Friday, March 8, 2013

What can we learn from Minecraft?


The blocky, Minecraft world of Happitopia

Bix and Widdikay host Happitopia, an on-line, virtual world where they and their friends explore and create.  This world runs on a computer/server we have hosted for the last year and a half running a program called Minecraft.  In this vast, planet sized, Lego-like virtual world, there are two modes - survival mode and creative mode.  In survival mode, you have to worry about getting enough food to eat and finding enough resources to build shelter.  You may need to trade with other players to get the things you need.  By contrast, in creative mode, you can never starve, and you can have any kind of raw materials you want.  There are no limits.  You are all-powerful and god-like in this mode.  You might think that kids would be drawn to the mode where they can be omnipotent, but the interesting thing is that, at least in Happitopia, the kids don't always choose creative mode.  Both modes are popular.  They enjoy the challenge of dealing with finite resources and a realistic constraints sometimes, while other times, they want the god-like powers that let them express themselves creatively with very few constraints.

The kids created this short promotional video about their server to attract more members

For our kids, this game has been an interesting combination of open ended exploration, creative expression, civics, leadership, socialization and technical challenge.  They and their friends have dedicated countless hours of time to build an environment for themselves where they socialize and create creative challenges for themselves and each other.  In addition to the technical work that Widdakay does to host the server, keep it up and running 24/7, keep it backed-up, build the supporting website with associated wiki and bulletin board and write Java code for customization; the environment has been a place for other types of learning.  Although the environment is completely operated and managed by the kids, they've managed to keep this from becoming a "Lord of the Flies" world.  Happitopia, this virtual world, has forced them to deal with some real world issues.  How do you attract friends to the server and keep them challenged, entertained and coming back for more?  How do you create a "society" that encourages the type of behavior you would like?  How do you punish "bad" behavior?  What types of rules should govern your world?  What form of justice should be enforced?  These are not the types of questions that you wrestle with in the classroom or on a standardized test, where your job is to follow the rules, not to create them.  Yet learning the skills to successfully manage these issues can translate directly the workplace and society in general.    It has made me wonder how Minecraft can be used as a teaching tool.  Apparently I'm not the only one wondering about this.  Below are two videos, from PBS's Idea Channel, about potential uses of Minecraft in education, and a little bit about what Minecraft may be able to tell us about the future of the world around us.  Watch and enjoy.