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Roger Nomer, Associated Press
Education

Could Minecraft help kids get smarter?

When Rob Patrick’s then 7-year-old son Riley started asking to play Minecraft two years ago, the Edmonton-based radio morning show host and his wife had no idea what he was talking about.

After asking around and doing some research, they decided Minecraft was much better than most of the other gaming alternatives because it was creative and had no violence.

“What we weren’t warned about,” Patrick says, “was how addicting it is for boys that age. Before too long, we started noticing his addiction taking shape. Asking him to turn it off became more of a struggle and eventually a full-on fight.”

It's a concern many parents can relate to — Minecraft is a phenomenon, with over 100 million users. A game with Lego-like promise in which users construct things out of blocks, the game was officially released on Nov. 18, 2011, and, according to the Mirror (U.K.), it was the top-selling app on both iPads and iPhones in 2013. More than 9 million Facebook users like the game’s official page, and among those users and fans, as one might expect, are teachers, professors and students.

Teachers are drawn to the game because it has educational benefits that encourage active, rather than passive, playing and can teach coding to children. For those reasons, some experts are convinced that Minecraft is a better teaching and learning platform than most other games.

But its potential to be a time-suck for children and its possible privacy issues surface early and often in conversations with parents of children who play the game. And given the game’s rapid and widespread growth, those questions are likely to continue to grow in scope.

Educational benefits?

That Minecraft is clearly a gaming phenomenon to reckon with is tough to dispute, and even though one of the versions of the game calls for users to fend off zombies and skeletons in between building houses and otherwise altering the landscape, the game is not violent, especially compared to some of the other games young children might stumble across online.

Users with expertise and experience on Minecraft point to the malleability of the Minecraft “space” as something that offers particular educational promise.

“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 underappreciated in elementary education,” says Kerry Lee, who recently earned his doctorate in Old Testament studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Using Minecraft for math and science is a no-brainer, says Lee, who is an independent researcher. He has given a lot of thought to using Minecraft to illustrate biblical stories and structures — such as Noah’s ark and Solomon’s Temple.

Others have also noticed other educational potential in Minecraft. Maximilian Owre, interim director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Program in the Humanities and a history lecturer, says his impression from watching his 7-year-old daughter play Minecraft is that the game is “really like an online version of Legos with a lot more options.”

“She mostly builds outlandish houses and walks around taming cats,” he says. “I think play — in and of itself — is incredibly educational, and her interaction with Minecraft is not at all passive. She certainly has learned a lot about types of building materials and the concept of mining.”

An educational community of Minecrafters

Statistics about the scope of the education-oriented community on Minecraft can be difficult to pin down, but MinecraftEdu, a project of U.S. and Norwegian educators and programmers that makes the game affordable for schools, launched around Christmas 2011. (Minecraft typically costs $26.95.) One year later, the official MinecraftEdu Tumblr claimed it was “rapidly approaching” its 1,000th school.

Based on the site’s sales statistics, Joel Levin, a co-founder and education director at TeacherGaming, which created MinecraftEdu, estimates that more than 250,000 students have used Minecraft in their schools in more than 40 countries and that over 2,000 schools use the platform today.

“We’ve seen consistent growth in the number of new schools every month,” says Levin, a former computer teacher at a New York City private school. “It is not an exaggeration to say that Minecraft is being used at every grade level from kindergarten to college and in literally every subject area from science to history to art.”

One of the schools that has adopted the platform is South Orange Middle School in New Jersey. Last year, a group of students at the school circulated a petition requesting Minecraft access in the library. Librarian Elissa Malespina and IT colleagues decided to install MinecraftEdu on the library’s 26 computers.

The Minecraft Club that Malespina hosted during South Orange’s after-school enrichment program was so popular that she ran it this past fall and winter and plans to run it this spring. There is also a waiting list, she says, and she is piloting the program for the school district, where it will expand to other middle schools this spring.

The game appeals particularly to some of the school’s special-education students, including one student who is selectively mute. “You would never know it when he is playing Minecraft during the club,” she says. “He is talking with the players around him and strategizing just like all the other middle school students. But in a classroom setting, he will not speak with anyone.”

Minecraft isn’t used in the classroom at South Orange Middle School, Malespina says, but she has heard of colleagues using the game to teach physics, math and architecture. And by observing her son and her students as they navigate the game, Malespina sees its promise for teaching students about building and creating virtual worlds, playing with other people, team building, communication and problem-solving.

A game with particular appeal to girls

Paul Jones, a clinical professor of journalism, mass communication and information and library science at UNC, has seen that many of the undergraduate women he teaches cut their technological teeth on Minecraft. The game is “the real virtual playground that (educators) seek,” he says.

The game enjoys more of “a gender balance” than some of its competitors, and it might help interest more young girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers down the road, an expert recently told NPR.

Morgan Grobin, a junior at McGill University studying electrical engineering, started playing Minecraft in summer 2011 and estimates she’s played the game for about 400 hours to date.

“I started playing because it seemed like a game that didn’t really have an end goal, and there were limitless possibilities with what you could do,” she says. “I don’t really like games with guns, so it was cool to see a game with some element of conflict but that didn’t take up the whole game mechanic.”

Like Jones, she’s noticed that many women play Minecraft. “Society teaches young men to enjoy destroying things while it teaches young women to enjoy building things, and Minecraft really is a building game,” she says.

Grobin has seen Minecraft users use inappropriate language on in-game chats, but she thinks the game is well-suited for kids of any age. “I would recommend not letting kids have access to Minecraft servers,” she says. “Other than that, Minecraft is definitely not a video game that parents should be worried about.”

Potential educational benefits aside, some parents aren't sure what to think.

Elaine Catloth, a producer at KDFW FOX 4 in Dallas, said it’s “maddening” how much time kids, including her 12-year-old daughter, spend playing Minecraft.

“It robs me of mommy-daughter time,” she said. “Both her father and I have said ‘enough’ — sometimes on Saturdays (and) Sundays, it’s six hours per day.” Catloth added that it makes her nervous that she doesn’t know the people that her daughter is playing with.

Even Owre at the University of North Carolina, who is a fan of the game, has his concerns that his daughter spends time on Minecraft at the expense of reading and exercise. “Besides that, we don’t think it’s equivalent to passive TV-watching, which is more concerning,” he says.

And, as NPR reported earlier this year, clocking in many hours gawking at a screen is associated with increased junk food consumption for children.

Back in Edmonton, Rob Patrick, the radio morning show host, says that managing his son Riley's “Minecraft time” became a nearly epic weekly struggle. “In almost no time, we were using a ‘Minecraft ban’ as punishment for almost anything, and then he started sneaking it at night,” says Patrick, who calls the control that games such as Minecraft have on kids “astounding.”

Now 9, Riley has matured and become more responsible in his playing, but he still plays a lot at friends’ houses. “His grade three teacher told us how tired he is of every boy in class doing their presentations or projects on Minecraft,” Patrick says.

Email: mwecker@gmail.com