I was standing in a computer lab at DZ Middle School in Juneau, when the bell rang. The kids, who had been practicing coding, loudly gathered their things and clambered out the doors. Along with Colin Osterhout, a former student and partner in education projects, I was getting ready to help with the first official meeting of the DZ After School Minecraft Club. Cheese and other snacks had been placed in the utility room to the side of the lab, and kids piled past me grabbing a snack, and then lined up along the sides of the little room.
It was LOUD – very loud. So I kept looking at Colin as the official leader of this club, to quiet them down. Women I thought must have been teachers or parents were poking a head in the door, but out of deference to me or to Colin (I suppose thinking we like conducting any experience with a low roar of Middle School jabber behind it) they didn’t say anything – just pinched their lips together, shook their heads, and went on – after seeing the kids weren’t unsupervised. I went to stand over in one of the loudest corners, thinking proximity might help. I didn’t want to interrfere with whatever classroom management/trust building plan that had already been put into place. It was Colin’s experience, and I have been in enough middle school classrooms to know I shouldn’t step on a teacher’s toes when they are about to start things.
Finally, Colin shouted over the kids to welcome them to the class. Some quieted down but many – including the kids in my corner, kept playing, talking loudly, laughing, jousting and singing. Colin introduced me and said to the kids still talking over them, “She teaches teachers to use Minecraft in the classroom.”
Suddenly I went from being invisible to being a center of attention. The roar dwindled and the kids looked at me for the first time. A young man next to me with a thick shock of black hair and sharp brown eyes ran in front of me and demanded, “Why? Why do you teach them to use Minecraft?”
Something in his eyes told me I should know the answer to this – of course I knew my own answer, but it was very clear that this young man already had an answer in his own mind, and I really wanted to hear it. “I don’t know,” I asked him, “Why?”
He raised both of his hands over his head in a Victory sign and shouted, “Because we should play Minecraft ALL THE TIME!” The room cheered, and I couldn’t help but smile. Now no, not really. I don’t think that kids should play Minecraft all the time. But it is pretty obvious to me that they are playing it, and as long as they are going to play it, I figure they might as well be learning something other than how to create the next cool redstone contraption or how to build a gate to the nether to trap their peers. They are using Minecraft for entertainment. I want them to use it for education.
I tried to explain a little of this to my young friend, but he was oblivious. “Who cares” he said “as long as we get to play it.
I had to smile to myself. Who cares, indeed.
To many of us who have grown up with video games or virtual reality environments such as Second Life, Minecraft is an unlikely winner in this race to win the hearts and minds of young people. Minecraft is literally blocky – and when you play it on your computer, it hardly utilizes the touchpad at all, instead relying on commands that seem ridiculously simple to us – like W to walk and E to get Inventory. That aside, children have fallen in love with it and are playing it on their own, without any prompting. They have become experts – and many make videos or tutorials for their friends.
It is beyond argument that Minecraft can be engaging to children aged Kindergarten to adult. Even in its most vanilla form which includes simply mining for materials, building shelter, feeding yourself, and avoiding creepers and other monsters, it seems to capture the interest of kids. Why? Perhaps it is because Minecraft in and of itself isn’t really even a proper game. It’s a world with rules – however, within those rules, you can do whatever you want. No one really wins Minecraft. People do, however, find quests and challenges that interest them, and then spend hours, days, months, years, meeting those challenges.
So it’s powerful. We may not understand it, but we can’t argue with it. And because it is so powerful, and so pointless (like a blank etch-a-sketch in a way) it becomes a perfect tabula rasa for learning experiences in the K-12 classroom.