8 ways Minecraft works on your brain

Recently I’ve spent some time reading parenting websites about Minecraft. What is said is often repetitive, aggregated and lacks much substance. If you are a parent, or Minecraft player, then I hope this post will provide you with some further ideas about how the game works on our minds.

The thing which most articles omit is understanding of why imagination is a primary trigger for learning. Wherever we are, in school or at home, the immediate environment can either support or stifle children’s imaginative abilities. For example, copying notes from a wipeboard is submissive. Additionally, our brain has to work really hard to keep our imagination under control, as while we’re copying it down, our imagination is kicking and screaming to be let out, and we’re not thinking about all about the importance or significance of the information. This is why they invented photocopiers, mobile phone cameras and dropbox.

Minecraft puts players to work by providing the imagination with images and metaphors that give it direction. The blocks represents a random open world and the challenge to control it. Players learn which resources help them to thrive and what dangers need to be overcome. Next, kids use their imagination to make sense of the real world – more than facts or information. Ever wondered why parents say the same thing over and over and the kid does it anyway? … so Minecraft is a game which helps kids make sense of the real world – even though to the adult brain, it’s a lego world and nothing like real life – or the things kids need to know to thrive. Wrong, yes it is, just like kids in ancient cultures learned about hunting, or in the 1800s kids recited facts as in a factory reciting facts is was all that was needed for most kids.

The methods commonly applied in classroom towards what teachers call ‘learning out comes’ today routinely omit the word imagination from tasks and exercises. Schools like more measurable things such as list, find, calculate, show and so on. They can mark this … but marking Minecraft – what would be the point? Well the point is, for most people marks and league tables have been proven to de-motivate and train us to be submissive. So if you like freedom and liberty a kid playing Minecraft is unlikely to be submissive – hence why they wont’ get off it when you demand.

Academics have shown how important imaginative play is to child development for hundreds of years . This hasn’t stopped schools ignoring it. From the age of 9 or 10, a child’s day become less and less imaginative and more standardised as the great hammer of measuring kids by test scores emerges. There comes a tipping point where imaginative becomes day-dreaming and off with the faeries rather than a stand up student getting straight A’s. This is a social rule, the way we begin to define who is seen as a success and who isn’t. Again, ignore the fact many of the worlds biggest corporations and most valuable inventions were developed by people who dropped out of school, or crisscrossed it – like Einstein and Jobs.

All these things are set aside in ‘Minecraft is evil’ posts – not because it’s not true, but because life feels somewhat easier to adults who long ago submitted their imagination to someone else. The use iPhone apps, rather than imagine themselves making them so to speak. Kids don’t. In Minecraft, they can build anything … the imagination light is lit up like a 20,000 watt light the whole time they play.

Imaginative behaviors in Minecraft

Imaginative behavior is based on the brain’s ability to draw upon and combine elements from our previous experiences. Educational scholar Len Vygotsky wrote in 1930 …

The brain is not only the organ that stores and retrieves our previous experience, it is also the organ that combines and creatively reworks elements of this past experience and uses them to generate new propositions and new behavior. …This creative activity, based on the ability of our brain to combine elements, is called imagination or fantasy in psychology. (p. 9)

So here are eight things I see happening when children and adolescents play Minecraft.

  • Sensation – Learning as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy – Learning as make-believe
  • Narrative – Learning as unfolding story
  • Challenge – Learning as obstacle course
  • Fellowship – Learning as social framework
  • Discovery – Learning as uncharted territory
  • Expression –  Learning as soap box
  • Submission – Learning as mindless pastime

Note that of these eight ways of playing Minecraft, children switch between them. One minute they are searching a cavern (Discovery), the next they are building a Library (Expression). At times, when they lack direction or motivation with other ways to learn, they wander about the open world in a state of Submission until something happens.

To me, parents can be the something happens. Even if they don’t play the game. Asking “how high can you build a tower” switches the child’s effort from submission to challenge for example. In many ways, a teacher or parent in a world without games used to do this all the time.

