Epic headshop at 31;65, or Minecraft & 21st Century Learning

Last fall I participated in a panel at the The Bard Graduate Center entitled “Toys in Context: Sweden, Scandinavia, and the Digital World” – a fancy way of saying we were talking about Minecraft.Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 12.00.38 PM

Along with Colin Fanning, the curatorial fellow in the department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Art Museum, and Juliet Kinchin, the Curator in the department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), we placed “the popular Swedish game Minecraft within the history of play and contemporary gaming culture. [We showed] how the creative and building aspects of the game, in which its players build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3-D generated world, enable players to collaborate in creating wonderfully innovative and imaginative things.”

The full video is below. I presented with the support of my son Akiva, aged 9, at 37:30 or so (the video audio was low at first (eventually fixed) but if you want to watch any of the videos I used they are included below in a blog-version of the presentation). After my presentation Akiva joined in on the Q&A.

Epic headshop at 31;65
Minecraft & 21st Century Learning

Slide 1:
Evening. My name is Barry Joseph. I’m the associate director of digital learning at a little museum just down the block from here – you might have heard of us – the American Museum of Natural History. And this is my son Akiva. Let’s see what we can add to our discussion. I’ve framed this talk as: Epic headshop at 31;65.

Slide 2: I thought I would talk about Minecraft and 21st Century Learning, and show you some examples, like when I was at Global Kids, this after school program, and we did this global injustice program based on Hunger Games. [please click on video below]

That was my son, btw, Akiva, who was five at the time. He’s now nine, and here tonight. Akiva, please wave hi.

So that was one example I thought I’d share with you.

Slide 3: And this example, the first thing we did with Minecraft at the Museum. [please click on video below]

Slide 4: So while I had thought I’d spend my time exploring these programs with you tonight [pregnant thoughtful pause] I then thought – [weighing] 21st century learning, and my son, Akiva… I thought we might learn more tonight from looking at his experience. How’s that sound? I promise I’ll bring it back to 21st century learning. [wild applause] So here we go.

Slide 5: So, here’s where it all began – spring of 2011. Here is an example of what the process looked like for Akiva, balancing his desire to mix raw materials into objects and the requirement to gain those resources. [please play video below]

Slide 6: Here he is in Feb, 2012 explaining what you need to mine. At the time, for Akiva, Minecraft was a place to explore. [please play video below]

Akiva liked exploring the contours of the world, both its physical dimensions and the relationship between mining and crafting. And he liked having the freedom to creatively solve low-risk problems. For example…

Slide 7:
Early on he asked me: “I wonder if I can get to the clouds?” I suspected they were just for decoration, but he persisted? “Of course I know how to get to the clouds,” he said. “Oh yeah?” I asked. “How?” “An airplane. Or helicopter.” Then he said, “A bird! Are their cells?” He wondered if you could craft a bird out of cells (you can’t). I then asked, “Why do you want to go to the clouds?” “To get cotton,” he said with a laugh. “To build what?” I asked. “Cotton candy.” Later he got serious, and wanted me to know he understood clouds were made of water… so you would probably get water. (You don’t)

Slide 8:
But that is part of what makes a game like Minecraft so engaging – meaningful opportunities for creative problem solving.

Slide 9: In 2013 Akiva discovered the Minecraft PE version, on his iPod touch – the mobile version. But it was more like he discovered it for the first time. He was no longer just mixing craft recipes but now designing and building his own worlds, interested in exploring how the elements worked by combining them, pushing them to their limits, and essentially setting up experiments. How many chicken can spawn in a pen? What happens if you put a sheep in a minecart? [play play video below]

And he also began to use it to make art – these are essentially 3D sculptures – one of Pikachu from Pokemon and the green penguin is actually the case of his iPod. He then made an amusement park-style ride that took you through all his sculptures. MinecrafttheSwedishToy.010

Slide 10: So while Minecraft continued to be a place for creative problem solving, those solutions were growing more sophisticated, and often required art and design – and the occasional farm animals – to get resolved. MinecrafttheSwedishToy.011

Slide 11: By May of 2014, Akiva cared enough about Minecraft to organize his birthday party around it. Here’s the schedule of the event he prepared in advance: MinecrafttheSwedishToy.012

Slide 12: These are the guidelines he came up with… as you can see he is thinking about civics and ethics, not only about the specific social rules but displaying a general understanding that they are needed and must be constructed. MinecrafttheSwedishToy.013

Slide 13: Here they are playing, in a LAN party – which means everyone in the room can be on their own computer but interact on the same Minecraft map – and here’s the real world Minecraft cake (thanks to mom). MinecrafttheSwedishToy.014

Slide 14: So now Minecraft was providing my son the opportunity to think about the social aspects of game play, about civic and ethical behavior, and even about leadership. MinecrafttheSwedishToy.015

Slide 15:
Then he discovered Stampy and things got… more interesting.
[please click on video below]

Anyone know how many times that particular video has been viewed on Youtube? Over 41,000,000 – that’s around 55,000 people a day; 2,300 an hour; 40 a minute. Since you first viewed this slide a 100 more people have now watched it.

