Minecraft A New Tool for Educators Essay
Despite criticisms of video games in the media and among much of the general population, video games have many positive aspects. Walton points out that much of mainstream press tries to put forth the opinion that video games are a plague upon young people (and sometimes even adults) today—blaming such diseases as diabetes and mental issues like sociopathic behavior on video games. Rarely are the positive aspects of games shown—increased hand-eye coordination, development of social problem solving skills, increased attention levels, better collaboration with other students and better grades. (2012)
Video games have become a huge part of the culture of young people and adults alike, and many educators are finding ways to incorporate a love of games into their teaching practice, through options like “edutainment” and “gamification”. Edutainment is media that has both a high degree of educational and entertainment value. Gamification is the use of game mechanics and thinking in an educational setting, like earning points to level up or earning achievement badges for tasks completed. Both of these methods work well to engage students in learning. However, outside of edutainment and gamification, some educators are using non-educational video games, like Minecraft, to teach a wide variety of subjects and concepts.
This paper will discuss evidence to show that a non-educational game, like Minecraft, can be used to teach. Although it was created for entertainment and not for education, research shows that Minecraft has potential as an educational tool, because it provides an open-ended platform upon which teachers can design subject-based lesson plans, offers an opportunity for guided play sessions that can teach a wide variety of important skills, and can actively engage students in a way that is hard to rival.
Minecraft is what is known as a “sandbox” game. It has procedurally generated worlds that are virtually infinite in size, and no two worlds are alike. Some have compared Minecraft to virtual Lego, with building blocks that can be used to create anything with the only limit being imagination. However, Minecraft is so much more than just a building simulation.
There are two main game modes in Minecraft: creative and survival. In creative mode, you have infinite resources (building blocks) and the primary goal is creating and designing buildings, models, voxelized (3D) pixel art and the like. This is where the comparison to Lego comes into play. But Minecraft is most known for it’s survival mode. Players must “mine” for resources, through various means like chopping town trees, digging up dirt or sand, or actual pickaxeinvirtualhand mining through rock and ore underground. Hunger must also be kept at bay by hunting animals for food or growing crops. If hunger level drops too low, “starvation” will occur, causing the player to quickly lose health points and die. Health points (displayed as hearts on screen) can also be depleted by taking fall damage, being attacked by monsters (undead skeletons, zombies, spiders, etc), falling into lava or fire, or drowning from staying underwater too long, among other things. Monsters “spawn”, or appear in the game world, at night or in dark places like under the cover of trees, in caves, or inside player-built or game-generated structures that do not have properly lit interiors. Survival mode is what takes Minecraft from being simply a virtual design space, to an actual game with goals and achievements. (Duncan, 2011; Short, 2012; Daly, 2012)
While the original Minecraft game has huge potential as a tool for teaching, a small team of educators and programmers from the US and Finland have developed a modified version of the game, while working with Mojang (the creators of Minecraft) to make the game more affordable and accessible. The MinecraftEDU version can be purchased for up to 50% off the retail price and includes extra functionality inside the game to make it easier and more accessible for use in the classroom. MinecraftEDU also comes with easy-to-use multiplayer server software and world-building tools, so that less technically savvy teachers can still benefit from the game. Additionally, a free library of worlds, levels and activities are offered for use with MinecraftEDU, as well as on site workshops and in-service training. (Daly, 2012)
An Open-ended Platform for Subject-based Learning
Minecraft is an open-ended platform upon which teachers can design lesson plans for specific classroom subjects. In his article Teaching Scientific Concepts Using a Virtual World, Short writes that there are web-based games focused on single scientific topics online, but these games are usually relatively short activities and are essentially nothing more than glorified flash cards.(2012) Minecraft on the other hand, offers a rich environment upon which much variety can be built and virtually any educational topic can be taught. When talking about Minecraft, Short says, “I believe that pre-empting the game as an educational tool, having well defined goals and constraining which elements of Minecraft are employed, will allow for it’s use in a variety of lessons in different subject areas.” He goes on to say that lessons using Minecraft may be single activities integrated into normal classroom-based lessons or extensive adventure maps with a long scenario that the students participate in over a longer period of time. (2012)
Of particular interest, is how Minecraft can be used to teach STEM subjects. Dillon records suggestions made by students on ways Minecraft can be used in the classroom. One student suggested that it could be used to teach factoring, as almost all of the resources in the game are in crafted and “stacked” in multiples of 8. (2013) In, Crafting Minds in Minecraft, Walton states that Minecraft can be used as a simulation environment in STEM subjects. Educators are using the game to show how atoms become stable and unstable, to illustrate the features of cells and to help students visualize mathematical equations. (2012) Minecraft can even be used to teach circuitry and mechanisms, logical operators and logic gates, which can attract students to engineering, electronics, or computer technology. Even college-level students are using Minecraft for this purpose. Circuit Madness is a game prototype created in Minecraft by three undergraduate students at Miami University in 2010. Circuit Madness teaches logical operators using standard items in Minecraft to solve puzzles. (Duncan, 2011) Minecraft can also be used to illustrate a variety of geometric and mathematical concepts such as Fibonacci numbers and creating symmetrical circles out of square blocks.
