What makes Minecraft a highly motivated community

A lot of the discussion about why teachers might use video games in their class has centred around the belief that video games are motivating. It’s also the central controversy about children playing games at home — they are so motivating that they are reluctant to put them down. Education often puts forward the theory of flow — to suggest that once motivated, children are in an optimal learning zone, a view presented by Jane McGonigal (2012) from which she claimed games are optimal learning environments, which predicated the launch of her book – Reality is Broken. It’s a compelling story, bursting with emotion, pop culture and ‘common sense’ – a way to rescue the shallowing of society and death of childhood. I don’t believe this is the case, or rather that video games have somehow found secret success factors no one else has.

For most people, tweenager and above, the construction of success is now deeply linked to their construction of themselves. This is partly visible in the identities, routines and rituals that they engage in. This engagement is also one based in consumerism, where material objects are part of personal expression and communication – their Y-Phones, Tablets, Game Consoles etc., These things all combine to influence their overall motivation towards everything. For example, it influences what they say and how they behave when told to get off the Xbox in the same way it draws them to it. Parents and teachers are not dealing with opposing forces — good and bad machines, books, games, behaviours and so on, but with one behavior.

Motivation is bound by two things for the ‘screenage’ generation, expectancy and value. Expectancy is comprised abstract elements: confidence, experience, importance and success. Value is perceptive: extrinsic motivation, social motivation, achievement motivation and intrinsic motivation. These things are so complex and variable, that video games are not universally motivating, nor are they a way to engage the disenfranchised or isolated members of society. Reality is not therefore broken, but variously experienced — particularly outside of the snow-globe of TED Talks.

People enjoy games because game-designers put ‘community’ to work. To me, this is at the heart of games-based-learning and project-based-learning. Community has numerous subtle components, however four main archetypes need to be considered when we’re talking about motivation and what spaces kids are in that might tap into that: Participation; Cohesion; Identity and Creativity.

Consider Minecraft not as a game but as a community space: it’s physically located on a device, but conceptually located in media consumer culture. It has the necessary attributes of a ‘good community’ and therefore is more likely to motivate players to participate. This is what all game designers are learning to do, and is critical to the commercial and every day pop culture discussion of those games inside their respective communities.

Now ask yourself, how connected is my kid to the local corporeal community: re-visit the four factors and ask yourself are they participating in ways that are sustained over time, have they become part of a core-group and do they have an emergent role in that group. Do they find cohesion? Is the group supportive, tolerant, allow turn taking, responsive, funny and playful. Do they have an identity? Is the group self-aware, does it share vocabulary and language, does it give them a personal space and brand … and finally, is the community creative?

I’d argue some schools have massive community and others are people-factories that pretend they are a community. The thing with games is, there is no pretending. Games which are motivating have communities that are motivating … which is why gamification at school or work is not about points, badges and rewards — it’s about community.

What she makes is Minecraft is your life.

The majority of positive debate about games is assimilationist. It attempts to explain what players are and what they do within the game-studies canon and is often autobiographical in nature. This focus on differences in the nature of reality isn’t particularly useful or informative if you’re a parent, or instructional if you’re a teacher.

For parents, talking about their children’s obsession with Minecraft is the reality. This belief is key, and is a product of irrationally constructing this belief (from the multiple meanings possible) — as media consumers. Their own construction of a safe-useful-productive ‘technologically mediated’ lifestyle is as consumers. Having been subjected to media-messages their whole lives, they focus on the individual child’s actions, responding emotionally to a conflicting array of images and messages which informs them of what successful, healthy parenting looks like. The behavioral response solicited from the media is choose this and reject all others. It’s annoying when children don’t reject it and when you find out why they reject it, it becomes alarming.

We know that product symbolism is an increasingly important strategy in marketing and that it targets families. Using Belk’s (1988) consumer theory of the “extended self” rather than the more common “the second self” from media theory, I suggest that seeing her as a player, where she creates and uses a game character (avatar) to interact with the biome is incorrect. She is using the game as an extended self to reproduce what she knows and is curious about. She has little fascination with the representation (character), but deeply interested in what it can (do) as a result of her interactions and ideas. Put simple, it’s a way of playing “families”.

The power and significance of saying “I’m a Minecraft player” is symbolically important. Parents might say “she plays Minecraft too much” because they are trying rationalize and predict her consumption as an  individual. This has a calming effect, as it glosses over the all important factor of her being part of the consumer community which parents introduce children to as a natural part of contemporary life. This means that she is using Minecraft to reproduce what she sees around her as real life and test it’s plausibility and believability. She is not playing because she is extraordinarily gifted, frustrated with school, or trying to escape reality (which is not broken). She’s playing because it’s a way to reproduce her life through play (naturalistic) and understand the complex media communications between adults and adults and computers as they go about their own lives.

