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Minecraft – The Building Blocks of Education?

 Minecraft – Martyn McLaughlin speaks to the team behind the successful Xbox 360 version as well as experts in games-based learning to discover how the hit sandbox construction title is helping children learn complex skills.

NEARLY four and a half years have passed since Minecraft was unleashed on an unsuspected games industry. In that time, it has come to occupy an influential plinth in our cultural landscape. Devised by Sweden’s Mojang studio, it deposits players at the centre of a randomly generated cuboid domain abundant with raw materials. Creativity is essential to progress; the fundamentals of existence such as shelter are the first priorities, but in time, the game allows those who master its techniques and tools to raise wonderfully intricate structures and entire cities from the ground.

Since its official release in November 2011, the title has shifted upwards of 33 million copies, a sales figure in excess of seminal albums such as Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, Hotel California and Born in the USA. In an industry too often obsessed with graphical prowess and the awkward aping of cinematic techniques, its constantly evolving universe has captured the imagination of not only gamers, but an increasing number of educationalists who see the merits of applying its mesmerising form of digital Lego to learning environments.

Around the world, Minecraft is slowly becoming accepted as a legitimate classroom tool waiting to be exploited in the same way as established media like films, books and television. In Stockholm, the home of Mojang, the Victor Rydberg school has declared it compulsory for 13-year-olds, with pupils using it to learn about city planning and environmental issues. In New York, Joel Levin, a computer teacher at a private school, helps run MinecraftEdu, an international resource geared towards promoting the game’s use in classrooms.

One of the earliest advocates for the game’s educational values, he first realised its potential after introducing it in favour of a Google Earth geography project in January 2011. “In my eight years of teaching I have never seen students so excited and engaged,” he recalled. “They run up to me in the halls to tell me what they plan to do [in the] next class. They draw pictures about the game in art.  They sit at the lunch tables and strategize their next building projects. And not only the boys, but girls too.”

Second only to Mojang, it is a Scottish company that has provided the greatest momentum for the Minecraft juggernaut’s thunderous evolution from cult indie project to international behemoth. With offices in Dundee and East Linton, 4J Studios is a developer with an enviable pedigree in skilfully adapting complex PC codes for mass home console markets. When word got out that a version Minecraft for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was on the cards, the firm fought to secure the contract. Like Levin, 4J realised the game’s DNA was not just as an entertainment product. The prophecy has since been fulfilled in spectacular fashion. To date, the 360 version accounts for more than eight million of the title’s sales. So immediate was its success, it recouped its development costs within an hour of going on sale on Xbox Live.

“At the time we started talking to Mojang about becoming the developer of the Xbox 360 version, we were fully aware of Minecraft’s educational aspect,” Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of 4J Studios, told Scotsman Games. “The community surrounding the whole game was something that made us absolutely determined to get involved in the project. We knew it wasn’t just another game development job. It’s technological creativity at its best, a toolkit with some very clever elements of gameplay woven in, such as the day to night simulation and the non-player characters. Underneath all that, the result is whatever you choose it to be.”

Across the country, the game can count upon a small but impassioned group of supporters in the education sector who put theory in practice. One is Lynne Kerr, managing director at ComputerXplorers South East Scotland, part of a UK-wide franchise specialising in technology-based teaching. She and her team are currently working with 20 schools across the Edinburgh and the Lothians, running after-school clubs. The firm only introduced Minecraft this term. While it anticipated a healthy demand, Kerr said she has been blown away. “The response has been phenomenal,” she said. “I knew it would be popular, but the response we’ve had from kids has been huge. We ran three or four clubs during the October holidays as well.”

When her company’s representatives visit assemblies and ask who has played Minecraft, nearly everyone in attendance raises a hand, Kerr said. That vast captive audience, she believes, is a resource as rich as the game’s elusive emerald ore. She explained: “There’s a host of things Minecraft can help with educationally. Firstly it’s a very creative tool; although the courses we offer are fairly structured, kids have a lot of free reign to create whatever they want. It’s a game that that can be geared towards key areas of the Curriculum for Excellence – the mining aspect has a geographic aspect to it, for example, that teachers can use.”

