Associate professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa
What is the Problem?
The problem is that home literacy is changing faster than school-based literacy. There is a widening gap between the literacy that children are experiencing at school and what they are engaging with at home. For example, my ten-year-old son Connor was reading the novel Cabin on Trouble Creek (Van Leeuwen, 2008) at school and doing homework assignments related to this novel, but as soon as he was done, he was either on a smartphone, IPod, or IPad engaged in digital literacies using digital technologies. Not too long ago, school-based literacies and home-based literacies were more similar. Students were reading books in print at school and at home with the difference being mostly the selection of reading material. With the ever growing availability of new literacies for children, books in print are quickly becoming boring and obsolete. Our family has book shelves at home filled with a huge array of print literature representing various genres and topics that Connor is able to read, including many graphic novels and comic books, but they are beginning to gather dust. He loves to read, but print books no longer hold his interest; they can’t compete with the trans-literature available through multimedia interactions that involve all of his senses.
What is Minecraft?
Minecraft is a video game originally created by Swedish programmer and designer Markus “Notch” Persson and fully published in 2011. The game illustrates a virtual world or an online community that takes the form of a computer-based simulated environment. Players create and take the form of avatars which are visible, that can interact with each other and use and create objects.
Communication between players include text, graphical icons, visual gestures, and sounds. Some communication may also include using touch, voice command, and balance senses, depending on the version and technology being used by the players. Because of the interplay of senses being provided, players experience the sensations of telepresence or the feeling of actually being present within the imaginary, fantasy world.
The creation of the world. Minecraft is a three dimensional, procedurally generated audiovisual world meaning that the computer graphics and sound, including speech and music, are automatically created by the computer program with seemingly infinite variation. In the beginning, players are given a seed or a number that is used to initialize the creation of the world. Multimedia including the combination of text, audio, animation, video, and interactivity come into play to fully enhance the fantasy experience for the players.
The Appeal and Benefits
The information content of Minecraft is relative to the literature genre of high fantasy in which a highly complex imaginary world is created by the author. Even though this world could not exist in reality, it is so effectively developed that the world seems real and believable to the reader, but in the format of a trans-literature game, the reader is known as the player. The genre of high fantasy appeals to both boys and girls, and Minecraft is also played by both. Just as in high quality fantasy, players are able to transcend everyday experiences. Minecraft engages the players in battles, danger, fearful creatures, weapons, and real things and places that they can learn more about and talk about with friends. These discussions can take place through social media technologies such as weblogs, social blogs, podcasts, and wikis, to name a few. Through engagement with Minecraft, students can learn technological skills. Minecraft can be played on desktop computers, IPods, IPads, laptops, and smartphones, and is filled with an ever changing array of items through updates that students can read about and look forward to. Students enjoy competition and challenges. Minecraft has various means for players to achieve or complete certain tasks, but there is no end-game involved, so players have infinite choices and experiences. Minecraft encourages exploration and invention on the part of the player, something students appreciate, therefore, the challenges are not required in order to participate in the game, but rather are present in case players want to try them.
Instructional Applications of Minecraft
The instructional applications of Minecraft range through all subject areas studied in the classroom and include the following topics and themes: farming (animals and crops), natural resources, adventure, survival, hunting, exploration, mining, smelting, crafting, building, and trading or bartering. Below, I have explained curricular relationships of the game to the main subject areas typically taught in the classroom.
Reading and Writing. Players learn about each of the content elements and how to participate in Minecraft through reading written text within the game itself, however; reading about how to engage in Minecraft does not stop there. Players can also participate and learn through collaborative trans-literacy projects available within Wikipedia, blogs, micro-blogs, and wiki pages. Players can read and write through content communities such as YouTube and DailyMotion, and social networking sites such as Facebook. Students can engage in the participatory culture of creating and publishing their own multimedia projects based upon their responses to Minecraft.
Science. The world of Minecraft lends itself to the study of the Earth sciences. The Minecraft world is divided into biomes or the world’s major habitats that range from deserts, grasslands, rainforests, and tundra. The biomes contain land features such as mountains, caves, plains, valleys, and various bodies of water. Players can lean about each of these biomes through exploration and interacting with the natural materials located in each biome.
Students can learn about the concepts of physics. Players in Minecraft are able to virtually move matter through time and space with energy and force. Complex systems can be constructed by the players using primitive mechanical devices, but students can also learn more complicated electrical systems using switches, circuits, and magnetism.
Social Studies. Players in the world of Minecraft learn about the primitive tools and resources that were used by people for survival. Students learn to craft their own tools consisting of such things as axes, shovels, and pickaxes from natural resources that they gather from the different biomes. They use the tools that they craft to chop down trees, dig soil, build shelters, and mine and smelter ores and learn that tools made out of stronger resources, such as iron and stone, will perform their tasks more effectively. Although the overall setting of the world of Minecraft draws from the Medieval period of history in Europe, it also, through fantasy, integrates concepts and elements from today’s world and popular culture.
Throughout the course of the game, players encounter various non-player characters known as mobs (short for mobile character), including animals, villagers, and hostile creatures. During the daytime, non-hostile animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens are generated or spawned, and players can craft tools such as swords, bows and arrows, and axes from wood, stone, iron, gold and diamonds for hunting the animals for food and clothing. Players also have the ability to craft swords and shields from resources that they gather from the biomes that they can use for protection and defense against hostile creatures.
During the nighttime and in dark areas,hostile creatures spawn; including large spiders, skeletons, zombies, and unique to Minecraft, an exploding creature called a Creeper, and a creature called an Enderman that has the ability to teleport, or disappear and reappear in a different location. Players can protect themselves from the hostile creatures by building shelters made from gathering resources in the environments such as dirt and wood, and mining and smeltering cobble stones.
Math and Engineering.
Players in Minecraft learn about maths and engineering concepts through building constructions out of textured three dimensional cubes. This activity is related to the use of computer aided geometric design (CAGD), in which shapes are designed and used for creating objects and space. Students are able to visualize their building ideas and realize their functionality through their own virtual designs.
Bringing Minecraft to Your Classroom
Minecraft can be integrated into your curriculum. MinecraftEDu http://minecraftedu.com/ is an educational organization that was formed in 2011 with the goal of introducing Minecraft into schools. The group works with the publisher to make the video game affordable and accessible to schools. In September 2012, the organization reported that approximately 250,000 students around the world have access to Minecraft through the organization. Besides offering educational discounts, they offer customised versions of the game, simplified multiplayer software, tools for teachers to use for integrating their own content, a free library of activities that teachers can use to teach various subject areas, and they offer on-site workshops and inservice training.
We can prepare our students for being competent in today’s rapidly changing global mainstream by incorporating new literacies into our curriculum and instruction. It’s important that schools keep pace with how technology is being used in the world for getting things done. It may be difficult to set aside novels that are sentimental to us, and replace them with trans-literature, but if we don’t, we run the risk of increasing the divide between the literacies taught in school and the literacies that students engage with at home, and thereby causing students to become even more disenchanted with their education.
Leeuwen, J. V. (2008). Cabin on Trouble Creek. London, UK: Puffin.
Persson, M. (2011). Minecraft [Videogame]. Stockholm, Sweden: Mojang.