Minecraft is one of those fiendishly clever games with an educational value so baked in that kids (and adults) don’t realize they might be learning something. Microsoft, which acquired the game in 2014 and sold an average of 53,000 licenses every day last year, is now unlocking Minecraft’s book smarts by adapting it to make classroom learning interactive and fun.
Minecraft: Education Edition, which launched in November, helps educators apply the game’s world-building approach to topics ranging from art history to math. In the 10,000 classrooms that experimented with the beta, teachers had students assembling human bodies to understand biology; exploring medieval villages to enliven history; and creating roller coasters for a physics lesson. The educational version, which costs between $1 and $5 per student, includes a few tweaks for teachers, such as digital “chalkboards” to deliver instructions. But it keeps Minecraft’s focus on discovery, helping kids develop in-demand computational skills alongside subject-matter knowledge.
“A lot of what creates [Minecraft’s] magical educational experience is the no-rules sandbox environment,” says project director Deirdre Quarnstrom. “Students really feel inspired to keep going and create their own challenges, which is exactly what educators want to see.”
With more than 100 million Minecraft users worldwide, Microsoft is exploring where else its cultural phenomenon can bring joy, including school field trips. The Museum of London, for instance, is now creating Minecraft worlds to accompany exhibitions, bringing some additional heat to its exploration of the Great Fire of 1666.
This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.