Minecraft and Education 2015

For a long time now, education has discussed and experimented with immersion in virtual worlds, often with far more success and innovation than counterparts who have moved from office automation to cloud automation.

In virtual worlds, the potential for learning and teaching lies in the unique archetypes they continue to offer. Despite some mentions in popular reports such as Horizon, few educators to date have really found the time or interest in online, virtual communities (beyond Twitter).

Before Minecraft emerged as the ‘new’ way to learn in classrooms, games were wrapped up in cultural controversies about addiction, violence and other ‘media effects’ and so numerous projects in virtual worlds were largely ignored. Not because they didn’t work, but because the media-market which has grown out of Twitter focused (and sold) easier solutions to teachers. While some of us were busy in virtual worlds, others were making pithy YouTube videos, drawing long bows about ‘digital literacies’, creating endless Nings and writing blogs about lists of ‘apps’.

Minecraft isn’t in education. It is ‘in’ the public discourse about games and society. It’s aesthetic qualities are easily recognised by adults as ‘legos’ and it’s naturalistic biome seems pleasant in comparison with more dystopian games. Minecraft is popular in education for two cultural consumer reasons: 1 – It doesn’t scare parents significantly and 2 – it’s different enough for some teacher-users to attract attention and money. It is not in education because it has passed through the critical eye of virtual-world research, or because sufficient K12 research has been conducted to make any determination as to it’s value in school.

To be realistic, schools are not particularly open to games or reform. Minecraft is a game made by adults for adults and as such has no particular value as a ‘serious game’. What children may or may not learn from it is subjective. This is also subjected by broader media interest in the game, the creator and the billion dollar industry that Microsoft paid for – and into. Microsoft will use it’s claimed Educational value, as the relative cost outlay is tiny and inconsequential. The corporate-social-capital of snagging the ‘experts’ in a room has been a routine tradition in attempting to valorise claims, rather than get into any academic research.

Microsoft isn’t overly interested in game based learning, or at least it isn’t in Australia. I wasted my time with Microsoft once around Project Spark. They’ didn’t even return emails to a request they made to me. Aside from trying to show how ‘cutting edge’ they are there’s nothing to suggest Microsoft is overly interested in games and game based learning (enough to fund it) but happy to show how ‘edgy’ they are and use it in marketing messages. This isn’t news to people who have been working on games and virtual worlds for the last decade or so, but let’s not assume that everyone agrees to go along with the corporate marketing messages. I know Microsoft doesn’t care what I think and I’m fine with that. At the same time, I’m not about to give them (or other) a free ride into academia either. I would not be doing my job if I did.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I do think Minecraft has educational value to children. I just don’t believe converting the game into an educational narrative has merit yet. People make money out of this and it is part of the wider efforts of corporations to position their products as ‘part of childhood’ — where childhood is itself a story we tell ourselves. It’s not real. If your child is playing Minecraft, then the good news is that the archetypes in the game do show positive signs for learning, imagination and creativity. There’s nothing to suggest that any other media-computer time would be better or worse.

If they are playing in school, then the question is who’s really benefitting? Is it the child or some company executives and stock holders. What are they not learning? and why do teachers and schools feel the need to make specific mention of their Minecraft use

What I didn’t see coming out of the recent Minecraft summit in Los Angeles was new research or new funding for that research. To be fair, aside from a Facebook photo, I don’t know what it was about at all. And maybe that’s the point of marketing these days – to tell us nothing memorable enough to get us to ask questions. I am sure everyone had a great time talking about Minecraft … but what was made in Minecraft and where were the legions of kids who play it?

This seems the tragedy of ed-tech. It consumes technology and media as though they might be educational (and that’s enough to use it) but fails to address longstanding research questions about whether or not this investment has or is improving schools and society beyond them. Do schools need as much reform as entertainment media has faced from games and if so, what media education is needed?

Beyond educational research, consumer research is telling is of massive shifts in societal interest in game-like media experiences – that people like to buy DLC, that they self-identify with certain game titles and cultures. The question is not ‘what digital literacies does Minecraft offer’, but what does Mincraft culture say about how dubious the popular trope called “digital literacy” is. Minecraft has become central to the ‘talk-fest’ about games and game based learning, based on almost no evidence or research.

For parents and teachers, the questions to be asked remain around whether or not children and schools offer a well rounded, de-branded media education and on what basis do we bother to listen to people who don’t backup their claims with any real evidence. I wonder if playing “The Escapist” would be just as useful.