The game world being used by ComputerXplorers is a dedicated map created by A Higher Place, a Dalgety Bay based consultancy that works with the educational sector to encourage games based learning. The firm has utilised a range of best-selling games like Portal, Little Big Planet, Ico and Tomb Raider to enhance the curriculum and instil lessons in subjects as diverse as physics, maths, geography, numeracy and literacy, as well as tackling issues like bullying. Recently, the company completed a project using Little Big Planet to demonstrate the formation of oil.

It is, however, its Minecraft world – free to teachers – that is by far and away the most popular product. The size of France, it allows educators to develop ideas for use in the classroom, including learning about volcanoes, map reading, food sources and the displacement of communities after natural disasters. One literacy initiative, ‘Gruffalo Forest’, uses Minecraft to recreate scenes from the book by Children’s Laureate, Julia Donaldson, with pupils encouraged to read the story in pairs or small groups while playing through the game.

Derek Robertson, a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee and one of games-based learning’s early endorsers in Scotland, points to other special projects, such as those carried out through Massively Minecraft, an organisation which hosts ‘out of school’ mines allowing children to work together. Said Robertson: “The worlds they have built have left people agog at their magnificence, building the likes of gargantuan, complex districts mirroring those in The Hunger Games. It’s mind blowing, and they were doing it on not in creative, but survival mode.

“My daughters are online building on the 360, they’ve created a glass and gold palace with a flushing toilet in every room. It shows what young learners can do without adult intervention. They’re using resources like YouTube to make their own worlds. Minecraft is the kind of sandbox world that sits within the culturally relevant domains that children choose to situate themselves in. James Paul Gee [a prominent US educational researchers] talks about semiotic domains that have meaning for learners, and I subscribe to that. If you can link skills to off-the-shelf games, children suspend their disbelief and the teacher has them in the palm of their hand.”

Amanda Wilson, a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland specialising in teaching game development in primary schools, believes the popularity of 4J’s 360 version has been essential in broadening the game’s reach to a young audience. She said: “I think its ease of use [and] also the fact that it can be played on the Xbox will make a difference for children a they won’t be seeing it as an educational thing they are doing but simply playing a game.”

Robertson, a former national adviser for emerging technologies and learning at Education Scotland – the Scottish Government agency responsible for supporting quality and improvement in learning and teaching – added: “It may seem like unconscious learning, and in some ways it is, but that’s us looking at it from our adult, formalised education perspective. I think you need to frame it in a different way. My girls know they’re learning and speak to each other about the processes.”

Thanks to the regular and responsive series of updates rolled out by 4J to its vast user base, Van der Kuyl is also attuned to the different, nuanced types of learning the game promotes. Many chat with their peers in the playground about fundamental techniques, and he has been cheered to see primary age children using Minecraft Wiki, a meticulous online resource created by and for the community offering exhaustive instructions and details. Once they learn about the site, said van der Kuyl, “the next thing you know you have an eight-year-old talking to you about strip mining techniques and the most efficient angle at which to drop a shaft to gain the highest yield of diamonds.”

“All this information is on the Wiki and none of it is written for kids,” he added. “The language is not overly complicated, but it isn’t dumbed down. A lot of it is probably lifted from undergraduate geological courses and then simplified and translated. It’s still pretty damn complex and the motivation for kids to learn about it is to build more amazing things, which is a huge reward. That drives kids on to learn and experiment until they finally reach a crest. Those pedagogical factors are mind-blowing.”

So too, van der Kuyl has been genuinely surprised and “humbled” by the way the game has been harnessed to aid youngsters with special educational needs. Around the world there are numerous case studies from parents who attest how Minecraft has helped their children. This summer saw the introduction of Autcraft, the first server dedicated to providing a safe, fun and learning environment for children on the autism spectrum. As with so many modifications to the game, it is the brainchild of an ordinary player, in this case a father to two boys diagnosed with the condition.

