Minecraft Crafts Minds and Societies

Posted by in Blog on Jun 21, 2012

Minecraft Crafts Minds and Societies

The third-grader got hold of some dynamite and blew up some cities.

I heard this story—which actually has a happy ending—this past week at the “Games, Learning and Society Conference,”  when Chris and I made a pilgrimage to Madison to attend our first GLS. The conference is held annually at the University of Wisconsin and attended by game designers, academics, and educators, including the stars of the field, like James Paul Gee, who wrote What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy.

One of the best sessions I attended at GLS was, unfortunately, the most sparsely attended. “Expanding the Conversation: How does playing online games foster safety?” Not the most exciting title, perhaps, but the session was amazing. It was about kids controlling their own online lives. It was about practice, emerging learning, and three types of literacy: digital plus media plus social. It was about how kids as young as eight or nine can create their own rules and learning experiences, and because of their investment in their own learning, learn more and better.

Teacher Marianne Malmstrom had started a 24/7 server on which her kids and their parents play Minecraft. Minecraft is game and a simulation engine and a phenomenon. As Ms. Malmstrom pointed out, Minecraft doesn’t look like much at first. The graphics are blocky and the game seems cumbersome to use. But you can use the Minecraft engine, its blocks and tools, to build anything. (One speaker at the conference said that it would be possible to build your own version of World of Warcraft inside Minecraft. I’d like to see that.) More than 30 million people have registered on Minecraft, and more than 6 million have paid for the game.

The kids in Malmstrom’s school were set loose on Minecraft and soon figured out not only how to play and how to build things like houses and whole cities, but also how to govern their own behavior online. “I was so blown away watching how they negotiated the rules and the economy,” said Malmstrom. “…the students were driving the learning like no other platform I’ve ever used..they negotiated and changed the rules in the game maybe a half a dozen times during the first session.”

In Malmstrom’s Minecraft project, kids of all ages are learning by building together. Fifth-graders participated in a “Build a Shelter” challenge in which they built a shelters with no monsters (!) but with a door, walls, a roof, and a bed, and then made machinima videos of the shelters and posted them on Youtube. Second-graders were challeneged to build their initials any way they could, with help from a friend but with no instruction. Eigth-graders were challenged to build anything that challenged them personally. They came up with projects like a playable hockey game and a musical instrument playable by ambulatory avatars.

The third-grader who blew up cities had to face social consequences for his bad behavior, and he learned from his peers not to do that again. The online space gave him and the other kids a place to learn what works and what doesn’t, both for them and their peers, in safety.