Gaming the system

BGSU instructor Mark Stevens toying with ‘Minecraft’ as an aid in teaching

By Bob Cunningham

Remember reading “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll when you were a child? It’s one of those children’s tales that can be challenging even to adults. 

What if you had a learning tool that virtually dropped you into Alice’s world? And what if that teaching tool was one of the most popular video games on the planet?

“Minecraft” has that kind of capability, according to Bowling Green State University’s Mark Stevens, an instructor in the  School of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education and Human Development

“It’s the best way to learn, honestly, just ask your niece and nephew,” Stevens said. “I can guarantee one thing is true, everything they had to do to learn how to play ‘Minecraft,’ not once did they ever complain. That’s the kind of learning I am looking to achieve.”

“Minecraft” is a virtual 3D environment that allows players to use textured cubes — think Legos — to build just about anything he or she can imagine, such as the Red Queen’s Castle from Lewis’ book. It’s a well-suited mechanism to allow students to explore and get lost in learning.

“’Minecraft’ is a big sandbox that you can play in,” Stevens said. “People like playing it because you can jump right in and make anything you want. After its release in 2011, educators started to ask what content can we put into this and how can we teach the content?” 

Using a game as a teaching tool is called game-base learning. That way, children don’t realize they’re learning, so they’re more relaxed and more open to new concepts. Stevens, who has played video games all of his life, said digital game-based learning goes back to the 1970s with “Oregon Trail.” The idea behind it, however, is older than that.

“There always have been board games and dice games and flashcards, etc.,” he said. “Teaching with ‘Minecraft’ is just a different avenue to connect with children and make learning easier and fun.” 

Whether you want your students to learn about mathematical equations or geography, “Minecraft” can help. 

“They’re not at all worried about the Pythagorean theorem,” Stevens said. “They’re actually using it in the game, or exploring Greece, etc.”

Stevens is doing a project with 45 students in two classes in the fall semester in which they use “Minecraft” as a way to deliver curriculum to students in the K-12 setting. Each student in the class uses the game as a method of delivering content and teaching a subject. Eventually, Stevens would like to use the project in northwest Ohio schools. 

“The students in the classes basically have been charged with taking ‘Minecraft’ and then taking educational content in whatever curricular area they want to focus on and try to come up with a way to teach it using ‘Minecraft,’” he said. “So, rather than giving Jimmy a 20-problem math worksheet to practice the math that we learned today, you can put Jimmy in ‘Minecraft’ and basically let him practice there. 

“That’s what we’re exploring. Hopefully, we’ll be testing this and seeing if we get any data back that says this is a better way to do it. Until then, we just don’t know.” 

Stevens said a group he taught over the summer built a world for “Alice in Wonderland.” To design the Red Queen’s Castle and the Mad Hatter’s tea party, it took the students several hours outside of the classroom.

“There is a significant amount of time put into this, but part of the process here is immersion, and the narrative is the driving force,” he said. “We are trying to pull the student into the game. So what you see here is a lot of background details that are there to kind of dress the set. All the Card Men, all the paintings and bookshelves inside the castle — there are a lot of details that go into these builds to help immerse the student into what’s going on. Through that immersion we are trying to achieve what’s called a flow state.”

A flow state is a psychological state that people can achieve when engaged in an activity that is challenging over an extended period of time and results in immersion and concentrated focus on the task at hand.

“If you’re working at something and then you look up and three hours have passed and you don’t realize it, that’s the flow state,” Stevens said. “If we can put a student into the flow state with ‘Minecraft,’ then we can see if they are learning better, deeper, longer, etc. Are they? We just don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to look at.”

Stevens said the students in the ‘Minecraft’ project are learning multiple skills. 

“They are, through this assignment, learning to be instructional designers and game designers, but they’re also practicing how to deliver their education content back to the students and learning different ways to teach,” he said. “Our goal here is to get to a point where we can walk into a classroom somewhere and do some testing to see if there is a method to this madness.”