Why Minecraft is better than Blues Clues (and school)

There is substantial disagreement and controversy about video games and childhood. Common criticisms of children’s media use is that it displaces other activities believed to be beneficial such as outdoor play; homework and leisure reading. Video games are subjected to claims made about television such as they lower academic achievement, to which scholars have plausibly argued academically challenged children are drawn to television and as a leisure time activity in the first place. In addition the correlation between TV and achievement has also been shown to include another significant variable – household income. Lower income households tend to watch more TV and also score lower of tests compared to higher income counter-parts.

Media has been used to address this before and it works. I’ll use the example of Blue Clues as most parents will recognise it. The creators’ and producers’ goals were to “empower, challenge, and build the self-esteem of preschoolers”. Admittedly Minecraft didn’t set out to do this, or even be played by pre-schoolers — but I’d argue it is achieving exactly the same goal though it’s enthusiastic media-based community. At the same time, there are more paths to follow than the MinecraftEdu one (not that it’s a bad path). I’m amazed that Mojang hasn’t called me, but hey I totally get why. They stand in a unique position to do some serious social good here, as well as make even more money. Call me fellas, seriously.

Video games are routinely associated with television as though these devices are comparable because of ‘time spent’ in front of the screen. I’m arguing that time-spent with screens promoting learning and improving childrens’ creativity and computational thinking is never a waste of time or resources. It just dry minds that consider fun and entertainment as separate from learning and school. Parents don’t — that has been shown over and over into research about parent belief towards what is ‘good for kids’ – Blue Clues certainly — and Minecraft … well maybe … if parents understand how to regulate it and put it to work and not use it to babysit. Using Minecraft to babysit is a really BAD idea by the way — and not bad addictive bad, bad because it creates high levels of the stuff Blues Clues aims for in a matter of weeks.

Minecraft discussions cannot overlook that many kids from lower-income families are using it instead of television — and if we are to maintain that TV and Games are the two big uses of screen time, then like watching Blues Clues has shown these pre-schoolers may well have higher levels of school readiness than those who do not — and those who only watch Blue Clues or other TV material. Are you with me here Mr Robertson?

When TV when is being used to deliberately to teach though fun and entertainment has positive effects on kids. It been shown that this positive effect is MOST beneficial to kids from lower-income backgrounds. Access to TV has been seen as a cheap and effective way to ‘educate’ those who are at most disadvantage.

When pre-schoolers are playing Minecraft and not watching Blues Clues, Dora or other TV-edu-material — do you think it is making them less or more ready for school? And what about our own ABC? What are they doing in the Minecraft (or other commercial game) space … well aside from Good Game Spawn Point MC maps — not a lot which is shame, all be it a temporary one I hope.

Now here’s the kicker Mr Robertson. Those kids arriving in school at the age of 5, from low income and media poor families can get an accelerant from Minecraft that they wont get from Blues Clues or other edu-watch-me media. They don’t need to have the cognitive and kinaesthetic skills needed to operate network (I can’t log in! Where’s the start-menu! I cant read the letters!) computers Just put an Xbox in the room and a set of well thought out activities and suddenly those kids are capable of rising to the levels of literacy, design and computational thinking that we’d normally attribute (though the literature) to high quality educational programs enjoyed by the better off in society. Not developing Xbox (or other) programs for kids (especially poor kids is brain-missing. Tapping into cultural literacy which is fun, entertaining and cheap makes a cubic world of sense.

The problem is that school culture continue sto connect media-research with gaming effectively and buy-into over simplistic (and unproven) rhetoric around ‘app culture’. The price of one fly-in-fly out powerpoint jockey to tell us about blah blah apps would seed some serious funding for development and research. Oh yes we want video games in schools … because so far the other option hasn’t worked for those kids who are at most risk.

Yes I’ll move to Dundee.

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Parenting Gamer Kids

As part of writing my thesis and working with families around the “Negotiations of Play”, I’ve decided to run a parallel project to write a modest eBook relating to some of the work I’m doing. Not all of my thesis would be interesting to parents, but to me the point of doing it is to have some practical value on raising gamer kids.

