Not long ago I was interviewed via email by a journalist who was writing an article about the possible educational benefits and uses of Minecraft weighed against parental concerns about it (which aren’t really about Minecraft, per se, but about the temporal black hole that video games, in general, can be). The article has just gone live today at Mr. Wecker’s quotation of our interview, though brief, captures the core of what I think on the subject. Minecraft can be an amazing tool for education. One of the specific things that I emphasized in the interview that didn’t make it into the article concerns the way mods can be used to enhance and realize Minecraft nascent educational potential. Tech mods like Industrial Craft very often are based (albeit sometimes loosely) on real-world technology and science. I’ve recently learned quite a lot about geology from playing mods like Underground Biomes and Terrafirmacraft. As I wrote to Mr. Wecker, I would like to see modders think creatively about writing mods that are intentionally educational. Below is what I wrote to Mr. Wecker in full. I think it merits a blog post.

From my email correspondence with Mr. Wecker

“I think Minecraft has a lot of potential as a teaching tool. At the most basic level, it is a medium for free or directed creative expression, which, I think, is largely under-appreciated in elementary education. Kids learn best by playing. I’ve seen reports of elementary school classes using Minecraft in the classroom to encourage artistic expression and collaboration. Knowing how the game works, I would say that you could add problem-solving to this list, particularly when you start trying to do things with Redstone to automate farming processes or make piston elevators or whatever. Minecraft isn’t terribly realistic in its farming or husbandry aspects, but these in-game aspects could easily function as a launching point for out-of-game discussions about how real-world agriculture works. The same can be said for architecture, engineering, mining, and the lumber industry. For higher grades, Redstone circuitry and logic gates can actually be really helpful in introducing basic computer science, circuitry, and logic. Even just simply calculating how many blocks you’re going to need to build this or that structure is an occasion for practicing basic arithmetic (i.e. how many blocks of cobblestone am I going to need to build a cobblestone floor that is 9 blocks long by 17 blocks wide?). The blocks act like a digital manipulable.

“The educational potential of Minecraft, though, absolutely explodes once you start adding mods to the game. One of the really great things about Minecraft is the way its creators are not only accepting of the modding community but are actually actively in dialogue and collaboration with that community. This opens up essentially limitless possibilities for expansion and customization in all sorts of different directions. There are really too many mods out there to highlight the educational potential of every one of them, but here are some of the more well-known mods and ways they can be used in education:

“* ComputerCraft – This mod adds in-game computers and robots (called turtles) that are programmable using a programming language called Lua. I am by no means a master computer programmer (I know a handful of things from a few different programming languages), but Lua is, in my opinion, a perfect introductory programming language. It is open-source, usable outside of Minecraft, and has a simple and clear syntax (more so than C or Java, at least). The way it could be used in class is that you would have in-game problems that you try to solve using ComputerCraft computers and turtles, whether these problems are naturally arising from gameplay or are presented by a teacher (i.e. “write a program that makes a mining turtle dig a 3×3 tunnel of variable length, then has the turtle return and deposit its inventory into a chest” or “write a program that can harvest and replant a tree farm”). The fact that computer programming, which can be pretty abstract, has a more-or-less immediate application in a game makes it less abstract and adds fun motivation for students who might not get all excited about making “Hello World!” print on the screen in a terminal.

“* Forestry – Forestry is a huge mod, but it has aspects that could be useful in basic biology. The part of the mod that I have in mind is its bee and butterfly breeding and the way you have to use bees and butterflies to pollinate trees to create new tree species. The whole “breed new tree species” thing isn’t realistic, but it does introduce and demonstrate the pollination concept. Furthermore, the bee and butterfly breeding mini-game itself introduces the basic concepts of genetics.

“* Factorization – Factorization is a an example of a genre of mod that is sometimes called a “tech” mod. What “tech” mods usually add are things like machines to automate in-game processes, item and fluid transportation systems (conveyor belts, pipes, etc), and energy creation, storage, and distribution systems. Factorization’s energy system is unlike that of some other tech mods in that it deals both with voltage and total charge. It also adds robot-like devices called servos that can be programmed in a low-level stack-based manner rather than with a high-level programming language (it’s kind of complicated to explain; just let me know if you’d like me to try). Other tech mods that strike me as having educational potential include IndustrialCraft2, RotaryCraft, or HydrauliCraft.

“I won’t bore you with yet more mod reviews, here. Suffice to say, there are tons of mods that, with a little creativity from a teacher, can be used to demonstrate or at least introduce real-world concepts. Furthermore, I think there is lots of unrealized potential for modders to make educational mods, that is, mods that intentionally and methodically teach mechanical, structural, or scientific concepts.

“As for the last part of your question, concerning religious or biblical education, I have actually put some thought into this. Using Minecraft for arts and humanities education wouldn’t be as straightforward or obvious as it is for sciences education, but it is still possible. Some ideas I’ve been toying with largely use Minecraft videos or screenshots, kind of like the way you might use Legos (still images or stop-motion animation) to tell stories or illustrate points. Some ideas I’ve had include making scale models of biblical places or things (Solomon’s Temple, Noah’s Ark, etc.) and showing them in a video that discusses these places or things, where they are found in the Bible, and their significances. I could also see retelling Bible stories using Minecraft videos kind of like the way Big Idea uses vegetables to tell Bible stories in their Veggie Tales videos. Or, if you’ve seen the Yogscast’s series “Shadow of Israphel” (you can find it on YouTube), it might be something kind of like that (albeit with cleaner language!).”