Is Minecraft Just A Shiny Bauble?

Tomorrow I will be on a panel at the 11th Annual Games For Change Festival, addressing The Minecraft Experience. Chatting with the moderator (Nick Fortugno) in advance, he asked me a question that led to this post. My memory is terrible, so I have to paraphrase, but he essentially asked me: How can we tell if Minecraft is more than just a shiny bauble? In other words, it looks great (that is, the level of youth engagement is off-the-charts and insane) but how do we know there’s any there there (that is, is learning taking place?).

As an educator, this is a familiar question, one we have asked and will continue to ask whenever we bring youth digital media into learning or educational contexts. And it strikes me as a formula:

1) Can the digital media or tool create a “need to know” around the content or skills we want learners to acquire,
2) Can it meet that need once ignited, and
3) If so, does that satisfy our educational goals.

In other words, effective digital media for learning needs to pass through the following equation:

Generate Need to Know + Address That Need = Learning Goals Met!

So let’s apply this to Minecraft. First, does it generate a need to know amongst its players? That’s a no-brainer, as that might be the secret sauce that makes Minecraft such a draw for youth around the world. Minecraft is a problem-solving AND problem-generating space. When you start in Minecraft it offers enough interesting challenges to teach you how to use the game to, eventually, create your interesting challenges. Case in point: once my son learned the basics of using red-stone to allow a button to launch an arrow (the initial challenge: follow the instructions to build this device) he developed a new challenge to pursue on his own (how could he devise a system to hold a sheep in place so it could be hit by a flaming arrow but be released the moment it caught on fire to learn if it could resist the flame when running).

And this, of course, is where Minecraft gets the most attention – it is JUST so sticky.¬†And that’s when you fear you’ve lost your kid, the rabbit hole can be that deep. This aspect is often most evident to, and present in the minds of, those new to games-based learning. When I ask someone new to Games For Change about why they have come, why they are starting to explore the educational potential of games, their first response is often the same, and undeniable: kids love games. You can almost taste the desperation (which we all share) to get learners to want to know what we aim to teach. Another case in point: after my first day at the Festival I came home and told my son about the presentation from UNICEF on their Block By Block program, which engaged communities in public space design. His response? “Do they have our town?” Before I’d finished the sentence he already wanted to do engage in urban design! It’s easy to see why many people think Minecraft has the potential to solve ANY learning problem.

Minecraft Event, Education, 1/23/2014

But of course, that’s not enough, not JUST reaching youth, not JUST creating a need to know. We then have to look at the next part of the formula, and ask if Minecraft is actually robust and flexible enough to go deep into the content.

I think this question lies at the core of Nick’s question: Is Minecraft only good at teaching what we might consider standard games-based learning (e.g. creativity, systems thinking, etc.) or can it actually be harnessed to teach curricular-based content. I think this is still an imp0rtant and open question. And the answer will differ depending on both the content and the context.

For me, the content is science learning and the context is an object-oriented natural history museum. So what have we seen so far? In the past year, we rarely used Minecraft on its own. Leveraging both our exhibit halls and existing features and mechanics within Minecraft, we have introduced youth to the science of farming, and poison, and geology. We have also gone beyond vanilla Minecraft to bring in new mods that allow us to raise dinosaurs (then visit real fossils in our halls) and, as I described here recently, the Shedd Aquarium has been developing marine life (on beyond squids!).

So, for us, Minecraft attracts the youth into our Museum-based educational programs and is designed to ignite their interest in science. Once ignited we then use it to explore their emerging interests in paleontology, archeology, geology, and more.

But does it add up? Have we been able to ignite their interest and then support them to meet that interest in a way that satisfies our science learning objectives?

Maybe. Just maybe. I don’t think we know enough yet to say one way or another. But finding out is what the work before us should be designed to find out.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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3 Responses to Is Minecraft Just A Shiny Bauble?

  1. Danny Fain says:

    A good case made for the learning potential of Minecraft! It’s certainly a tool with great affordances for various kinds of learning, but how do we know that it’s effective in any particular setting, such as a science museum program? Some form of assessment is needed to answer your last question, and compare Minecraft to more traditional alternatives. If a quantitative assessment were to show significant benefits, many skeptics would be persuaded; but it seems that’s hard to do in game- or play-based approaches to learning. I’ve seen recent studies of game-based learning which found that effectiveness depends greatly on many implementation variables, making scalability difficult. I wonder if that’s also an issue with Minecraft-based programs …

  2. Barry says:

    Danny, Great point. I hope the work I am involved with in the coming years includes that level of evaluation and research.

  3. John Martin says:

    Cool! I especially like “Minecraft is a problem-solving AND problem-generating space”

    That’s where the magic is!

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