March 2012 – Volume 15, Number 4
|Contact Information||http://help.mojang.com/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Type of product||Sandbox/construction 3-D virtual world|
|Platform||Windows XP/Vista/7; Linux; Mac OS|
| CPU: Intel P6/NetBurst Architecture or AMD K6RAM: 256MB
GPU: ATI Rage or GeForce 256 with OpenGL 1.2 Support
HDD: 90 MB
Java Runtime Environment (JRE) 6 or higher
|Supplemental software||Custom NPCs Mod (optional, free). Minecraft Edu Mod (optional, cost varies)|
|Price||$26.95 (Also available at 50% discount for educational institutions/individuals)|
Minecraft is a “sandbox” construction game that was created by Markus Persson and developed by indie game developer studio, Mojang. It was officially released in November of 2011. Since its inception in 2009, it has sold over 4.5 million copies and registered over 20 million users. While not explicitly designed to teach language, the game inherently fosters collaboration and creativity among players and, for this reason, has begun to see press in educational settings. In this review I will describe the purpose of the game, its design, and processes of installation and operation. I will then demonstrate how it can be adapted for use in English as a Second/Foreign Language (ES/FL) contexts.
Figure 1. Minecraft title screen
Minecraft is a three-dimensional virtual world in which player-controlled avatars create and destroy a variety of blocks. The world is made up of these blocks, and each one destroyed yields an item characteristic of that block type, which can then be used in combination with other items to create increasingly complex tools, materials, structures, and works of art. Destroying part of a tree yields one block of wood. That block of wood can then be crafted into sticks and used in combination with coal to produce torches, which can then placed on walls or the ground, providing light and preventing hostile units from spawning. There are nearly 250 available blocks and items that players may obtain and use to manipulate their environment. Almost all of them can be obtained through exploration and interaction with the in-game world.
There is no storyline and no set objective that the player must complete to “win” the game. There are, however, two game modes which determine to some extent the action that the player takes: Survival and Creative. In Survival mode, the player enters into a world at sunrise and, starting with nothing, must gather enough resources to build a modest shelter before nightfall. At night the world is populated by various hostile units called “mobs.” (Players/instructors can disable mobs by switching to the “peaceful” game mode). The initial idea is that the players must protect themselves from enemies. After the first shelter is created the player can mine for additional resources and the craft additional structures and mechanisms (Figure 2, Figure 5). Usually the player will add on to their original shelter, create irrigated farms for food supply, build a network of underground tunnels, and generally expand and alter the “home base” they have established. Players can traverse across ten different biomes ranging from snowy landscape to forest to desert (Figure 3). There is even a way for them to enter into a hellish environment referred to as “the nether.”
Figure 2. Mining for coal underground by torchlight
Figure 3. Randomly generated Forest and Mountain biomes
In Creative mode players begin the game with an infinite number of every available item in their inventory. Unlike Survival mode, players are given special tools to support production of content within the game. With the creative tools the player can begin adding to an existing world or envisioning a new one entirely. Construction of the world and items in it takes place much more quickly in Creative mode.
In addition to being a creative outlet, Minecraft is also highly interactive. Text-based chat functions are built into the multiplayer mode, enabling players to communicate over long distances, and to collaboratively build worlds simultaneously. There are also a number of items that a player can use to stimulate interaction with the environment itself. Switches, buttons, and floor panels can be placed in front of doors to open them when pushed. Using plugins, or small additions to the original game created by players, these objects can be linked with text prompts and economic features, enabling players to buy and sell resources. When combined with the redstone, an element native to the world of Minecraft, these components can become the means for increasingly sophisticated mechanisms, such as locked doors, powered rails, and complex circuitry (Figure 4). Using a combination of redstone and switches, one player was able to build a fully functional 16-bit computer in-game. A video can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGkkyKZVzug.
Figure 4. Redstone repeater and lever used to power a mine cart
Once a license is purchased, all the user needs is to download the client and run the game. Game data is saved to a pre-designated folder on the user’s computer, so progress remains once the game is turned off. Multiplayer servers work differently, as the game data is saved to a remote location. This allows the administrator(s) access to all game data. For an instructor, this level of control works as an advantage, because the instructor has access to all students’ progress and game data. The user interface is simple, consisting of only a few menus, as are the controls for performing various in-game functions.
The population of learners that can be targeted using Minecraft can vary from context to context. Since no work has yet been published on the success or failure of its use in language learning situations, information must be drawn from the game’s design and its use in other contexts to determine its appropriateness for second language classrooms.