Perhaps the genius of Minecraft as an ally to conventional education is the fact young players will happily immerse themselves in their worlds for hours at a time, learning without always realising the beneficial processes they are participating in. Whether using raw materials and minerals to forge weapons, grow crops or bake cakes, the mechanics are nothing if not instructive. Recently, my cousin convinced me to download the 360 version and within minutes, was offering me a tutorial on agricultural design, a indoctrination which grew more intricate and enthusiastic as hours passed by. He is, I might add, nine-years-old.

When I mention this van der Kuyl, one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he becomes immediately enthused. Such intuitive and informal schooling, he said, has long been the Holy Grail amongst game developers. Almost by stealth, Minecraft has grasped the elusive salver in both hands. He explained: “Over the years I’ve spent in the games industry, people have approached me about building educational games. But I’ve looked into that and I’ve tried, and I actually don’t believe the best use of my time and the developer’s talents is in building educational games. It’s to build great games that can then be used educationally.

“The best English teachers I know use the best of Hollywood filmmaking to show great writing and narratives, and films are used to show examples of inspiration and other exemplars in coaching environments. Nobody set out to make those movies because they wanted to them to be an educational staple, it’s because of their quality that’s what they become, and I think the same is true of Minecraft.

“We’ve never put any features into the 360 version based on making it more applicable educationally. We put them in because it’s what our fans want. The fact that some amazing educators think about how to use those features to deliver educational inspiration and content is something we support, and we want to see more of it, but we would never implement educational features per se. We just want to create a great game and we’re delighted it’s used in an educational environment.”

With 4J Studios currently putting the finishing touches to versions of  the game for a host of new platforms – including the Xbox One and Playstation 4 – expect Minecraft’s already remarkable sales figures to increase significantly. With more young players than ever before set to inhabit its chunky realms, those who champion its values are urging teachers, policy makers and academic across Scotland to pay close attention.

Some, though, sound a note of caution. Wilson argues that although games based learning has been around for a few years, there is still a lack of empirical evidence to back up its benefits. “There is far more use of games based learning going on, however academically speaking, [there is] still little proof, and that will have an effect as well on those who may be thinking about using it,” she said. “Also, it’s about getting the teachers confident with the tools too. Surveys have shown that teachers may lack confidence in their abilities or they aren’t sure how these things will fit in with their curriculum and also the lack of suitable technology in their schools.”

In a statement, Education Scotland  told Scotsman Games that while there were no “definite plans” to capitalise on the skills and experiences demonstrated by titles such as Minecraft by establishing a dedicated games based learning service, such a concept was under consideration. It stated: “Many schools and local authorities throughout Scotland are using games based learning initiatives in their teaching. Minecraft is one such game and can be an effective tool for teaching and learning.”

The agency added that it would continue to work with and support councils and schools to embrace new and emerging technologies, and pointed to the Learning Experiences Catalogue, launched in September. It challenges pupils to survive, mine, build and craft in Minecraft by creating video tutorials and how to guides, as well as answering questions and offering hints, tips and ideas.

Even if the approach to Minecraft based learning is far from uniform or comprehensive, one local authority – Aberdeenshire – has acknowledged the game’s educational standing. “We are enthusiastic about the opportunities Minecraft provides to engage learners in a range of building and collaborative activities,” said Rosaleen Rentoul, the council’s principal officer for learning resources. “We are currently investigating taking forward a pilot project around using Minecraft in learning and teaching both as a contextual hub for games based learning activities and as a tool in its own right.”

Ask van der Kuyl how the game can be best employed in a top-down way and he is unequivocal. “If you look at Scottish Government and Education Scotland policy, it’s very much about putting the tools in the hands of teachers, schools and local authorities,” he said. “I think Minecraft has a huge distance to go in terms of what people can do with it, we’ve only scratched the surface. It’s an amazing tool and given what the Curriculum for Excellence is trying to do, it’s something on which to build lessons across all sorts of subject areas. It’s accessible, available and with the new versions, will become even more ubiquitous. I think there’s every chance that’ll translate to the education sector, and given all the console versions are built here, it would be nice to see Scotland supporting it.”

Only time will tell just how pervasive Minecraft’s influence becomes in the classrooms of this country and others. Like the best kind of education, it is a game limited only by the imagination.

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