Like it or not, games now do it too. Minecraft is very special because unlike something like Tetris or even Grand Theft Auto, it has all 8 of these facets firing all the time. When it becomes multiplayer, kids stimulate each other constantly – not to make new things – but to change state.

This to me is why they find classrooms boring – they don’t change state in the way games do. Or rather they can, if the classroom is designed to change state and I don’t mean from ‘listen to me talk’ to ‘write this in your book’ – that leads to learning as a mindless pastime. Of course, when mass education was invented, being a submissive worker, following instructions and not ‘day dreaming’ was what school was all about.

So if your kid is playing Minecraft, then according to deeply respected academic research and principles, she is not undertaking a mindless pastime. I’d argue playing Minecraft now might be one of the things that saves them from it in the future too.

The trick is to know how to design day to day learning the way Minecraft works … or to say it isn’t possible and write another ‘Minecraft sucks post’.

I say it is …

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Why won’t she get off Minecraft?

I spoke to a journalist yesterday at the Sunday Telegraph about Minecraft. Apparently they are wring an article. Almost immediately, I learned they had a son aged seven who was ‘addicted’ to it, refusing to get off when told, which led to family rows.

Sound familiar? It’s something I hear a lot. I’ve thought about writing an entire book on the topic of getting kids off computers and video games, as there seems so much panic over it. I’m not sure what (if anything) will get written into the article, so I thought I’d outline my view here.

Is Minecraft addictive?

Firstly, kids are not addicted to Minecraft. Addiction is a word that is used in a variety of ways, but usually it refers to a compulsive drive to take some substance or engage in some activity that is not good for us. Video games are games of skill like chess or soccer. Success depends on perseverance, intelligence, practice, and learning, not chance. Saying Minecraft is addictive is similar to trying to argue millions of people addicted to soccer and therefore soccer creates the violence and racism on the terraces and so on.

People play games because they are challenging, fun and provide social interaction with other gamers – just like soccer. You might argue soccer is physical and outside. Yes, but in soccer, you don’t have to calculate the dimensions of a pitch or design the worlds most amazing stadium, so please – games are not purely Kinesthetic learning (also known as tactile learning). This is just one learning style in which learning takes place by the student carrying out a physical activity. I might also argue the brain loves a good work out, and few parents worry about chess. There are many learning styles. Humans don’t use or exclude any particular one by choice.

Non-gamers are bombarded by messages from the larger media-culture. Newspapers, radio and print generally assert gaming is a sign of laziness, is “addictive” and leads to many bad-effects. Non-gamers become concerned about video gaming as a result.

Why does mass-media say games are addictive?

The simple answer is that mass-media needs people to spend millions of hours watching television ads, reading  ads in newspapers and so on. This is why we have televisions, magazines and newspapers – they are technological devices to sell us advertising.  But we are not watching and reading like we used to. The death of traditional media (in terms of advertising) is well reported – as is the rise of Internet advertising. The problem here is that games like Minecraft clearly consume millions of hours – which blocks out their advertising opportunity. Worse, they know that ‘we’ don’t need traditional media anymore – we are the news, we are anonymous, we can’t be profiled or sold as we won’s sit on the couch like zombies. We’d rather play with zombies.

When Minecraft is the house-game for kids – then these media messages will focus parents on getting the house back to reading and watching their messages –  to support advertising revenue streams. So parents hear constantly that games are harmful, that gamers are all potential crazed gunmen, isolated shut ins and so on. You don’t want that for your kid do you?

Parents need to play with their kids if they want to understand games (and their kid)

I asked the reporter – “Do you have a Minecraft account and play with your child?”.

The answer was no as it almost always is. I followed up by asking “when  you go for coffee with your partner, have you given your child a smartphone to occupy them why you talk?”. She responded “Yes! – my husband does that!”