Minecraft is just now beginning to be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness in educational settings; however, much more research is required to determine the effectiveness of the affordances it offers. In time, it may prove to be an excellent aid in the creation of an “optimal technology context”, or “one in which the use of any digital technology makes language learning more effective… and/or more efficient… in pursuit of whatever language and content goals, objectives, and standards are to be achieved” (Egbert, 2010, p. 2). This is especially true in terms of project and content-based language learning, and the development of oral communication (or “oral-like”) skills. According to Skehan (2007) and Folse (2009), an effective language learning task is contextualized in acts of communication. Consider a classroom situation in which students are given the task of constructing a simple structure. It must have four main components: a wall surrounding it, a main room, a storage room, and quarters for each of the students involved. Students would need to begin such a project by first conversing together about what they wanted to build the structure out of – wood, stone, etc. Then they would need to decide who would take what role. Who is going to gather the resources? Who is going to be the lead designer? Who will be the lead builder? Will all these responsibilities be shared? Answering these questions requires collaboration and extensive verbal planning. Completing the task requires that students use authentic language in real situations.
Figure 5. Crafting a pickaxe out of sticks and iron ingots
Consider a second scenario in which students are studying Native American dwelling types. Students would work in groups to construct settlements based on historic features of various Native American tribes. Three groups of students may be assigned to research and replicate an Iroquois longhouse, a Pueblo cliff dwelling, and a Pawnee earth shelter, respectively. These dwellings represent different cultural characteristics, and by design, contain many advantages and disadvantages for those who inhabit them. Using the buttons, levers, and switches mentioned in the first section of this review, students could infuse their structures with interactive textual information. Content would be researched and written by students, and would be made available to other students through interactive text prompts as they explore their co-created world. Working together, managing resources, making decisions on aesthetics, project design, and practicality, are all features inherent in Minecraft that afford students many opportunities to use authentic vocabulary in the context of real, problem-solving scenarios. Such an assignment fits with the model of project-based learning espoused by Beckett and Slater (2005), in that it involves planning and research, the analysis and synthesis of data (building characteristics), the language of comparison and contrast, oral reflection, and academic literacy skills (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Building a structure of such proportions would require extensive planning and research (built by Domox)
Translating concepts, rather than concrete structures into educational tasks can require the instructor to be familiar with more than some of the basic computer operations, but putting in the effort required to do so can generate extensive benefits when applied to the objectives of an academic writing class. For instance, an instructor may wish to define and discuss issues of human rights or water quality. In these cases the instructor may wish to build a world and inhabit it with non-player characters (NPCs) in order to show the causes and effects of human rights violations. The students would spend class time exploring the world and interacting with various NPCs. These NPCs would share their viewpoints with the students through text (Figure 7). Once the students read a few character stories, they may be assigned the task of writing an opinion essay on what they learned during their conversations. Or perhaps they will write a letter to the mayor of the city urging him to close down the mine at the edge of town, because it is polluting the local stream. Support could be lent to his argument by characters playing water quality scientists, miners, families, etc. Narrative character journals could be kept. A persuasive essay could be structured around the need for community engagement in-game. NPC interactions could also, in part, be based on information from primary and secondary sources, complete with in-game citations and references. Converting course texts to in-game experiences may only be a matter of transferring material from one medium to another.
Figure 7. NPC providing information about an irrigated farm
Minecraft utilizes a set of graphical textures that are limited enough in scope to be considered aesthetically pleasing, yet largely unassociated with presupposed game genres. The beauty is in its simplicity, and that it doesn’t come loaded with large numbers of differences and inequalities of player skill level, class, ethical background, or even gender. These features are all central to Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs ) like World of Warcraft, Eve Online, and Second Life. With special tools like Minecraft EDU, instructors can add variety to student choices of gender and ethnicity in the form of player “skins,” or how their avatar appears, but it is not necessary. In its unaltered form, Minecraft presents an experience where gender and ethical orientation are downplayed by a lack of detailed graphical textures, and where player skill amounts to what they set out to achieve, be it exploration of the world or construction of the most impressive monument. The process students go through to design, build, and interact in the game world is essentially the same.
Figure 8. A group of avatars
One of the challenges for instructors in implementing a game such as this will be finding the time and developing the skills necessary to bring a world to life. Fortunately, a teacher does not need to be an expert in the Java programming language to be able to construct content-rich environments. They will simply need to be able to navigate some programming-centric language to search for, download, install, and operate helpful “mods” and plugins, such as Minecraft Edu in development by Teacher Gaming LLC (http://minecraftedu.com). I have provided several links to educational efforts using Minecraft below. Many of these offer support, tutorials, and other ways of finding help for technical concerns involving installation and operation.
