Gaming and School – A Clash of Cultures

This will be a very meta post.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, my wife is a high school teacher and I have a rather large set of opinions around our education system from front to end.  That we’re still using the same system from WW2 is a problem, though many school boards are trying to implement changes.  The problem with change is people and teachers are notoriously against change.  That’s sad really because the kids are simply not paying attention anymore.  There’s just too much competition for places of edu-tainment and the real world does not relate to school structure in any way.

So the meta part is that my wife goes to seminars and that my eldest daughter started school this year in a new program that focuses on critical thinking rather than memorization (one of my 4 key tenets of growth).  I write a lot about how game design intersects with the social structures we see day to day and my wife recently texted me about Minecraft as a teaching prediction tool.

KTR had a recent post that went into this topic, Progress vs Progression and I think it relates to the discussion a fair amount as school systems are often focused on progression rather than progress.  Do the same thing over and over again and expect different results (Einstein anyone?)  But more specifically, I want to focus on Minecraft’s design.

Minecraft is like virtual Legos.  I have a rather large collection of large Legos.  My kids are 2 and 4, so the regular pieces aren’t yet an option but I do plan on just ordering a few hundred pieces online in the future.  What I do have now though is enough to keep both kids occupied for some time and lets their imagination grow.  Once second it’s a plane, the other it’s a snake, and always with some story attached to it.  I’d hazard to guess that more people have played with Lego than have watched Star Wars, or Harry Potter or whatever other social phenomenon we hear tell.  Legos are a simple tool (~7000 unique pieces) with an infinite amount of possibilities.  (Apparently, four 2×4 Lego pieces have over 3 billion possible combinations.)    AFOL is a massive subculture.

Minecraft takes that little tool we all know and then turns it around a bit.  Different blocks have different properties (harder, liquid, precious, etc…) and combining them in particular formations creates specific tools (picks, shovels, doors, etc…).  I can build a house with multiple stories and windows, or I can build a rudimentary calculator, or I can build a life-size replica of the Starship Enterprise.

Sure, in between all that I can hunt skeletons, clearcut a forest, build a moat and die multiple times but that’s flavor.  The meat of the game is building and building without goals.  The lack of goals spawned many imitators, most notably Terraria.  This lack of an imposed progression tracking system, and in it’s place a self-imposed list of victory conditions is one of the largest departures in gaming in a very long time, at least in terms of popularity.  I mean, sandboxes have always been popular but not 56 million+ popular.  Minecraft is worse than Chrono Trigger, you can find the application on any system, iOS, Android, Console, PC, Raspberry Pi…People know it, people have played it, people dress us as Creep for Halloween.

So how does this affect education you ask?  Well it’s a system of personal goals and limitations that can be shared between other players.  Westeros was rebuilt!  Social constructs are built, with long terms goals based on small components.  Remember, each massive item is built from the same small bricks. The only difference between your outhouse and a sprawling city is time and vision.  School does not focus on this, instead if focuses on memorization by rote.  You need to know every component of the outhouse and every component from the city as 2 different entities with little in common.  Minecraft is all about building big dreams with only a small amount of tools and one that rewards tinkering rather than perfection.  Oh, that door really doesn’t work?  Tear it down and start again but you don’t have to tear down the entire building.  Success is iterative and one that requires some critical thinking to see how all the pieces fit together.  I could write entire articles and feats of reverse engineering in Minecraft.

All this to say is that Minecraft forces people to ask solid questions about final design and not blindly accept something as fact.  It allows experimentation and groupthink, encourages creativity.  These skills are essential for the real world (and the basis of critical thinking), that is if you’re not aiming to be a sheep of some sort packing shelves for a living.  (Mind you, there is potential for nobility in that career).  Think big, think different, using the same tools as everyone else.  Minecraft celebrates and expands on this.  School focuses on memorization and conformity.  Some schools are changing but the old guard certainly needs to see the light of day.


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