She’s playing Minecraft as an extended self,  which she has more power and control over the inputs and outputs of the synthetic world than she does outside the game. The consumer society is weird to kids, with helicopter parenting, bluetooth cupholders and endless Facebooking of food. None of that feels as normal as parents assume it should.

If she’s playing too much then this is likely to be somewhat of a mirror to the overall family consumption (or avoidance) of media and technology, not because she’s addicted or trying to escape reality. Let me pick up on that. Reality is not broken as McGonigal claims. McGonigal focus on the individual as being “not good at life” which is fundamentally misleading as it treats game players as a minority discourse from the outset. Reality for children are parents hooked on consumer culture communities such as Facebook and Twitter and as such see themselves as part of a global culture which seems to combine corporeal and synthetic communications — and that is something that kids then feel they need to learn (to be a good kid) which frustrates parents rather than pleases them — as kids tend to be allowed games.

I argue that Minecraft in schools is more about the teachers own relationships with consumer culture communities as it is about learning. She’s not playing Minecraft to learn in school, she’s playing to reproduce what she believes is the reality adults create or want, and therefore Minecraft is creates further pluralistic confusion. Teachers of course follow the assimilation canon, claiming that Mincraft is “good learning” and that it should be “part of learning” by which they mean, their preferred lifestyle. No one is wondering how this affects kids already confused by the technologically mediated consumer society.

My hypothesis is that parents who complain their kids are hooked on Minecraft have themselves been assimilated deeply into consumer culture though buying and using products such as the iPhone and iPad — that they don’t see the significance of their child’s play. She’s playing Minecraft as a way to make sense of the most important things in the world — her parents — and is confused about why parents choose one media over another, which is bad, which is good and so on. To get her off Minecraft means getting off Facebook and Instagram, putting the phone down, turning off the TV and co-playing consistently over a long period of time. Minecraft is a mirror of our lives, and we don’t always grow old gracefully do we?

Classroom motivation

Okay, this only works if students actually have or are allowed to use a device, but it doesn’t mean the teacher needs to be using technology in the lesson. I use the Pomodoro Method a fair bit personally. My brain like to have too many tabs open, and it helps me stay focused and motivated on a task — even if it’s boring. I happen to like the 20mins on, 10 mins off routine and in the case of learning with technology in the classroom, I’d also recommend alternating between 20mins using device and 10mins off AS WELL AS 20mins off and 10mins on. I think it allows for better workflows because you can set a ‘peak’ of activity as well as have some really clear deadlines and conclusions.

Pomodorium is a gamification variation with some nifty software that COULD help those students who seem to lack the ability to stay on task or focus. I grant you that if they are given some dull worksheet to complete they won’t begin to love science or geography, but I really think some kids — especially by mid-year in Year 8 are beginning to massively tune-out and simply idle the fifty minutes away.

 

Most kids don’t play video-games it turns out.

A consistent comment I get from parents, experiencing anxiety and feuds with boys over video games is that “the game” is ruining family life and addictive. There is an imagined cultural portrait in which boys are habitual game users who become anti-social and disconnected.

A report has emerged from the annual E3 Games Showcase (for next years titles) that paints a different story – one likely to be ignored by mass-media. 

In 2010, the Entertainment and Software Association famously told us that only 18% of game players are under the age of 18. In 2011, they said 29% of gamers were over the age of fifty. They also said that women over the age of 18 represented significantly greater proportion of game-players (37%) than boys 17 or younger (13%).

Most significantly for parents, the average age of a video game purchaser is 41, and of those roughly half are female – despite ongoing controversy over the way women are represented in games. 19% of these gamers – pay to play – in online games, but 65% of all gamers play online with other people.

At E3, they released more information for 2013. The average age of player has fallen to 30 years old (from 37) and the largest segment of gamers are 36 and older.

For parents whom might other wise assume game-developers target kids, the reality is less than 20% of kids play games at all. Of the $20.77 billion dollars spent in 2012, more than half is spent by players over the age of 30 who have been playing for 13 years or more. Of that 45% of female. Despite the media-haters focus on violence and sexualisation in games – 90% of the games made have an “E” rating – as in “everyone” and of that 78% of the players play with other people for at least one hour a week and 35% of families consider ‘gaming’ to be a family-activity. In extensive studies of parent opinion of ratings, almost 90% said they used the ERSB ratings system in decision making. Despite anecdotal comments that parents pay little attention to ratings – it is worth saying over 90% of games are either E (Everyone), E10+ (ten and over) or Teen (T).