Article for School Newsletter

Mechanics and Mysteries of Minecraft in the Middle Division

Playing in the local sandbox as a boy provided a great source of fun for me. Before my mom could even stop the car, the door would fling open, and I’d be running towards the sand. My shoes would fly off and the sand would instantly fill the spaces between my toes. And the building! With molds, buckets and shovels strewn all over the place, my friends and I created whole cities with lakes and rivers. Little plastic characters inhabited our worlds. One day a friend’s little sister decided to hurl a handful of sand into my face. Imagine hundreds of grainy sand particles underneath your eyelids. I spent what seemed like hours in the doctor’s office having the sand removed, grain by grain.

The sand in many of today’s sandboxes cannot get thrown into your face or fill the spaces between your toes. These sandboxes exist in the digital world of your computer or cyberspace. One such digital sandbox is called Minecraft, a game in which players use textured blocks of different materials to build or create anything they can imagine. Anything! But there are more than just blocks available. For example, something called redstone can provide power to drive machines made of switches, pistons, buttons, pressure plates and railroads. The possibilities are endless.

Minecraft is unique amongst computer and online games for two main reasons. Firstly, in a world of ever-increasing resolution, the landscape and resources of Minecraft exist in 8-bit blocks. This adds a bit of nostalgia to the game, giving it a rather simple, retro feel to which kids gravitate. There are skins and texture packs that players can download to modify their character’s and the game’s appearance, respectively. Hmm, being able to modify the game itself? This seems powerful.

Control of the game and how to play it is the second unique aspect of the game Minecraft that draws kids in. A player can choose to play as a single-player in a world that she alone inhabits or on a multi-player server with or against other players. In a single-player world there are two modes to choose from: survival or creative. In survival mode, a player mines for resources to use to craft tools and build shelter from the night time monsters. If confident, the player may choose to go on a night mission to attack the monsters. Health and hunger must be tended to in survival mode.

In Minecraft creative mode, a player can fly and has limitless resources to build in an environment without contending with monsters, health, or hunger, which is what captured my attention! Many laws of nature are suspended within the game (i.e. ability to fly), making the building potential huge. And when people play together, something even more dramatic occurs.

Multiplayer servers add a powerful dimension to the game, one that is social and collaborative. Initially, a player is spawned (or born) into a biome: forest, desert, grassland or ocean. The spawn site is set by the creator of the server. However the game’s apparent simplicity (8-bit blocks) does not preclude the building of extremely complicated structures. Indeed, entire cities and communities, inhabited by players that build or play against each other (PvP), have been created. These communities exist on multiplayer servers. Players reach another level of creativity when they create games within the game, meta-games if you will.

Teleport to the MD Computer Lab: Rhys turned to his friends and pumped both fists in celebration. “I escaped!” He wasn’t the first. This was not the orienteering activity that I had spent hours planning and building. I built a beautiful tower for students to spawn to after logging into the game. The plugin Worldguard was supposed to protect the tower from being mined. It didn’t. Students were mining blocks that I had meticulously placed, and were escaping before even noticing the directions for the orienteering activity. Initially stressful, I realized that students had taken control and created a new challenge for themselves.

Welcome to Eaglecraft, the new multiplayer Minecraft server for Brentwood School. On this server, Brentwood students can play, build and collaborate in Minecraft. The Technology Department helped set up the server, and 8th grader Harrison V. assists me in its maintenance. Eventually, the spawn site was fixed and the orienteering activity that was originally planned went off without a hitch.

Check out this video to see the game in action: Students Orienteering Together
For photos, videos and a description of the activity, check out this blog post Minecraft Orienteering Activity.

While initially this game seems like simple fun, there is tremendous potential for connections to curricula at all levels. Here are just a few possibilities:

· Using Minecraft as a springboard for students to learn about what real mining entails: i.e. coal, gold, diamonds, iron etc…
· Measuring velocity and/or acceleration of mine carts
· Circuits using redstone
· Rube Goldberg machines
· Histograms of data
· Constructing geometric shapes and determine area and volume
· Reconstructing Fibonacci pattern in nature
· Creating rooms in a house and labeling parts in different languages.
· Book reports in Minecraft
· Building Brentwood School

Minecraft is a game that kids love. Teachers can use this game to help kids learn or allow them to demonstrate learning. Minecraft could be thought of as a ‘gateway technology’ that can pique kids’ interest and lead them to becoming creators using technology rather than consumers of technology. Indeed, Harrison V. and Cameron A. have started their own server called Cityscape, and they receive a hundreds of requests to play on their server.
Clearly, I am an advocate of learning through digital games, Minecraft especially. But please, let me be clear, I believe it is vitally important for kids to feel sand in the spaces between their toes, maybe even more so today than ever before. Just not in their eyes.

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3 thoughts on “Article for School Newsletter

  1. WOW! What a fantastic piece of writing. I am speechless, it had me drawn in from the start. Is this actually going/been in your school newsletter? Had you had some negative feedback about teaching in the world of Minecraft, and this was addressing parent concerns, or are you just gathering parent support? Would love to know the ‘motivation’ behind such a ‘moving’ piece of writing about using games in education.

    • Stephen,
      Thank you so much for your kind words about my article. It has already been published in the online school newsletter. No negative feedback, mostly just informing the community about the goings on in Minecraft at Brentwood School. I am so glad that you liked. I can wax on about it all; I just wish I had the time to spend to really incorporate it into my courses and do all the neat stuff that I list. Cheers and thanks so much for you interest.

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