Researchers at Concordia’s Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture, and Technology want to help teachers and students have a better, more productive experience with remote learning. Their solution? Minecraft.
The highest-selling video game of all time could, unexpectedly, point the way towards more engaging remote learning. Despite its massive popularity, Minecraft is, in the gaming world, regarded more of a “kids'” game; it has blocky graphics, it lacks epic, tense moments, and there’s no competitive scene for it.
But, according to Darren Wershler, professor of English, and Bart Simon, associate professor of sociology and director of Concordia’s Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture, and Technology, the game’s simple nature together with its malleability is exactly what made it ideal for the research.
“One historically prevalent problem that game-based learning researchers have highlighted is the risk of students simply learning to play the game itself rather than learning the subject matter that the instructor is pairing with the game,” the study explains, “[or that] a game might over-emphasize the subject matter and impose stricter rules, which in turn makes self-actualizing student-driven learning impossible.”
“In this article we present a game-based teaching method where educators can address these issues by collapsing the real and the virtual into one another: the allegorical build. The allegorical build occurs when students use the relationships they have developed to in-game procedures in order to think about a range of other topics outside the game, as defined by the instructor.”
“The course is not a video game studies course, and it is not a gamified version of a course on modernity,” explains Wershler, a Tier 2 Concordia University Research Chair in Media and Contemporary Literature. “It’s this other thing that sits in an uncomfortable middle and brushes up against both. The learning comes out of trying to think about those two things simultaneously.”
Minecraft is readily modable, the duo explains — modifiable through 3rd party and user-generated add-ons — so it can be adapted to accommodate a wide range of scenarios, including teaching. The authors of the study hope that educators can draw on the massive sandbox that this game represents to play, experiment with, and teach their pupils and students.
The study itself describes how the authors used Minecraft to teach a class on the history and culture of modernity. This course was carried out entirely in the game. Instructions, communications, and course work was handled through the voice messaging app Discord (which we also recommend as excellent for remote work). The two researchers used this course to observe if and how students used the game to achieve their academic goals, and see if there’s any merit to the idea.
They report that the students were quick to adapt to this unusual classroom, and didn’t need much time to get grips with the game. Some students took on a mentoring role among their peers, instructing their colleagues who were unfamiliar with Minecraft on how to find and mine resources, build structures, and survive the game’s main bad guys — skeletons, zombies, and exploding monsters that come out at night. Such a situation allowed students, even those who would not consider themselves to be natural-born leaders, to guide their peers using their knowledge of the game, the researchers report. This is a valuable skill to learn, one which traditional classrooms and courses do not tend to cultivate.
Eventually, the students decided on group projects which would be created in the game. Each project was related to an issue of modernity that was previously addressed in Wershler’s half-hour podcast lectures and readings. One group recreated Moshe Safdie’s futuristic Habitat 67, while another built an entire working city populated by Minecraft villagers modeled after the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building in Tokyo.
The whole course was set in the (more difficult) Survival mode rather than the Creative mode that most educators favor. This meant that the students had to contend with and were often killed by the game’s antagonists. The server used several fan-made mods to enhance the game in various ways, which came at the cost of increased instability in the servers.
“It was important that the game remained a game and that while the students were working on their projects, there were all these horrible things coming out of the wilderness to kill them,” Wershler says. “This makes them think about the fact that what they are doing requires effort and that the possibility of failure is very real.”
All in all, the authors say they were surprised at how well the students adapted to the game-based environment and the course, which was co-designed along with a dozen other interdisciplinary researchers at Concordia. Wershler has been using Minecraft in his course since 2014, and believes the game — or a similar one — can serve as a bedrock for a new style of teaching.
“Educators at the high school, college and university levels can use these principles and tools to teach a whole variety of subjects within the game,” he says. “There is no reason why we could not do this with architecture, design, engineering, computer science as well as history, cultural studies or sociology. There are countless ways to structure this to make it work.”
With so many areas of our lives transitioning to the digital sphere, we’re bound to see changes in the way we merge our activities with the digital sphere. Some of them might sound quite dubious at first, and holding courses inside a video game definitely fits that bill. But this research shows that we should not dismiss ideas out of hand and that even the most improbable sounding approaches can bring value to our lives. We just have to be willing to give them a go.
The paper “The Allegorical Build. Minecraft and Allegorical Play in Undergraduate Teaching” has been published in the journal Gamevironments.