The eight year-old boy stood up so suddenly that his chair shot out from under him and hit the wall. He pointed at a freckle-faced girl with red hair seated at a Mac on the other side of the computer lab and screamed, "Get out of my house! What are you doing?!"
As a veteran computer teacher, Joel Levin’s first instinct was to quell the outburst and get his students back on task. But then he thought, "This is great. This is good. This should be happening." So he drew the boy out and opened a discussion with the whole class. The students began to compare physical and digital worlds, online and offline communities, and the behaviors suitable to each. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at a pretty sophisticated understanding of what it means to be a good digital citizen, something Levin and others at the school had been trying and failing to get across for some time. Levin had been using the digital game, Minecraft, off and on with his class for only a couple of months.
"That was my a-ha moment," said Levin, "when I realized all the types of lessons I could do with Minecraft, where the focus was on communication, collaboration, and being responsible for your actions online."
Minecraft is a first-person sandbox-style digital game in which players explore and build three-dimensional worlds using textured Lego-like cubes. There are a number of different ways to play the game, from Survival Mode, which requires players to acquire and leverage resources to support their health in a hostile monster-filled world, to Creative Mode, which gives players an unlimited supply of resources and special powers like flight. The game can be played solo or in huge communities that span the globe. Minecraft was developed by Markus Persson, known to the world as Notch, in 2009, then by Mojang, the independent Stockholm-based game studio Persson founded. One of the most amazing things about the game’s creation was the size and cohesiveness of the community that quickly rose up around it—currently numbering over 44 million people worldwide—as well as the responsiveness of the development effort to the needs of that community.
Levin’s experiments with the game in his classroom followed a similar trajectory: he began by publishing a blog, called The Minecraft Teacher in early 2011. "Every day I would get emails from teachers using the game in ways I had never considered," Levin said. Soon Levin was on the radar of Mojang and a group of former teachers in Finland looking to bring out a version of the game designed specifically for schools. That’s how MinecraftEdu was born in December 2011, with a single question: "What would Minecraft have to look like to support the kind of learning that happens in schools?" As it turns out, the answer involved a totally re-imagined user interface, the ability to create a server with a few clicks, a powerful new world editor, and some new building materials, like blocks that turn off students’ ability to alter a world’s topography.
Levin hopes to apply the many lessons he and his team drew from the modification of Minecraft to the redesign of other games soon. "If you can take that seriousness, that love for the game, that all-encompassing engagement," Levin says, "and a teacher can bring it into the classroom, and put the content into the game, it’s just a really exciting experience. It certainly has been for me, and I hope it will be for more and more teachers."
Brian Waniewski is the Managing Director of Institute of Play, a not-for-profit design studio that pioneers new models of learning and engagement. He is also a partner at the future forecasting firm Popular Operations.