A wide variety of Science topics can be taught using Minecraft, as detailed by Short’s Teaching Scientific Concepts Using a Virtual World. (2012) For example, in Biology, Minecraft is being used to give students a virtual walk through systems of the human body. Educators are using custom textures for the blocks used in these game maps for more detail in each part. And even though the physics of Minecraft worlds are far from realistic, it is that very feature that makes the game great for teaching Physics topics. Teachers can ask questions like, “Why is it unrealistic for logs of a tree which has been partially chopped down to remain floating in mid-air?”
Additionally, there is a custom map of a 3D version of the periodic table of the elements, allowing students a more interactive way of learning this sometimes tedious topic. There is also several mods that can be added to the game to expand it’s STEM subject teaching abilities.
In their Minecraft as a teaching tool case study, Schifter & Cipollone record details of one teacher’s use of Minecraft in the classroom to teach “point of view” and “characterization”. Students were given a scenario, and then asked to record a video as a response to the scenario. They were given the choice between using Minecraft and screen-recording software to record a machinima type video, or to instead use a camcorder with the actual students in each group being the actors. Most of the groups chose to use Minecraft, with one group choosing to use the camcorder. The teacher reported that the Minecraft students were more engaged in the project and more eager to “get it right” when recording their scenes. The Minecraft students also appeared to have much more fun with the project. (Schifter & Cipollone, 2013)
Further uses for Minecraft include economics, language, history and geography. Kim states that Minecraft can be used to teach economics, as students can first craft items and then trade them amongst themselves. (2013) In his article, Minecraft in Education: How Video Games Are Teaching Kids, Walton spoke with Stephen Reid (a video games in education advocate) about the various ways Minecraft can be used in the classroom. He pointed to the game’s large maps being perfect to illustrate population displacement in geography, and the varied biomes in the game to talk about the growth of plant life on Earth. He also said that language skills were improved, especially for those students for which English was not their first language—simply from using the game in the classroom. (2012) Additionally, teachers can download or create replica maps of historical buildings and sites and allow students to “visit” these places in history in a 3D world. This has amazing potential for livening up History lessons that might otherwise feel boring or tedious for students.
Clearly Minecraft offers a wide-variety of uses for subject-based learning in the classroom, allowing teachers to discuss and illustrate pretty much any topic or concept, but equally impressive and important are the ways the game can be used to teach specific skills.
Minecraft Can Be Used to Teach Important Skills
Minecraft can be used to teach a wide variety of important skills. For instance, the game can be used to teach problem solving. Students can learn problem solving skills while figuring out how to survive the night when the monsters come out, how to create a lever system that will raise players into a battle arena, or how to “tame” an ocelot and make it your pet. (Ludwig, 2013)
Minecraft can also be used to teach social literacy, positive community interaction, and community building. Students learn collaboration skills while playing Minecraft. They learn how to work together to achieve goals, and in some cases, how to build virtual communities that mimic real-life cities and towns. In some after-school programs and Minecraft camps, students are developing their own little governments and laws to govern community behavior. (Annetta, 2008; Daly, 2012; Schifter & Cipollone, 2013; Walton, 2012) The game offers huge potential for students to work together to complete tasks, building social and collaboration skills in the process. Webster quotes a frontrunner in the movement to use Minecraft in the classroom, Joel “The Minecraft Teacher” Levin, about how his students work together in the classroom using Minecraft, “They must share resources, take turns, and frankly, be nice to each other…It’s amazing to see how many real world issues get played out in the microcosm of the game.” (2011) Levin uses negative behaviors to teach proper online etiquette, often stopping the lesson to talk about the issue that arise. Levin hopes that these lessons will help them in their future lives online as they grow up in a connected world. (Webster, 2011) Multiplayer servers allow opportunities for cooperation and collaboration and can help develop student’s social and interpersonal skills while working together on common goals or compromising when conflicts arise. (Daly, 2012)
Minecraft can be used to actively teach students research strategies. When learning how to play Minecraft, students may look up recipes for crafting items on a Minecraft wiki, or watch YouTube video tutorials teaching them how to build something or how some mechanism in the game works. Dillon brings out that students have to learn good research techniques and how to evaluate the quality of sources they find. (2013)
Additionally, Minecraft can be used to help students tap into their creative potential. Creative mode can be used to encourage students to be creative, building something as simple as a house or as massive as a space station. And when students work together, they learn to draw on others creative ideas and collaborate on complicated creative projects. Ludwig writes, “Kids can construct whatever they want…the game lets players exert an enormous amount of control over the worlds they’ve created.” (2013) Webster quotes Joel Levin, “I chose Minecraft specifically because it’s so open ended…” (2011)
Minecraft can be used to teach storytelling, video creation, and presentation skills. Daly says that Minecraft is perfect for teaching Machinima storytelling. Students can use screen-recording software to make videos with the player’s avatars taking the role of actors in a machinima
skit.(2012) Students are also viewing and creating tutorials showing how to build certain types of structures, how to make redstone mechanisms, how to make efficient farms and much more. They are immersed in positive literacy skills and teach students how to have better presentation skills and how to teach other students. (Dillon, 2013)
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