This article emerges from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies and their effects on policy and society. On Thursday, Future Tense will host an event called “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader: What Kids’ Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming, and Sharing Tells Us About the Future of Elementary Education” in Washington, D.C. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.
Have you heard about Minecraft, the computer game that uses virtual building blocks and teems with opportunities for creative problem-solving? Have you yet been swept into the myriad Minecraft conversations by today’s tweens and teens about rocks and minerals, sand and glassmaking, jungles and deserts, urban planning and railroad lines, nighttime zombies and daily survival?
Have you been warned that you may rue the day you let this time-sucker into your household?
Minecraft is an open-ended video game that lets players build virtual houses and communities with a few simple keystrokes. Since it officially launched last November, Minecraft’s website has recorded more than 36 million registered users, with 6.8 million purchasing a copy to run on their own computers. Look for Minecraft tutorial videos on YouTube and millions of entries pop up.
The game, which can be played on a computer, on Xbox 360, or on a smartphone app, doesn’t rely on high-resolution graphics or keep track of earned points. It’s nothing like those road-race games that favor fine motor skills and quick reaction times. Think of it as a SimCity with treasure hunts and lost-in-the-jungle adventures of infinite possibilities. First-time players of Minecraft enter a blank “natural” landscape of trees. Discovering that the sun will soon set and darkness is nigh, they must gather wood and build a shelter or risk being extinguished by the monsters of the night. As the name of the game suggests, players mine the environment for materials then craft things like pickaxes, fishing rods, even chocolate-chip cookies. (When Conan O’Brien reviewed Minecraft recently as part of his series “Clueless Gamer,” he said: “Taking things out of the ground and then building things. … So it’s like we’re in Wales in the 19th century and we’re desperately poor. What a fun game for kids.”) Once that task is mastered, other opportunities beckon: Mine for diamonds, tame cats, stock chests with found objects, create glass windows by building kilns and gathering sand, make bows and arrows out of spiderwebs (but be careful—vanquish those spiders first!), lay out railroad-like roller coasters, design wonderlands for friends to visit. There is no end to the options.
I repeat: no end. It’s no surprise, then, that parents are cursing its birth. As a researcher examining the potential of technology in education and as the mother of two Minecraft-obsessed girls in elementary school, I have an acute love-hate relationship with this game. One minute I’m mesmerized with its potential for encouraging children to get creative, explore, and think critically about what it takes to build new communities. The next I’m shrieking at my kids and issuing ridiculous threats. (Me, stomping over to our kitchen computer: “I have already said this three times. Shut it down. It’s dinnertime. Do I have to unplug this from the wall? Want spiders, huh? How ‘bout I leave you outside tonight to find the real ones on the back porch!”)
Minecraft has many markers of what makes for a good learning environment: child-initiated projects, deep engagement, challenging tasks that push kids to persist and reach higher goals, excitement over what has been learned or discovered, tools for writing, and multiple modes of play that enable kids (and adults) to mold the game to their liking. Want to play by yourself and have loads of gold bricks available for your yellow-brick road? Use “creative” mode. Want to invite friends to build a town? Turn on the multiplayer server. Want to add more monsters and turn the game into a swashbuckling adventure? Add a “mod” created by fans and game developers to trigger more zombies or creepers to appear.
And it has classroom potential, too. For example, Joel Levin, a second-grade teacher at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City who will be at the Future Tense event on technology in elementary education on Thursday, has adapted Minecraft so that his students can enter a multiplayer world customized for their classroom, working together to create and maintain buildings and landscapes. (Watch this case-study video of Levin produced by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.) At an Atlantic Live event this spring, Levin said he “brought it into my classroom because my 5-year-old daughter was having such an amazing experience with it.”
Levin sees enough educational value in the game to take it beyond the walls of his school. He is co-owner of TeacherGaming, a startup company with a product called MinecraftEdu. Through a partnership with Mojang, the Swedish company behind Minecraft, TeacherGaming sells Minecraft downloads to educational institutions at up to a 50 percent discount and is testing customized versions for teachers to use in classrooms. (The original Minecraft costs $26.95 for a one-time download.)
According to Levin, about 300 schools have bought the discounted Minecraft so far, and 50 schools are testing MinecraftEdu. One teacher, he says, is using it to teach English as a second language through Minecraft’s online chat system. Another has her students write nightly journal entries about their Minecraft adventures.
My girls, who beg me each day to look at all the new buildings they’ve created, broached the idea of an educational Minecraft before I could even mention it: “I like Minecraft better than my homework,” my 8-year-old told me this spring when I struggled to redirect her to that night’s math. “Maybe my homework could be on Minecraft? Like when we were learning shapes, I could go on Minecraft and make pyramids! And I could put up signs like, ‘A pyramid has a square on the bottom.’ ”
The thing is Minecraft wasn’t designed to mesh with school life, at least not under the blocked-time, subject-specific schedules that define most classrooms today. In fact, as I learned from Scott Traylor, founder of 360KID, a consulting company that tracks virtual worlds, Minecraft wasn’t built as a learning tool for kids at all. And with the exception of the nascent MinecraftEdu partnership that was prompted by fans outside the company, there haven’t been any attempts to promote it for kids or for school use. Last year, when Minecraft won an award for the best virtual world for children at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Minecraft developer Markus “Notch” Persson didn’t even appear to pick up his prize.
Now families with Minecraft-obsessed children have to come up with new ways to accommodate it in their daily lives. Some have banned Minecraft on school days. (If Minecraft becomes part of lessons, they’ll have to adapt, I suppose.) Others have put time limits on its use each day. (A much trickier strategy than time-limiting TV watching, where programs conclude after 30 minutes.) One father wrote into the question-answering site Quora to find out how to cope with his 12-year-old son’s Minecraft addiction. (The advice: Engage with him. “Don’t just unplug your kid, teach him how to unplug himself, and encourage him when he does,” said one.) In our house, we have rules about kids doing their book-reading first and making sure to have daily outdoor time. We also encourage them to tell us about what they are making on Minecraft and show them how to conduct research online to figure out how to concoct new things. My husband, nearly as Minecraft manic as they are, has created quests for them and their friends to find treasures he’s hidden.
But I’m alarmed at how the minutes can turn into hours if I’m not there to tell my kids to take a break. I love that they are creating things, talking about their creations, and planning ahead for new projects. But I hate that the real thing—their Legos, the cardboard boxes saved for building forts—can’t hold a candle to Minecraft in capturing their interest. (There’s even a Lego version of Minecraft.) Finding balance between the real and the virtual worlds now requires some real vigilance on my part.
I’m fascinated to watch whether Minecraft and other immersive games will eventually change the culture of our staid and struggling elementary schools. But I have to admit: I’m worried about what might happen when they do.