediate dismissal of using a new game, app, or activity that kids do today for educational purposes because it is “not learning.” However, for this to go well, teachers really need to know what they’re getting into, lest their Minecraft experiments become disorganized and fall off the trail in achieving the objectives they set out to achieve. In addition, it’s also important to not “steal” all of Minecraft and its fun aspects in a learning application. Kids may like Minecraft in an educational setting, but there are some things that they may want to keep separated between their entertainment and educational lives. This will require some research. The discussion below is intended to help us to think pedagogically about Minecraft and what aspects of the game might really transform learning in formal classroom settings.

What is it?

Basically, Minecraft is a game that participants simply explore and build whatever comes to their mind. The game’s primary characteristic is bricks — think Legos as a computer game. Everything in the game is composed of block-shaped objects. From expansive mountaintops to oceans in the game world, everything starts as a block that represents a 1x1x1 meter area. Playing as a character, participants interact with the vast (and seemingly endless) world to collect resources and build structures. Even Structures can be as simple as a house to as grand as a cathedral. Resources are everywhere in the game, with each object in the game represented as a “minecraft block” with various properties.

Interestingly, it is a game with no “win state” or predetermined path. The only rules in the game are some simple rules of physics (you will fall because of gravity, and so will some minecraft blocks). You make the rules as you go along, limited only by your creativity.

An exciting part of the game is that it can be played with others. It’s not as much fun to build your creations by yourself and not have anyone share in what you’ve built. Multiplayer mode on Minecraft servers allow for people to play together. This brings a real collaborative element into the game as well, as people can work together to build or explore. It can create a competitive element too at times through competitions, or as kids can be sometimes, preventing attacks on one’s builds. Because it is multiplayer, some care should be taken in classrooms to prevent “griefing,” or the deliberate attacking and destruction of others’ creations by bullies.

As such, the educational aspect seems like a no-brainer. Kids are really excited about Minecraft, spend hours playing it, and it seems to be a no-violence, creative game. Why wouldn’t we want to leverage this tool for learning? In fact, Microsoft has recently been promoting a new special edition of the game for educators, Minecraft for Education. The potential for learning has reached the ears of the Microsoft developers and others who are now building lesson plans centered around the game. Although there are specific benefits for bringing Minecraft in a classroom, we want to be careful about how it is used. Kids’ interests in the game still need to align with what teachers are trying to guide students to learn. As such, some specific decisions need to be made by teachers looking to integrate Minecraft.

“Minecraft Steve” from my personal lego collection — Minecraft is now officially in Lego form, as well!

Thinking pedagogically about Minecraft

There are many educational affordances that Minecraft brings to the table. If we think about the types of pedagogical activities that you can do in the game, it becomes clear that Minecraft gives students many opportunities that are not necessarily available in a conventional classroom. Although there are certainly more, I discuss five of these below. If you have more ideas, please let me know by tweeting me @jeremyriel!

Engagement. The adventuresome game is highly engaging. Minecraft is one of the best cited examples ofCsikszentmihalyi’s state of flow, a psychological state in which participants are so wholly immersed in what they are doing that time itself seems to become meaningless and intense cognitive effort is expended on the activity. Because players pour their entire attention span into the game, amazing things can be completed, and as a result, significant learning can occur if the activities are tied to some kind of objective.

Creative exploration. Creativity and open-ended problems define Minecraft play. Although there are some hard-coded physics rules in the game, most of the rules are defined by those playing. This, by definition, is an affordance for creative behaviors. In addition, players are encouraged to explore, hypothesize, test, prototype, and interact with the environment. These aspects can be used by teachers to create places for creative inquiry activities mixed with creative expression. Because of the multiplayer element to the game, collaborative inquiry and learning could also be realized, as well as collaborative creative works. Given a few parameters to guide their work, students can create some amazing things in the game!

Customizability and personalization. Everything about the game is customizable. The character who is played (the avatar) can be customized with “skins,” which are custom pixelated representations of the character. The whole premise of the game is to customize your environment: you build houses high up on mountaintops or in the sky, or dig deep into the ground to form underground lairs. Since there are no rules for play and no path to go, the only way to play is to craft and interact with what you build! Personalized environments give students ownership over their work and help them feel like they are a part, which can increase motivational aspects like interest and self-confidence.

Simulation. Students can create replicas of places or things that are important to them or their research and interact in these worlds. Many minecrafters have created historical reenactments of famous events or places, which allow participants to interact in these simulated worlds. Remember, the key here for Minecraft’s popularity is not in its resolution to the actual thing it’s representing, but instead the affordances for creativity that the game provides. It is popular because Minecraft lets anyone as young as two years old to create objects either from their imaginations or from historical or current events. Engineering and design principles are at the forefront of Minecraft designs. Planning your builds helps, but is not required because players can experiment with their designs as they build them. Because it is relatively easy to build and provides a space for participants to interact with their character avatars, it creates a new realm of relevance that can extend learning past the classroom.

Classroom extension. Perhaps most exciting is that Minecraft is a virtual world that lives outside of the formal classroom. Learning activities that are embedded in a Minecraft world have the opportunity to extend outside of the classroom. This could blend with students’ entertainment activities, but may also create new times and contexts for learning that are impossible to achieve inside of a classroom alone. Playing with friends during their off time or building within the game outside of the class can increase the time available for learning activities by making it a fun, problem-based activity.

Try it out!

Try Minecraft out for yourself! For a game, it is relatively cheap (~$25). It can be downloaded on the Minecraft website and can be run on PC or Mac. There are also tablet and mobile device versions, although they are more limited than the PC or Mac versions of the game. Each version allows for you to join others’ games as well. However, keep in mind that setting up a game for multiplayer play requires setting up a server on the Internet to host the game, which can take a few advanced skills. There are many services though that have popped up to help streamline this process and make setting up a server super easy. There are also walkthroughs for setting up a computer you own to be a server for a minecraft game.

Many minecraft “builds” can also be downloaded from various places. You can do a google search for minecraft builds and games, or for servers that host “builds” that you can join.

What are your thoughts?

Let me know what you’re thinking! What are your thoughts on Minecraft — have you used it in a classroom or what are your feelings about using a game for learning? — tweet me at @jeremyriel! I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.

This article was cross-posted at the UIC College of Education Recess Blog on 3–29–16 as part of my weekly TechBytes column on how to think pedagogically about emerging technologies.

Photo credits:
Philip Roeland, Minecraft PE | Gabriel Luiz,Minecraft | Steven Saus, Minecraft Cathedral | Eric, Minecraft Football | Philip Roeland, Minecraft PE | o0N0o, Minecraft Vista | Alex Handy, sandle

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