Minecraft: A reply to the NYT post

This relates to the post in the NYT titled “Disruptions: Minecraft, an Obsession and an Educational Tool”. In the first part, I want to walk though what is said not said and implied. Then I’d like to look at why this piece is insufficient to describe the ‘state’ of Minecraft as a game in school and home.

To begin I’d like to tackle the modality of the piece. I have some issues with it.  The headline leads off an assertion which plays directly to longstanding parent anxiety around the effects of games. The NYT has somewhat of a history of doing this and has been studied my more than one scholar in their presentations of video games to their audience.

It’s important to put Minecraft into the continuum of video games. It is a further remediation of long-standing development in sand-box games as a genre, and has cleverly used “monsters vs nature” at a time where this is of major interest and concern – especially to young people.  By this I mean, young people care a lot about the environment and are also subjected to films, books and TV where “scary monsters” are central theme. Harry Potter used wands to vanquish enemies not guns, Notch uses spades and swords. It’s violent, but not too violent, and like Harry Potter, girls identify with Notch – as they feel they to can be Notch, as they could be Harry Potter, not just the girl-side-kick. That is a BIG appeal to girls who play Minecraft.

Kids are more likely to get parents to agree to buying them Minecraft over Dead Island, to let them watch Harry Potter over Kick-Ass. The piece therefore attempts to provocatively connect obsession addiction and disruption failing school to education in schools. There is a slight query over whether Minecraft can be placed into the naughty corner, and as discussing ‘education’ is a familiar tactic to do so. It also allows a further swipe at un-imaginative teachers with rusted on ideas and low technological skills.

We see an image of who children in a double bed, presumably playing Minecraft in their parents bed. The intention is to promote the idea that games are invading the sanctity of the home. What could be more evocative than the ultimate safe-place – a child’s bed. It’s not clear whether they are playing Minecraft, MinecraftEdu or Pocket Minecraft. But they are being tempted away from rest and natural behaviour to play on computer game. Oh you wicked people. I suspect it’s a generic file shot to be honest.

So this is piece, from the very outset is an extension of the media violence assertion and designed to get you to either consider Minecraft as negative in childrens lives or limit their exposure to it and others. No data about hours played, servers raised, units sold, just this image of children being stolen from their beds by Notch and his evil followers. The education angle is in fact, a well used red-herring.

Let me back this up … in the opening line, we read an appeal to moral panic with a depiction of an 8 year old addict child refusing to get off the computer. We empathise with the parent … it hit’s close to home (no educational value). This is backed up with a further “millions of children this age” claim to ram home the on-going narrative that games are “rotting children’s brains”.

In the next few paragraphs summarising the game and it’s effects, there are constant references to Minecraft, but no detail, examination or actual analysis of the game, nor how children at this 8 come to learn of it’s existence. (which would be a really useful piece of investigative journalism)

The article isn’t about Minecraft at all, its’ about media violence and addiction, which remains a concern to parents and schools. But saying kids need monsters and violence in their lives doesn’t sell newspapers (or ad-space). Connecting education (the future of society) to addiction is a winner every time. No need to support claims, just add an emotive image and quote an academic.

Reading the first three paragraphs, you can easily replace Minecraft with Ultima Online, Ever Quest, World of Warcraft and so on. This is the same dogmatic media trope which states games are bad for society because … well because it appeals to parental inner fears that their children will be successful and well adjusted adults one day.

When depicting Minecraft, the author launches into a key generalisation. “Unlike other video games, there are few if any instructions in Minecraft”. Among games-scholarship, video-games are not generally considered to need ‘instructions’. Play is driven by emergent exploration, machine up-held rules and so forth. Instructions are commonly related to real time strategy games, pen and paper RPGs or board games. Instructions are for novices. In the evolution of video games, few from Indie game origins such as Minecraft include such explicit and crass impositions on the player. This would be like assuming all paintings come with explanations or that all car-door handles need step by step diagrams.

The piece vaguely talks about how Minecraft was commercialised towards acceptance by teachers in schools, and attempts to connect this to game-studies. In one school (one) the game was compulsory. Well, I made Teen Second Life compulsory along with Counter Strike and Tombraider a decade ago … and I’m here to say this act as has no external meaning. To make a point of it serves only to highlight how little regard education allows games, despite them being the most significant form of media to emerge, and that even the earliest computers programmed to play games well before they were employed to do anything else. Video games are not new.

