According to Gilbert (2019), Minecraft has amassed more than 112 million active monthly players. Minecraft is known as a “sandbox game”: a genre of game that allows players maximum freedom of choice, wherein the game system does not impose goals on its players. Instead, digital games like Minecraft allow players to set goals for themselves and provide a sense of agency (Lane and Yi 2017, 10).
Background: Space Exploration and Minecraft
I have been investigating the potential roles of simulation in science education at the Lane Laboratory of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Our laboratory’s National Science Foundation–funded project, “Fostering Interest in Science through Interactive Exploration of Astronomy What-if Simulations,” explores the role of technology in fostering the development of science interest. Our international team of scholars and practitioners consists of people from a variety of backgrounds—researchers, scientists, and educators—working together to produce educational software tools for that build on Minecraft’s popularity and momentum.
The local team maintains a customized server that features a spaceship with multiple portals to Earth under different conditions (e.g., what if Earth didn’t have a moon?). We were able to customize the worlds with the help of preexisting materials, such as the spaceship, and our team of coders. One of our custom plug-ins involves customizable command lines for telling the temperature, windspeed, and pressure of each planet for comparison purposes. We implement our interventions mostly at informal learning spaces (e.g., summer camps, museums, makerspaces). Our server is now available to the public as of March 2021, and we are actively working on creating lesson plans and collecting other teaching materials and resources for practitioner use.
Our work, however, only demonstrates one of the many possibilities of what can be done with Minecraft. You can learn more about our project and use our creations here, but so many applications are possible. Below I will help prepare you to implement a similar project in Minecraft.
What is MinecraftEdu?
Minecraft: Education Edition, also known as MinecraftEdu, is an education-focused spin-off of Minecraft. One of the most distinct features of the education edition is the affiliated community of educators and practitioners, who use Minecraft as a means for encouraging learning and share materials globally. Available resources include access to lesson plans in different subjects and downloadable, preconstructed Minecraft worlds for students to explore. These lessons can serve as supplementary material to existing curricula and are well suited for project-based learning. The focus of digital games like MinecraftEdu is on learning throughout the creation process and through engagement with the virtual world, but not exactly suited for grading based on task performance. One notable benefit of Minecraft for inclusive learning has been the finding that it can serve as a safe space for many people with autism (Ringland et al. 2017, 342–343).
Several considerations should be made prior to implementing MinecraftEdu in the classroom:
- Technical knowledge: Are the main instructor and supporting staff willing to master the basics of Minecraft and maintaining the products required for its use (e.g., server)?
- Classroom needs: Is there any technical support that could assist throughout the lesson? Are video games welcomed by students, or do they find it intimidating (polling may help determine attitudes)? Are the students familiar with using a mouse and keyboard?
- Access: Are students able to access computers at school and/or at home? Do students have access to the internet?
Each lesson is labeled with keywords indicating appropriate age groups, allowing for a quick skim to see what’s available, as well as more detailed information like learning objectives and practiced skills.
How Much Will This Cost?
MinecraftEdu offers a free trial period and is available to purchase for $5 USD per user, per year. It is also available through a district-wide licensing model. Click here for more information on pricing.
How do I Install MinecraftEdu?
Note: I am running iOS and using Chrome for reference. If you are a Windows user, please refer to Microsoft’s educator training page.
Visit the download page for MinecraftEdu and click “Download for MacOS.” The application can be installed on an external hard drive if space is an issue. One terabyte of space is more than enough for MinecraftEdu plus downloadable content from the website, and one-terabyte hard drives today run relatively cheap, at about $50 USD.
Launch the .dmg file located in the Downloads folder. Once the download is complete, run the .dmg by double clicking on the file. A pop-up of Minecraft Education Edition appears on the screen, and the “Minecraft: Education Edition” icon has to be dragged into the Applications folder to complete the installation on your device.
Why Should I use Minecraft in the Classroom?
The general effects of using a video-game intervention have proven positive when the game is carefully selected to align with learning goals (Plass et al. 2013, 1058; Rodríguez-Aflecht et al. 2018, 266; Rosas et al. 2003, 90). The flexibility found specifically in the sandbox-game genre like Minecraft allow instructors to cater a variety of learning goals and disciplines. For example, Shaw et al. (2014) used Minecraft for purposes of teaching engineering education and Zhu and Heun (2017) applied it to teaching Chinese history. Teachers who are familiar with Minecraft have made use of the game in a number of different classroom subject areas (Thorsteinsson and Niculescu 2016, 510):
- Arts and Crafts: Designing and building collaboratively in Creative Mode.
- Geography: Using a map of Iceland to explore and rescue villagers that are stuck in specific locations due to natural disasters. The locations are uncovered through tasks that require groupwork and mathematical calculations.
- Multimedia Making: Editing screen-captured videos.
- 3D Printing: Using computer-aided design in Minecraft, resulting in 3D-printed products.
