The Magic of Minecraft

April 17, 2013

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You know your kids love it, but what’s really behind their fascination with Minecraft? Joe explains a little about the magic he saw during his spring Minecraft camp:

Minecraft

Hey folks!  This is Joe Allington, and I’m a teacher, technician, and designer at MakersFactory.  A week ago, I led one of the first two sessions of our newest camp subject: Minecraft.  The events of the five days of the camp were so fascinating and fun, I couldn’t help but share the story.

On Day 1, six kids, ranging in age from eight to twelve, arrived and met each other for the first time.  Their levels of experience with Minecraft varied; some were seasoned players of the game, while others had only played the game a few times before this, but everyone was excited.  After introductions were made, the kids logged on and their avatars were dropped into a landscape they had never seen before.  Spending most of Day 1 getting their bearings was expected, but what wasn’t expected was the group’s emergent self-governing system.  In the early part of the camp, I explained to them that one of the main reasons we held the camp was to be able to provide a safe space for the campers to play the game, since there can be some nasty folk on the internet.  They took this a step further and decided to create a “Minecraft Constitution” for themselves, a set of rules governing behavior in their new world.  The coolest thing about this for me as a teacher was seeing how rarely these rules were broken, and how quickly a camper was to recognize and apologize for breaking a rule.  The guidelines were given greater respect because they created them for themselves, after actual consideration for and discussion about what was going to make the game fun for everyone.

With a social foundation set up for their new world, the kids spent Day 2 establishing a more permanent foothold in the world.  Minecraft is kind of like a big LEGO sandbox, except every so often the sun sets on the world and swarms of monsters come out until it rises again.  Having had enough of the nightly fights with zombies and the like, the campers worked to secure a couple houses in the village with lights, barricades, and heavier doors.

Safehouses had been established, but the group was still somewhat separated.  Each kid knew they needed basic resources like food, wood, stone, metal, and coal, but constantly switching focus whenever one resource ran out was straining and inefficient.  It was on Day 3 that they really recognized this, and it was decided as a group that team roles needed to be established.  After some discussion, the new team was formed with two miners, a farmer, two blacksmiths, and an explorer.  Now the kids were able to start really accumulating some wealth in the game.  The interesting part, though, was that there were all kinds of wealth.  So what naturally arose was this very trade-driven society.  Shelters became shops, and the kids became less concerned with fending off giant spiders than they were with striking the next deal.

By Day 4, what had started as a group of scattered, struggling survivors had become a small civilization of its own.  The explorer discovered a second village in a distant desert, and coordinated with the miners to build a stone road to this new base.  The farmer learned about the game mechanics governing crop growth, and expanded his greenhouse to be more space- and time-efficient.  The blacksmiths kept stock of tools, weapons, and armor made from the miners’ finds, naturally establishing and tuning an exchange rate for the town.  The roles were flexible, though.  For example, the explorer created a thriving chicken farm, and began to work with the farmer to create new baked goods with the eggs.  Whenever someone discovered a precious cache of diamonds, the exceptionally rare super-resource that all Minecraftians come to crave, most of the group shifted from their normal roles to “Diamond-Retrieval Mode”, forming a defensive entourage around the diamond-carrier as the treasure was transported through the caves and to the surface.  These operations required a great deal of communication and coordination, and it was awesome to see such skills clearly develop over the course of the camp.

At the end of Day 5, the campers had the opportunity to look back on their accomplishments.  We had prepared a color 3D-printed physical replica of the village that they had started in, before any changes were made to it.  They were able to learn about how the 3D printers work, and they were also able to compare the original world to the world they had crafted.  Their skills both in the game’s system and in working as a team had led to many accomplishments, including the formidable task of gathering enough rare resources to create a portal to an alternate dimension in the game.  One of the last acts they did in the camp was go through the portal as a whole group, exploring the new landscape and facing the new dangers.  Compared to the kids’ initial exploration of the original world on Day 1, the team now acted like a well-oiled machine as they explored this secondary world on Day 5.

As their parents came to pick them up, the kids were writing down server addresses that each other knew about, coordinating times and places where they could meet each other on Minecraft in the future.  They were strangers at the start of the week, but through the game and the lessons and skills they learned there, they had become teammates and friends.

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