I’ve decided to start to compile the book in a way which will see sections released FREE and online via a subscription. Ultimately when the thing is done, I’ll put it into a service such as BookBaby where it can be downloaded as a finished thing. I’m interested therefore in getting YOU to subscribe to this — and to give me feedback on your parenting experiences along the way. This might sound odd, giving away my ideas, but to me it makes sense — and this is what I’ve chosen to do.

The first installment will be open soon, and I hope you subscribe. It will be looking at “Parental Belief and Child Rearing Practices” and will appear in parts over the next 3 months. I won’t be ‘blogging’ about it, but you are welcome to subscribe to the FREE updates online — but it will be mostly limited to the effects of parent belief on children’s behaviours, academic achievement, social and cognitive development. The final eBook will contain information about ways parents can mediate and help their children use video games as a positive media-source and use of screen-time. I’ll be putting this out in three parts and hopefully the final book will be completed by 2017.

I’ve chosen to do it this way because it seems to make the most sense. I don’t need an agent or publishing deal — just an audience of parents and teachers who are interested in the topic “Negotiations of Play”. I will however be using a copy-editor and editor for the final eBooks as I’ll have enough on my plate with the thesis itself.

I’m kinda excited to do this — and to be making some life-changes to make it happen. I’ll be posting information about how to get all this soon. Thanks for reading!

Digital Home and Contents Insurance

Cyber saftey has crossed into the “internet of things” already. Governments and law enforcement agencies are gradually implementing surveillance technologies that are more accurate, unnoticeable, cheap, pervasive, ubiquitous and searchable in real time. Don’t expect an announcement on this – it’s a dirty business behind closed doors.

To me $50 a year is a small price to pay for digital-home-insurance, and a great opportunity to engage my kids in discussions about freedom, privacy and liberty. It’s more essential than anti-virus or firewalls – although your Telco and government will make little mention of it – they value the collection principle over anonymity principle.

I’m doing the feds a favour. Along with fitting a smoke detector and locks to my windows, I’m securing my kids from enemy-agents too. I’m doing my bit to protect our way of life. It’s like not leaving tempting valuables in the car. For $50 a year, I can VPN up your iPhone, tablet and home computer.

Of course this doesn’t stop Telstra types selling you down the river, or accidental data-dumping – that’s just incompetence. But I still think fitting VPNs to you (and especially your kids devices) gives you a valuable buffer. It’s a deep dark hole when you start looking into privacy online. It’s hard to stand back and say “I don’t have time or that the issues are too complex”. This burn note will self-destruct in …

If you’ve got kids going online at home – playing video games, watching video and so on – and you don’t have a VPN then good luck to you.

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.

Skoolaborate Kids Congress 2008

“We are keen to encourage this important global collaboration opportunity amongst our communities. The congress will provide a significant boost to the skill levels and understandings of the staff and students who participate. They will make a significant step toward building those skills they need to succeed in a increasingly global workplace.”

Skoolaborate Kids Congress was held in Sydney 31 July to 2nd August 2008. Students and teachers from around the world attended the f2f event at MLC school, and others attended ‘in world’. There were a number of projects, keynotes and speakers broadcast live into Skoolaborate via quicktime. Part of the day, students we’re collaborating to build some furniture, learning the basic contruction methods needed. Our students decided that outdoor furniture was the go (being Australian), and that it should be BIG – due to the Australian love of the ‘BIG’ prawn; pineapple; guitar; cow; sheep etc., which stand besides the road of many Australian country towns.

[clearspring_widget title=”Animoto.com” wid=”46928cc51133af17″ pid=”48913d3a20e0fac9″ width=”432″ height=”260″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]

I won’t be at day 2, but it was great to be involved with Chris’ PBL project in world, and great to see so many kids working to realise their ideas. Here’s a quick animoto of the stuff our kids made.