- Mathematics: Focusing on cubic and square measures and units.
- Special Education: Improving speech and language skills, alongside using Skype.
Video games like Minecraft offer learners a space to practice skills needed for careers in the twenty-first century, such as teamwork, digital citizenship, and information literacy (Hill 2015, 380–381). On the level of relevancy, the Minecraft culture overlaps with cultural phenomena like the “makerspace” movement; the act of gaining new knowledge, making it one’s own, and collaborating with others who are in the same process can induce collaboration, critical thinking, and self-motivation (Niemeyer and Gerber 2015, 9). Makerspaces are community-operated workspaces that seek to foster a sense of community for participants and offer a safe space for learners to play and explore with different mediums and machines. For example, our local makerspace (Figure 3) offers access to 3D printing, laser engraving, milling, textiles and machines to produce textiles, a variety of electronics, and graphic design and art tools to visitors at little to no cost. During the pandemic, they continued their service to the community by offering one-on-one help over Zoom, project consultations, and remote 3D printing, laser cutting, and engraving.
An ethnographic study analyzing recordings of adolescents using Minecraft over the course of six months found that the game enabled Vygotsky’s notion of “object-regulation” (instances where artifacts in the environment spark cognition or activity) through the use of computers, headsets, Skype, and smartphones, as well as “other-regulation,” or mediation by other people (Wernholm and Vigmo 2015, 234–238). Notably, the benefits of using Minecraft extend beyond adolescence to adulthood. The playing of commercial video games, Minecraft included, has been linked to an increase of self-reported skills such as adaptability, resourcefulness, and communication in undergraduate students in the Arts and Humanities (Barr 2017, 96). Minecraft is particularly useful for teaching STEM-related topics at the college level, as these fields often benefit particularly from visualization, and allow for enhanced opportunities for collaboration with peers, as with:
- Coding: Job training for novice programmers for project development (Saito, Takebayashi, and Yamaura 2015, 3–4).
- Artificial Intelligence: Teaching game AI through Minecraft modifications (Bayliss 2012, 2).
- Computer Science: Promoting interest of computer science through CodeBlocks, a block-based programming language used to control a virtual robot that navigates, senses, and interacts within the game (Zorn et al. 2013, 2–3).
- Geodesign: Using the game as a collaborative space for urban planning of an undeveloped plot of land used only as a parking space on a university campus (Elmerghany and Paulus 2017, 308–309).
- Ecology: Illustrating Harding’s principle (1968), the depletion of resources when a population occupies one area, through a map compromised of only trees. “The model is played in two rounds: in round 1 the students are told to collect as much wood from the forested area as possible. Being a ‘commons’ type area, the space is very quickly laid to waste, which illustrates Harding’s principle. In round 2, students are allowed to plant new trees and bound their harvest areas with fences, in which only they are allowed to farm. This leads to a more sustainable production of lumber” (Short 2012, 56).
Among the many different ways Minecraft has been used in the educational settings, the game seems to serve best as a complementary tool alongside curricula for learning. The game environment allows researchers and practitioners to stimulate conditions that are otherwise improbable, as in the examples above. While Minecraft is indeed powerful and flexible, those interested in using it for teaching will need to make time to familiarize themselves with its capabilities, functions, and limits. Akin to other technologies, it is possible that game patches or updates to the software could make one or more aspects of a MinecraftEdu lesson obsolete. Therefore, it is crucial to test lessons prior to their implementations and adjust as necessary, whether it is manually reconfiguring objects within the Minecraft map or perhaps using only portions of an existing MinecraftEdu lesson as a demonstration or group-work activity. To mitigate the risk of losing time or the interest of learners during lessons, the best scenario allows for at least one dedicated member to be on-site to assist with any technical issues that may arise.
Digital games can play a substantial role in the field of education if we are able to understand the full capabilities of games like Minecraft for learning. This endeavor of exploring learning technologies will take collective time, effort, and energy from researchers and practitioners as we explore the benefits and boundaries of digital games for learning. This shared endeavor will also serve as an opportunity to engage the imaginations of all those involved as we move forward in the examination and reconstruction of digital games and curricula.
Barr, Matthew. 2017. “Video games can develop graduate skills in higher education students: A randomised trial.” Computers and Education 113: 86–97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2017.05.016.
Bayliss, Jessica D. 2012. “Teaching game AI through Minecraft mods.” In 2012 IEEE International Games Innovation Conference, Rochester, 1–4. New York: IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/IGIC.2012.6329841.
Bos, Beth, Lucy Wilder, Marcelina Cook and Ryan O’Donnell. 2014. “Learning mathematics through Minecraft.” Teaching Children Mathematics 21: 56–59. https://doi.org/10.5951/teacchilmath.21.1.0056.