And now five more.

Slide 16:
I’ll get back to Stampy. First, here is a picture of Akiva… somewhere else. Not on mobile device, and not EXACTLY on his PC, at least not how he had been for the previous few years. Here he is logged into a commercial server – which offers all sorts of activities… such as…

Slide 17:
… a sort of competitive amusement park, shooting gallery ride, themed on the Ghostbuster movie.
[please play video below]

Slide 18:
Commercial Minecraft servers began to providing Akiva with opportunities to do what I find to be incredibly tedious physical challenges.
[please play video below]

This is called parkour, something that’s become popular in Minecraft, hopping from spot to spot. I can hardly watch this, my stomach gets so tight – I can’t watch him fail, over and over. But it doesn’t stop him. “I’m getting pretty good at this,” Akiva said, and he was, ten minutes later.

Slide 19:
Here I see Minecraft providing the incentive and safe space to develop grit, the ability to keep trying again and again, no matter how frustrating, until he can develop the competency to complete the presented challenge.

Slide 20:
Which brings us back to Stampy.

So Stampy posts a video of himself visiting a particular commercial server, creates a sort of hidden spot within it promoted through the video, and then Akiva, as pictured here, looks for that spot and then is proud to have found that location, and wants a selfie to document it, which he then emailed to Stampy, hoping he might pop up in his youtube show (in his Love Garden, where his fans get recognized).


So all of this provides us the context to understand the title of this presentation: epic headshop at 31;65

Slide 21:
A year ago Akiva asked me to type, as fast as I could, into the command line prompt of a particular Minecraft server, the phrase: “epic headshop at 31;65”. Over and over. It turns out one activity on commercial servers is to buy “heads” that you can wear, as an avatar. These avatars are designed to look like famous youtubers, like Stampy. These are called… and I think you see where this is going… headshops.

Slide 22:
In these worlds you control your own private plot, like 31:65. Akiva decided to make his own headshop and then advertise it, by flooding the public chat rooms with its address: “epic headshop at 31;65”. So now he’s learning about ecommerce and marketing, and how to participate in a transmedia experience – which is to say the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts – the parts being minecraft the game, minecraft servers, and youtube fandom, each supporting the others in a virtuous cycle.

More importantly to me, his experience of Minecraft looks very different from where he began:
[please click link below]

Slide 23:
He began when he was 5 learning how to mine resources and then, by 8, was successfully navigating a rich and complex transmedia experience.

But wait, there’s more…

Slide 24:
Now Akiva is nine. He found one server – Diamond Fire- where he learned he could program his own games. It uses what I think might be an object oriented programming language – except, perfect for Minecraft, you program it by moving blocks around. Here’s Akiva – now his own Minecraft Youtuber – in the first video he posted, to explain how he coded what he’s built. [please play video below]

Eli is a friend from school, btw – she came over to play his game, to hang out with him, not knowing he was filming. Now she got to have a guest appearance in her friend’s Youtube Minecraft video. Anyway, this went on for an hour – Akiva explaining every line of code then demonstrating how it functioned within his game.

Slide 25:
So now Akiva is playing around with code. He is not only participating in this transmedia experience, he is contributing to it. He is not just a consumer but a producer. And, like his dad, he’s teaching others.

Slide 26:
So let’s get back to where we began: Minecraft and 21st century learning.

I wonder what Minecraft-based learning experiences, at informal learning institutions like my own, I wonder what they will look like when we realize Minecraft is so much more than a game, that it is just the central point within a vast interconnected transmedia experience. What will happen when we start tapping into not just its game engine but all of its components — like its server communities and Youtube fandom — and start building our own virtuous cycles? What will happen when the current “Minecraft generation” grows up expecting engagement to carry them across multiple platforms, support their seamless transitioning amongst roles of consumers, players and creators, and require self-directed learning in order to pursue their passions?

Have you heard that phrase before? Minecraft generation? For me, it’s obvious that Akiva is growing up with Minecraft. And I am thankful for it. At the same time, Minecraft is growing up with Akiva and his peers. So the question for me now is: How will learning grow-up – both formalized in schools and informal learning at institutions like my own – grow-up to meet the new opportunities created by powerful transmedia experiences like Minecraft, and the expectations and abilities it is creating in children like Akiva.

Whatever it might be, if we do it right, expect it to be no less than epic.

Slide 27:
Thank you.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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