Another disadvantage to the current version of the game is that there is no built-in language feedback system. Since Minecraft is not explicitly developed for use as a language learning tool, it does lack some of these features that other software includes. These are issues that educators currently using the game are aware of, and that may see resolution in the future through the creation of additional plugins and mods (modified versions of the game). In many cases, where writing processes and development of fluency in oral skills are priorities, built-in feedback mechanisms may be unnecessary.
Interaction is a key feature of quality Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) applications (Chappelle, 2008; Chapelle & Jamieson, 2008; Gee, 2004; Schuurink & Vries, 2009; Warschauer, 1997) and Minecraft offers an environment rich in interactive opportunity. In addition, if developed with the right principles in mind, the game can be used in a way that fosters creative, authentic use of language in a myriad of academic and non-academic contexts. Empirical research needs to be conducted to determine its appropriateness for use in second language classrooms, and work needs to be done to standardize the instructional content of the game; however, I fully expect to see it employed in a wide variety of ES/FL contexts in the coming years.
Adrian Hodge, Changchun American International School – http://edutech.digiliterate.com/?p=10, is teaching Computer Technology IB classes using Minecraft in combination with Google SketchUp and Moodle.
André Chercka, Special Education teacher – http://gamebased.tumblr.com/, has begun documenting his use of Minecraft to teach English and math to students with learning disabilities.
Dean Groom, Bron Stuckey, Jo Kay Wollongong, Massively Minecraft –http://massivelyminecraft.org/, invites kids ages 4 – 16 to join their online guild, with the support of their parents, and to contribute to the community world.
Joel Levin, The Minecraft Teacher – http://minecraftteacher.net/, Owner, Educational Director, Teacher Gaming LLC.
Lucas Gillespie, Minecraft in School – minecraftinschool.pbworks.com/, a forum for the creation and sharing of lesson plans, curricula, and educational activities using Minecraft.
Mojang – http://www.minecraft.net/, Minecraft Official Website
Noppes, Author of the Custom NPCs software – http://www.minecraftforum.net/topic/833003-11-custom-npcs-096-wip/, free, required for use of Non-Player Characters and text prompts.
Stephen Elford, secondary school teacher, Australia – http://minecrafteduelfie.blogspot.com/, has been using it to teach cell biology, de Bono’s Thinking Hats, and some basic neurology.
Teacher Gaming LLC and Minecraft EDU software – http://minecraftedu.com, the toolset for educators wanting to use Minecraft in their classrooms.
Beckett, G. H., & Slater, T. (2005). The Project Framework: A tool for language, content, and skills integration. ELT Journal, 59(2), 108-116.
Chapelle, C. & Jamieson, J. (2008). Tips for teaching with CALL: Practical approaches to computer-assisted language learning. White Plains, NY: Pearson.
Egbert, J. (2010). Introduction. In Egbert, J. (Ed.), CALL in limited technology contexts: Vol. 9. CALICO monograph series (pp. 1-6). San Marcos, TX: Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO).
Folse, K.S. (2006). The art of teaching speaking: Research and pedagogy for the ESL/EFL Classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Gee, J.P. (2004). Learning by design: Games as learning machines. Interactive Educational Media, 8 (April 2004), 15-23.
Koivisto, S., Levin, J., & Postari, A. (2011). Minecraft Edu (Version 0.975) [software]. Teacher Gaming LLC.
Noppes. (2011). Custom NPCs (Version 0.9.6) [software].
Persson, M., Bergensten, J., Kaplan, D., Toivonen, M., Porser, J., Manneh, C., Mollstam, T., & Frisk, D. (2011). Minecraft (Version 1.1) [software]. Stockholm, Sweden: Mojang.
Skehan, P. (2007). Task research and language teaching: Reciprocal relationships. In S. Fotos & H. Nassaji (Eds.), Form-focused instruction and teacher education studies in honour of Rod Ellis (pp. 289-301). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schuurink, E. & Vries, M. (2009). Combining advanced learning technologies in an immigrant educational program. In A. Lugmayr, Franssila, H., Sotamaa, O., Näränen, P., & Vanhala. J. (Eds.). Proceedings from the 13th International Mindtrek Conference: Everyday Life in the Ubiquitous Era. New York, NY: AMC.
Warschauer, M. (1997). Computer-mediated collaborative learning: Theory and practice. The Modern Language Journal, 81, 470-481.
About the Reviewer
Zachary Hausrath is a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. His research interests include using the principles of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) to study the use of content, task, and project-based learning, as well as dialogic theories of interaction, in educational games. He has been playing Minecraft and studying its use in educational contexts since 2010.
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