I pointed out the contradiction – games are good when adults are talking, but bad when the child doesn’t want to talk but play. How is a child supposed to work out this rule when it is presented as a contradiction, not a constant. For the players, Minecraft is a constant, so are your game-friends you play with. They understand you and they want to play with you. They know you might quit at any moment – to get ‘logged’ to do some chore or sit quietly while mum and dad have a chat.

Minecraft is not about occupying or filling in time – it’s about meaningful work. I hate to break it to parents, but to a kid, building in Minecraft is meaningful. Perhaps parents are just not used to this. The problem with Minecraft is not the game, nor video games in general. The central social problem is understanding our own (adults) behaviors around them. If parent’s don’t play with their kids, it is unlikely they will gain any understanding of games and their kids who are growing up with them. This is just like the same as noticing they like soccer so finding them a soccer club or kicking a ball around with them. Knock, knock, knock – Penny – your kid likes video games and can probably bend it like Beckham if you bothered to stop yelling long enough to actually understand.

Do scholars believe games are addictive?

Let me say this, as someone who works at a University. Little is agreed upon. The purpose of research is to move understanding forward and to find gaps in ‘the knowledge’ of everything. This means that when you hear or read an academic talk about something, they will invariably do a bit of fence sitting when asked yes/no questions. There is no ‘yes’ games are addictive verdict so far – and to be frank, there is no agreement on what we mean by video-game. I argue that Twitter is a video-game, it has the same basic qualities of games. This is usually met with raised eyebrows and seen as an attempt to avoid the question. But in all seriousness – there are plenty of people who sat zombified on their couch for years watching Doctor Phil and now they play Angry Birds at the same time.

This has nothing to do with Minecraft “addiction” anymore than Doctor Phil is the cause of Angry Bird addiction.

Mike Langlois, who maintains an excellent blog “gamer-therapist” said

“The stereotype presents the gamer as apathetic and avoidant of any work or investment. One thing we know about stereotypes is that they can be internalized and lead to self-fulfilling negativism, and I’ve come to hear gamers refer to themselves as lazy slackers.”

To counteract the stereotype, Langlois points out that video gaming is hard fun, not easy fun. Hard fun is a term that has appeared more than a few times towards education and technology.

“This hard fun would not be possible if gamers were truly lazy or apathetic. And the level of detail that many gamers pay attention to is staggering

To your brain, Mincraft is a form of going outside.

Our bodies are just a way to move our sub-conscious around. We spend most of our lives in our own sub-conscious because our brain likes to do stuff. The brain is in charge, not the body, and the brain is just as interested in solving problems in Minecraft as it is getting hands to move lego-bricks around a table. It soon works out the two-things are related. I can only imagine what would happen if Lego included redstone and pistons in a box. That would be awesome. But as awesome as Mincraft Lego was, it the brain wasn’t fooled.

Sydney is a city where children are often not allowed to play freely outdoors. Certainly where I live, busy roads, the occasional ‘collar bomber’ and so on means kids are more or less constantly directed by adults. Minecraft for some kids is the only realm where they are allowed to roam free and explore. At the same time, most of the parents I know of Minecraft kids understand that like anything kids need a balance in their life, and are not able to manage time as well as adults (some adults).

Parents need to learn not to use Minecraft as stick or candy-cane.

It’s a BAD idea to offer Minecraft time as a reward for ‘good’ behaviour – and a BAD idea to use the removal of it for ‘not good’ behaviour. This is a loop of doom – all it does is break down the trust between kid and parent – which in most cases parents have no idea how to repair. Minecraft is not like a DVD which parents used to use as a techno-babysitter. DVDs are passive loops, the brain likes watching them as they are predictable and expected. Much of the time kids are not actively watching them – they are just zombie-fied on the couch.