Ellison, Tisha L., Jessica N. Evans and Jim Pike. 2016. “Minecraft, Teachers, Parents, and Learning: What They Need to Know and Understand.” School Community Journal 26, no. 2: 25–43.
Elmerghany, Ahmed Hanie, and Gernot Paulus. 2017. “Using Minecraft as a Geodesign Tool for Encouraging Public Participation in Urban Planning.” GI_Forum 5: 300–314. https://doi.org/10.1553/giscience2017_01_s300.
Gilbert, Ben. 2019. “‘Minecraft’ has been quietly dominating for over 10 years, and now has 112 million players every month.” Business Insider. Accessed October 17, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/minecraft-monthly-player-number-microsoft-2019-9.
Harding, Garrett. 1968. “The tragedy of the commons.” Science 162, no. 3859: 1243–1248. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
Hill, Valerie. 2015. “Digital citizenship through game design in Minecraft.” New Library World 116: 369–382. https://doi.org/10.1108/NLW-09-2014-0112
Lane, H. Chad and Sherry Yi. 2017. “Playing with virtual blocks: Minecraft as a learning environment for practice and research.” In Cognitive Development in Digital Contexts, edited by Fran Blumberg and Patricia Brooks, 145–166. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Academic Press.
Niemeyer, Dodie J., and Hannah R. Gerber. 2015. “Maker culture and Minecraft: Implications for the future of learning.” Educational Media International 52, no. 3: 216–226. http://doi.org/10.1080/09523987.2015.1075103.
Plass, Jan L., Paul A. O’Keefe, Bruce D. Homer, Jennifer Case, Elizabeth O. Hayward, Murphy Stein, and Ken Perlin. 2013. “The impact of individual, competitive, and collaborative mathematics game play on learning, performance, and motivation.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105, no. 4: 1050. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032688.
Ringland, Kathryn E., LouAnne Boyd, Heather Faucett, Amanda L.L. Cullen and Gillian R. Hayes. 2017. “Making in Minecraft: a means of self-expression for youth with autism.” In Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Interaction Design and Children, Stanford, 340–345. New York: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/3078072.3079749.
Rodríguez‐Aflecht, Gabriela, T. Jaakkola, Nonmanut Pongsakdi, Minna Hannula‐Sormunen, Boglárka Brezovszky, and Erno Lehtinen. 2018. “The development of situational interest during a digital mathematics game.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 34, no. 3: 259–268. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcal.12239.
Rosas, Ricardo, Miguel Nussbaum, Patricio Cumsille, Vladimir Marianov, Mónica Correa, Patricia Flores, Valeska Grau et al. 2003. “Beyond Nintendo: design and assessment of educational video games for first and second grade students.” Computers and Education 40, no. 1: 71–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0360-1315(02)00099-4.
Saito, Daisuke, Akira Takebayashi, and Tsuneo Yamaura. 2014. “Minecraft-based preparatory training for software development project.” In 2014 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, Pittsburgh, 1–9. Pennsylvania: IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/IPCC.2014.7020393.
Shaw, Erin, Minh T. La, Richard Phillips, and Erin B. Reilly. 2014. “PLAY Minecraft! Assessing secondary engineering education using game challenges within a participatory learning environment.” In Proceedings of the 121 Annual Conference and Exposition, 360 of Engineering Education, Indianapolis, paper 8438. Indiana: ASEE. https://www.asee.org/public/conferences/32/papers/8438/view.
Short, Daniel. 2012. “Teaching scientific concepts using a virtual world—Minecraft.” Teaching Science: The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association 58, no. 3: 55–58. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Dan_Short/publication/236587414_Teaching_Scientific_Concepts_using_a_Virtual_World_-_Minecraft/links/00b49518172e4dc83d000000/Teaching-Scientific-Concepts-using-a-Virtual-World-Minecraft.pdf.
Thorsteinsson, Gisli and Andrei Niculescu. 2016. “Pedagogical insights into the use of Minecraft within educational settings.” Studies in Informatics and Control 25, no. 4: 507–516. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d5cb/2da08ea832da4b685da1c0250f6a22b50451.pdf.
Wernholm, Marina and Sylvi Vigmo. 2015. “Capturing children’s knowledge-making dialogues in Minecraft.” International Journal of Research and Method in Education 38, no. 3: 230–246. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743727X.2015.1033392.
Zhu, Kening and Man Ho John Heun. 2017. “Teaching and learning of Chinese history in minecraft: A pilot case-study in Hong Kong secondary schools.” In Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Interaction Design and Children, Stanford, 405–410. California: AMC. https://doi.org/10.1145/3078072.3084301.
Zorn, Christopher, Chadwick A. Wingrave, Emiko Charbonneau and Joseph J. LaViola Jr. 2013. “Exploring Minecraft as a conduit for increasing interest in programming.” In Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, Raleigh, 352–359. New York: ACM. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.381.4045&rep=rep1&type=pdf.