Minecraft is still a very successful game after almost 10 years, and this alone is already enough to consider it worthy to be used as a tool for engaging kids in many possible activities. Moreover, Minecraft is so relevant as an education tool, that that was precisely the reason why Microsoft acquired it in 2016, together with Mojang, the Swedish studio who created it, for a big bag of money.
Before giving you some examples and practical hints on how you could still use Minecraft as a tool for a lot of interesting and educational purposes, here’s a little of history.
Minecraft is so big (also? mainly?) because Mojang always had a benevolent approach towards the community of users and fans, letting them put their hands quite deeply in the game itself, allowing or at least tolerating the creation of thousands of modifications (mods) and even alternate game servers and worlds (maps), enabling any possible not-planned use of the game, including being a platform for teaching Java, exploring ancient Greece, and so on. Online you will still find plenty of websites, forums, youtube and twitch channels totally devoted to Minecraft: reviewers of old and new mods, collection of maps, community-created contents, etc. sometimes based on other famous or less famous content (from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, to any possible obscure reference to cartoons, games etc) and so on. That would be another great case study for convergence culture researchers, by the way, so we could keep it for a next post.
In 2013 TeacherGaming, a company devoted to videogames in education, created MinecraftEdu, a complex Minecraft mod adding a set of very useful features to assure better control while using the game in a classroom or educational environment: you could freeze players, disable exploding materials (no TNT blocks in the worlds I spent so many nights to create for you, thank you), assign certain objects or blocks to some (or all) players, teleport your character close to someone or teleport some (or all) players close to you, and so on.
It was the perfect set of new features to support the use of Minecraft in an educational environment, and it also included some other very popular mods, as ComputerCraft, which would add Seymour Papert – like turtle robots to the game, obviously letting you code them, and thus learning how to code inside the game, and CustomNPCs, to allow you to create non playing characters inside Minecraft, which would then give the players either some explanation, or some object, or some task to fulfill etc.
Someone actually created a Lord of the Ring game inside Minecraft, just using this mod.
MinecraftEdu was a huge boost for the educational use of Minecraft itself, and the community of teachers and educators using it grew very fast, together with the number of new worlds, or maps, offering students the possibility to play in ancient Rome, or Greece, or in some mediaeval town, or in Florence during Renaissance, etc etc. and getting to learn history, geography, art, science, etc. while doing it.
That was really great, it was a kind of second life for Minecraft and attracted (even more) new attention on the game. Among the many who were interested in MinecraftEdu and educational uses of the game, there were some people from the US willing to renovate their company and to show a deeper involvement with innovation and education. They came all the way from Redmond, Virginia to Sweden, and acquired MinecraftEdu, Minecraft itself and the whole Mojang studio for the aforementioned bag of money: 2.5 billions dollars, precisely. That’s how Microsoft bought itself Minecraft.
First thing they did after buying the whole stack, in 2016 they closed up MinecraftEdu (and almost erased all of its online presence) and announced Minecraft: Education Edition : a new version of the game, officially including (some of) the educational features to control the students’ characters, and being totally rewritten in C# language (property of Microsoft itself…) to make it faster and more efficient.
And to cut any possible compatibility with the enormous offer of mods and maps previously made available for free by the community.
Minecraft Education Edition is now intended for educational institutions, bonded to Microsoft having a recorded educational account either on Microsoft or Office365 websites, as far as I could see. New, proprietary maps and extensions are sold in an in-game shop, this being the way Microsoft chose to monetize the game. I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with this attitude, but maybe it’s just me and my ongoing beef with Bill Gates brand since last century. Or maybe, it’s just capitalism, baby.
Anyway, as long as the original Java Edition of Minecraft, running on Macs and Pcs (and also Linux machines if you know what you are doing – and if you are a Linux user, you do know it) will still stand, there will still be a lot of possible uses for a wide (and free) use of Minecraft in the classroom. Or you can always consider Minecraft for Education, and have a look at the official website to learn about the features and specs: if you are eligible, it will cost you 5€ a year per each involved player / learner, and you will find an interesting internal support system with a lot of online training courses awarding you open badges.