Minecraft is not a babysitter

Amazingly, Minecraft is given to ‘occupy’ kids – in fact computers generally are used to keep kids busy. The problem is that Minecraft is not telling your kid a story – it’s not Willy Wonka you are sitting them in front of – it’s Anonymous – and Anonymous will teach them many things. I like the Anon analogy as Minecraft has some great people and projects for kids on the web, and also it has people whom I would not want my kids to go near – not because they are weirdos – but because the time I allow my kids to game – I want to make sure it’s productive and educationally beneficial. I don’t leave that to chance, I make the effort to find out – in just the same way I find out about local sports clubs, guitar tutors or books. Games are not external to parent-domain anymore — after all — you bought the game.

Minecraft is not just a game – its a sub-culture that spills out into YouTube, music, forums, blogs and art.

Of all the games available right now, Minecraft has qualities which allow kids to explore and imagine on an epic scale. Most significantly, there are few rules to learn – reasonable proficiency is achieved in hours. Not because the game is ‘easy’, but because the mechanics are such that a player is engaged in very very fast cause/effect feedback loops. Most of the time, when you die, it’s funny, even ironic – a result of you not thinking hard enough – not random chance.

Is Minecraft educational?

I give a flat yes to this, and in my view Minecraft (used in a game-sensible-model) is as educational as any other technology we’ve added to classrooms – if not more. It can be used to unlock things in kid’s minds that lead to deep learning that isn’t about to achieved with an IWB or Wiki. If we are going to debate this, then also debate whether school – as it is commonly provided – always educational too. Many think not, including numerous scholars such as Henry Jenkins, John Seeley Brown and Sir Ken Robinson. Can I show teachers and parents it is – yes. I can and I do.

Technology at school (which has avoided using games like Minecraft) has not improved outcomes with technology (yet). School leaders in my experience have almost no knowledge or understanding of the power of games – and for no more reason that that – have failed to make any serious effort to fund them, or back teachers who do. Technology has not had any real impact youth unemployment and disenchantment.

If school prepares you for life – what kind of life?

The Hunger Games or the games industry? – One reason kids around the world are learning to code is that they can get access to hero-code poets like @Notch. These people blog, tweet and do accessible random stuff. They are more real than the teacher in many ways. Minecraft is a visual programming language. It blows my mind that in Australia, the dominant programming language taught (cough) at age 16-18 is Visual Basic 6. Learning to use Unity, Unreal, Cry-engine … not going to happen. So why teachers and parent winge when kids start to learn to code in Minecraft is brain-missing. Yes mum, your six year old is engaged in computational thinking and is writing code with those blocks. Playing to learn is well researched in education as a damn good idea.

Computer and video games in Australia is one of the biggest growing sectors of employment. Over $1billion dollars of employment. If school kids are not learning about games at school – where do all the people who work in this industry learn? Where to parents learn.

Minecraft is perhaps the start of a kids interest in their future job – the fact it looks like cubes ignores the cognitive development that is happening with that technology – which in my experience as a parent of kids of a similar age – does not happen at their school.

Minecraft might just be the game that stops your child becoming illiterate – not addicted to something that will make them lazy or ignorant.

Getting parents to understand games

The problem is not school or Minecraft. It’s a social-problem where there are almost no places for parents to go – with kids to learn about games and how to use games in the home to assist the overall development of the child. There is some research on Minecraft, but most parents doing read academic stuff – and there are a few books emerging, but again, they tend not to be bought by parents.

This is why I have tried to create events where kids and parents can come together to talk about games, play games and un-pack what is happening. That is very very hard – as school systems don’t work weekends and venues are expensive … but each time we do – parents discover a side of their child that society has been previously hiding. Amazingly, these things are well attended and have a very positive effect on parents, as we unpack and explain what is happening ‘live’ as their kids hang out and play.

Minecraft is good … you just have to understand how good. I’ll be running one at Macquarie University in the summer holidays – it will be free, so come along if you’re a parent and learn how to put games in kids lives in a positive way. I’ll also be running Minecraft for schools workshop in the next few months with Dr. Bron Stuckey. Addictive learning – yes please. Controlling kids? No.