As both the modding community and the number of Minecraft players has grown, many people have begun using the game as an educational tool as well as a video game. While the use of video games as educational tools is still controversial in academic circles and so-called educational video games are routinely mocked by the video game community, mods such as MinecraftEdu, qCraft, and ComputerCraft have the potential to bridge the gap between gaming and education.
MinecraftEdu is a special version of the game designed to be played in a classroom setting. Students connect to a special server setup by their teacher, who has more options for creating their world, such as the ability to turn off monster generation, limit the amount of mining that can be done, and create larger text blocks to allow them to write longer in-game messages.
Even the basic gameplay can teach important concepts such as ecology, geography, and geology. Minecraft biomes work similarly to actual biomes, areas of similar climates, plants, and animals. Just as in real life, some biomes are more prone to mountainous terrain and some biomes are more prone to less severe hills. Beaches are generated near lakes, and a lake will freeze if it’s generated in a cold biome. Players can discover underground rivers and they can mine the areas around the river to discover the source, and if a player isn’t careful with their mining, the water will flow out in ways they didn’t intend.
Math education might be one of the game’s strongest points, though. Concepts such as perimeter, area, and volume are required if the player wants to design symmetrical buildings or put doors and windows in the exact center of a wall. The Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio can be demonstrated in-game with various block patterns and three-dimensional cubes.
The most interesting educational opportunities, though, come from mods. The modding community has gotten so big that it even attracted the attention of Google. The giant tech company’s Quantum A.I. Lab Team collaborated with MinecraftEdu and Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter to create a new mod called qCraft. The mod allows players to experiment with the basic principles of quantum physics and behaviors by adding blocks that exhibit quantum entanglement, superposition, and observer dependency. Although qCraft isn’t meant to be a perfect simulation of quantum physics, it does allow players to learn about the basics of quantum mechanics without resorting to dense textbook examples or confusing thought experiments.
One of Google’s stated goals for this mod was to get kids excited about and interested in quantum physics. The Lab Team noticed that millions of kids were spending hours not just building basic structures, exploring caves, and fighting monsters, but tackling ambitious projects such as building space shuttles, assembly lines, and even creating programmable computers, and the Lab Team figured that these same creative kids would use the tools provided by the qCraft mod to study quantum mechanics.
qCraft isn’t the first time that the community has tackled science, though. In 2011, YouTube user spoonmonkeyuk recreated Thomas Young’s well-known double-slit experiment, using mine carts and exploding chickens in place of a coherent light source. Again, spoonmonkeyuk’s experiment doesn’t work as a perfect simulation of the double-slit experiment, but the response to the video shows that kids can be motivated to learn about these types of scientific concepts if they’re presented in ways that are entertaining and engaging.
Modder dan200 created a mod called ComputerCraft, which uses the Lua scripting language in conjunction with some new types of blocks such as computers, monitors, disk drives, modems, and even turtles, which essentially act as programmable robots that can do almost anything the player character can do. This mod can act as an introduction to programming hardware in the form of the turtles and software in the form of scripts. Lua scripts can be run from in-game objects and linked to different in-game objects, such as creating a password-protected door or writing scripts that control your turtles.
The use of Minecraft as an education tool is still in its infancy, and as the community and MinecraftEdu continues to grow, the possibilities are limitless. This article provided plenty of examples of how the game is used to show practical examples to reinforce the lessons that are already being taught, and creative modders, teachers, and players will figure out many more on their own.