Notice that the examples I am going to give here are thus referred only to the Java Edition: no other versions of Minecraft would support mods in the same, easy way; so if you have Windows 10 edition, Portable Edition, or a console edition… go get yourself a computer, learn why it is still better to have at least a little control on the hardware running your stuff, and buy yourself Minecraft Java Edition for 23€ and something.
Let me also be very clear on something else, as it is always done on blogs and forums talking about modifications and hacks to hardware or software: any possible effect deriving from what you are reading here, and especially any kind of possible damage to you, others, yours or other people’s computers, data, equipment, systems, devices etc., ranging from whatever malfunctioning to turning your cat into a Gremlin to starting World War III, is totally and completely under your responsibility.
I tell you, I have never seen or witnessed any problem in using mods and extensions listed here while following their instructions, but since they write it every time, I am repeating the same disclaimer just in case. So now we are clear 😀
First step: in many cases, you will read about mods to install. In order to have them working, you should first install a mod loader. The most famous, most effective and compatible is Forge, to be downloaded for free from here. Be sure to install either server and client, matching Minecraft version you plan to run. Notice that some mods will only run on some (previous) version of the game, so you may want to have multiple versions of game AND Forge installed, and choose which one to run in the launcher menu appearing when you start the game.
Once you have Forge installed, just download and then manually move the mods you want to run in the Mods folder inside your Minecraft folder. How to find it? Read these instructions.
Beware: every time, before you run the game, mods from different game versions should be removed from the Mods folder, so it may be useful to have another folder in your Minecraft one, to park them there. I called my parking folder exactly like that: Mods Parking, and you might want to do the same, in order to retrieve them more easily.
If for some reason, after putting some mods in the folder, the game will get unstable or crash, just remove them all and try putting them there one by one, starting the game every time, until you identify which one mod is creating the problem. Then you may want to delete it, or look for a newer, updated version which may have been fixed. Sometimes, in mods sites or forums you will also find information about how to fix this kind of problems tweaking some Minecraft setting, typically the maximum amount of memory to be used by Java.
The list: 10 interesting things that you can still do with Minecraft in educational settings
Now that you know everything about mods installing and managing, let’s get the party started; here’s the list of 10 possible uses of Minecraft Java Edition in an educational setting.
1- 3D modelling
Inside a blocky world, design and build 3d objects is easier, and it could be even more interesting if you do it with a CAD software – thus also addressing solid geometry etc. We recommend a free online resource like TinkerCAD, backed by one of the major players in the business, AutoDesk (authors of AutoCAD).
TinkerCAD has proven to be very useful for 3d printing modeling but it is also able to export your designs in Minecraft schematics format. Then, using a community created software like MC Edit you could import your objects in your Minecraft worlds.
Beware: being a free, opensource product created by the community for the community, you should not expect a professional software, and the interface is indeed a bit clunky – but you could always help or support the developers in making it better!
2- Environments creation
Using MC Edit, your own-designed 3d objects and the many others made available online by the community, on websites like Minecraft Schematics, you can create your own thematic playgrounds, to be used for history, geography and many more possible uses. The first and most famous of Italian Minecraft Certified Mentors, Marco Vigelini, created a Minecraft map of Florence for the city’s Museum of 900. If you are interested in my country’s landscape and heritage, here is a full list of Minecraft objects and maps to check.
Whole websites are devoted to Minecraft maps and worlds: for instance you can check the Google Maps clone Minecraftworldmap.com, where you can find this amazing map of ancient Rome city, extending up to Tivoli gardens (yup, the real, original ones, created by Romans in the city of Tivoli, a few km away from the Eternal City).
3- creating your own custom NPCs in the game
Non Playing Characters (NPCs) are crucial in every good role playing game, from Dungeons and Dragons to any modern videogame. So imagine how much more you could achieve inside Minecraft, if you could add your own NPCs, telling stories and information to your players, giving them quests and rewards, etc.
