'Educational' Game Took over my House


'Educational' Game Took over my House

Minecraft is a computer game that makes use of virtual building blocks and offers creative problem-solving opportunities.

Are you still captivated by the many Minecraft conversations that teens and tweens have about rocks, minerals, sand, glassmaking, jungles, deserts, urban planning, railroad lines, night-time Zombies, and daily survival?

You may regret the day this time-sucker entered your home.

Minecraft is an open-ended videogame that allows players to build virtual homes and communities by using a few keystrokes.

Minecraft's website was officially launched in November 2013. It has more than 36 million registered users. 6.8 million have purchased a copy to use on their own computers. You can find millions of Minecraft tutorial videos on YouTube.

The game can be played on a PC, on Xbox 360 or on a smartphone. It doesn't rely upon high-resolution graphics nor keep track of earned points. It's not like road-race games, which require fine motor skills and quick reactions. It's a SimCity with endless possibilities for treasure hunts and lost in the jungle adventures. Minecraft's first-time players are presented with a blank landscape of trees. They soon discover that the sun is about to set and the darkness is near. They must gather wood and build shelters or they will be extinguished at night by the monsters of night. The game's name suggests that players will mine the environment for materials and then create things such as pickaxes, fishing rods, and even chocolate-chip cookies. Conan O'Brien recently reviewed Minecraft as part of his series "Clueless Gamer." He said that Minecraft was "Taking things out the ground and then building them." ... It's almost like we're in Wales during the 19th century, and we're very poor. This is a great game for children.

Once you have mastered that task, there are many other possibilities. You can mine for diamonds, tame animals, stock chests with found items, make glass windows by building kilns, gathering sand, and make bows or arrows from spiderwebs. But be careful, kill the spiders first! You can also create wonderlands for friends by creating railroad-like roller coasters. There are many options.

I repeat: no end. It's not surprising that parents are cursing the game's birth. As a researcher looking at the potential of technology to improve education, and as the mother to two Minecraft-obsessed daughters in primary school, I have a love-hate relationship. One minute, I'm captivated by its potential to encourage children to explore and be creative. The next, I'm stuttering at my kids. One minute I'm screaming at my children and making ridiculous threats the next. (Me, stomping to the kitchen computer: "I've already said this three more times." It's time to put it down. It's dinnertime. Do I need to unplug it from the wall? Want spiders, huh? How about I let you go outside tonight to look for the real ones on my back porch?"

Minecraft is a great learning environment. It has many indicators: children-initiated projects and deep engagement. They also have challenging tasks that push them to persevere and reach higher goals. There are tools to write and multiple modes of play that allow them (and adults) the freedom to customize the game to their liking. You can play alone and have lots of gold bricks for your yellow-brick road. Use "creative" mode. Invite friends to help you build a community. Turn on the multiplayer server. You can add more monsters to the game and make it a wild adventure. To make more creepers or zombies appear, add a mod created by fans and developers.

It also has potential for classroom use. Joel Levin, a teacher in second grade at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, New York City, will be attending the Future Tense event on technology and elementary education on Thursday. He has modified Minecraft so that his students can access a multiplayer world tailored for their classroom. They can work together to create and maintain buildings and environments. Watch this case study video of Levin, produced by Joan Ganz Cooney Centre.

Levin, Atlantic Live's event organizer, said that he brought it into his classroom because his 5-year-old daughter had such an amazing experience with the device.

Levin sees enough educational potential in the game to make it more than a school project. He is also co-owner of TeacherGaming (a startup company that offers a product called MinecraftEdu). TeacherGaming, the Swedish company behind Minecraft has partnered with Mojang to sell Minecraft downloads to educational institutions at a 50% discount. They also test customized versions for teachers to use within their classrooms.

Levin says that about 300 US schools have purchased the discounted Minecraft, and that 50 schools are currently testing MinecraftEdu. He said that one teacher is using Minecraft's online chat system to teach English as an additional language. Another teacher has her students keep nightly journals about their Minecraft adventures.

My girls, who beg me to see all their new buildings each day, suggested the idea of an educational Minecraft to me before I could even mention it. "I like Minecraft more than my homework," my 8 year old told me this spring, when I tried to redirect her to math that night. "Maybe my homework could have been on Minecraft?" Like when we were learning shapes I could go on Minecraft to make pyramids! I could also put up signs such as, "A pyramid has a square at the bottom." "

Minecraft was not designed to be integrated with school life. At least, not under the subject-specific, blocked-time schedules that are common in today's classrooms. Scott Traylor, the founder of 360KID, a consultancy company that tracks virtual worlds and their development, informed me that Minecraft was not designed to be a learning tool for children. Except for the MinecraftEdu partnership, which was initiated by fans outside of the company, there have been no attempts to promote Minecraft for children or schools. When Minecraft won the award for best virtual world for children at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show, Markus "Notch” Persson, Minecraft developer, didn't even show up to collect his prize.

Families with Minecraft-obsessed kids will need to find new ways to incorporate it into their daily lives. Some schools have banned Minecraft. (If Minecraft is included in lessons, they'll have a lot to adapt, I suppose. Others have placed time limits on Minecraft's use each day. This is a more difficult strategy than time-limiting TV viewing, which ends after 30 minutes. One father asked Quora for help with his 12-year old son's Minecraft addiction. (The advice is to engage with him. One said, "Don't just unplug your child, teach him how unplug his own computer, and encourage him when it does." We have established rules in our home that require children to read books first and have outdoor time every day. We encourage them to share what they're creating on Minecraft with us and show them how to do online research to find new ways to make it. My husband is almost as obsessed with Minecraft as my children are. He has created quests for them to find hidden treasures.

But I am alarmed at how quickly the minutes can turn into hours if they aren't there to tell them to take a break. I love the fact that they are creating, discussing their creations, and planning for future projects. I don't like that their Legos, the cardboard boxes they use to build forts, can't capture their interest as much as Minecraft. There's even a Lego Minecraft version. It takes real vigilance to find the right balance between the virtual and real worlds.

It's fascinating to see if Minecraft and other immersive games can change the culture in our struggling elementary schools. But I must admit, I am a little worried about what might happen if they do.