There is a whimsical notion that this game might help some kids become doctors. Again, this pattern of reporting is familiar and has been said of numerous games in the last decade. Let me add to that – this game might also help a child deal with home violence and abuse at the hands of over controlling parent, or deal with a sense of isolation. See, not sexy — being a doctor … now thats what games should do. And as they don’t they are a simplistic waste of time.

There is a hat-tip to vocal clinician and media violence crowd. They  believe ‘too much’ gaming rots all kids brains and that violence in games causes children to become violent and so on.  They have written hundreds of papers to prove that gaming is just like gambling. Yet it doesn’t matter if you have 70,000. if the method is floored.

All in all, this is a-typical of the NYT ongoing game of teasing parents with the possibility of games being useful, but failing to deliver much more. How do I know this? Well because, the NYT is one media outlet that I’ve been researching with regard to how it presents video games to society. Let’s say it’s a well trodden path.

So here’s the thing. When I (Bron and Jo) set out to get a game up for kids, it was because we knew (and still know) that the Fantasy that exists outside of school, the issues kids face and the way they need monsters and vile creatures to render the world safe – is completely and utterly different to using it in some augmented form in school. From that, I always thought, if one teacher dared to allow the home fantasy to reign in the classroom, then something great would happen. And it did. Plenty of teachers are now using Pocket Minecraft and full Minecraft in schools. They way it is used is entirely emergent, with techniques and ideas spread across connectivist networks of teachers, parents and community groups. I was extatic to discover a variant of Massively Minecraft (now Jokaydia Minecrafts) being used toward drug and alcohol treatment outside Alice Springs … not to build a re-hab centre from legos, but to help connect a community towards sharing stories.

So what about Minecraft (the school versions). Well, the school fantasy (of children using technology) has no connection at all to the broader cultural literacy of kids playing this game at home. In fact I’d argue that school serves to interfere with perfectly valid game-time at home. Minecraft in school is not a remediation. It is an adaptation but tethered by the school and teachers imagination, rather than the childrens. I maintain that games are sanctuary for many kids, where they get to learn why Power Rangers are an almost ideal model for co-operative learning. But I digress …

Kids play games because they want to. They choose the games because of what they need to resolve in their brains – and in response to their own life story. The fact you can teach maths with it, or build a Roman Fort is insignificant to me, and certainly doesn’t help parents deal with the anxiety and real behaviours of children around games. Kids learn about the world by playing it out. They used to play cowboys and watch Gunsmoke on TV, and now they do this because turning your house into a war simulation and demanding to walk about wearing a pair of Colt 45s is now also taboo. Minecraft is generally allowed because it isn’t realist is the ways COD or BT3 is, however because it’s autotelic, kids are find it even more interesting and fun to create, create and create some more.

The reason to allow kids to play Minecraft in school is not to allow them to play in a sandbox or to trick them into thinking this is the same game they can play with their friends at home. Minecraft is a fantasy, it has emergent narrative which would be immediately killed in the hands of … well teachers, or people who are not teachers, just enthusiasts.

I do think there is a place for MinecraftEdu in schools. It has a really important role towards getting teachers and administrators to accepts (and experience) this (and other games) as being part of the cultural literature. At the same time, they need to also deepen their understanding of games and the various sub cultures around them. If not, then MinecraftEdu will follow the same path as the Teen Grid or numerous immersive worlds that plenty of us have been around for a very long time.

To me, and in the point of Massively Minecraft, was to engage parents (which kids) in the sheer joy of adventure. To go on imaginary epic quest lines in order to better understand how kids and parents negotiate games (as a media form) and how they negotiate the use of them – without getting to the point where Professor Doom warns once again about addiction and over-use. As a parent, and someone studying and working in games, I really cant see that children could have enough joy and play in their lives.

What I think parents want (and need) are strategies to connect their kids love of monsters, to survive parenting the first generation of kids to have access to games which super-charge their imagination. At the same time, school cannot replicate the levels of fantasy to reach anywhere near the same experience. I don’t think they need to either. School performs a distinct function in a child’s life – and that function isn’t made better by playing MinecraftEdu. To me the value of MinecraftEdu is the same as Quest Atlantis or Teen Second Life. It introduces teachers and schools to cultural literacies which remain on the ‘fringe’ of their own life-stories.

I recommend looking at Minecraft In Education group in Google Plus as well as well as the ever brilliant Minecraft In Schools project. I think you’ll find them useful if you’re a teacher. If you’re a parent (and/or a player) I’d be interested in your thoughts on the NYT piece.


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