CustomNPCs mod, to be installed trough Forge as explained above, allow you to add NPCs to a world and shape and control them in a very accurate way. Here is a long list of maps enriched with custom NPCs that could show you the versatility of the tool!
4- Thematic worlds
Whole worlds devoted to some school subjects or topic were a standard in the glory days of MinecraftEdu, and they still are nowadays in Minecraft Education Edition, if you have access to the game.
You could anyway use other resources with the Java Edition, as websites like MinecraftMaps to access a large archive of pre-designed thematic worlds, or again as mods. The one featured in the above pic is JurassiCraft, adding real dinosaurs and prehistoric plants to your map – and also DNA manipulation, but this is another story… 😀
5- in-game coding
The amazing mod ComputerCraft / ComputerCraftEdu adds to your inventory a set of working computers and devices, including turtle robots, which resemble Seymour Papert turtles and which can receive instruction trough code in LUA programming language or trough visual coding with blocks and tiles.
In this way you can code your turtles to have them dig, or build, or analyze the terrain, or even fight instead of you. You can also add terminals, printers, network devices allowing the player to start understanding how networks work and how to build them.
6- coding outside the game
As we said already, Minecraft Java Edition is coded in… java language. So it is possible to work on the code from outside, and change the game even in a deeper way adding new, crazy plugins.
Java is powerful but it is a bit difficult to handle, so you may want to have a group of older kids to do this. I did a few workshops of Java coding trough Minecraft, using a very good manual as inspiration. I have also been interviewed about it by the Italian publisher 😉
If you love manual activities, and think with Maria Montessori that hands are the tools of intelligence, then you can arrange some activity involving creativity, using hands and… Minecraft 🙂
You just need to print the models for objects, furnitures etc, mount them up using scissors, glue and maybe some toothpicks to make them more stable. That could be nice to do even at home, involving the whole family, or it could be used to again talk about solid shapes and 3d objects.
There is a lot of websites with papercraft models: you can start with this or this one.
8- circuits and automation with redstone blocks
As every hardcore fan of Minecraft would tell you, one of the most interesting features of the games is redstone, one of the game materials which has the feature of being an energy conductor, so it could be used to create circuits and build automated machines, doors, traps etc.
The energy carried on by redstone circuits can for instance lit lamps, but… beware of impedance: after a few block of distance, you will need to implant a repeater to boost the signal!
Redstone is indeed a super interesting feature of Minecraft, there are a lot of books and manuals about it and online there is plenty of articles, websites, videotutorials etc that show so many possible engaging uses of this materials in your activities.
9- IoT : Arduino or Raspberry
This is where I start telling that I am still practicing with the topic. Internet Of Things, meaning internet-connected objects that can help you controlling other technology, for instance in your home (or in your Minecraft game!) is a fast growing trend, and the community is trying to keep up.
The MCreator toolkit for Arduino has been out there since quite a while, but the MCreator framework itself proved to be a bit clunky an buggy, at least in my personal experience, so we may want to wait for the long-awaited version 2.0 to finally come and fix things…. that’s how it works with community – built software!
10- digital storytelling (even better: machinima)
Telling stories is probably the longest- running educational game in humankind history, so it couldn’t have missed an appearance in the world of digital games: Machinima is the name that fans gave to videos and movies created inside videogames and digital environments, using characters (and thus, players) as actors.
In a Minecraft machinima, you can take advantage of all the tricks and mods we presented so far: you can set up your world as you please, and have different players impersonate different characters. You can also customize appearances (or: skins) with many online tools, and even import new objects and clothes with different mods: from Star Wars to Marvel heroes… the limit is really your fantasy!
Specific mods like Blockbuster will then give you all the in-game tools to shoot your movie, edit and cut it, even do some post-production. Ready? Action!
And now: the question with the s-word…
What about schools, in all this?
Despite the effort put by Microsoft in establishing an official community of teachers using Minecraft Education Edition at school, there is a lot more that could be done – and we should not forget about the non formal context, where the game could hardly be used and so even more work would be needed. Do you know about any success stories of using Minecraft in educational contexts? Write them (and put links!) in the comments!