Making Learning More Game Based with Minecraft: Education Edition
The key to Minecraft and true Game Based Learning lies in 1 key term, a term which is part of the definition of a game. “Voluntary participation”! This is the kind of participation that inspires players to participate, play and critically think without prompts and without any forced motivation of “I must do this work lest I get into trouble”. I believe that Minecraft has such a vast potential to make this happen because it is a game. I also believe that we can use Minecraft as a Game Design Engine to create true Game Based Lessons in Minecraft. Lessons that take the power of games and embed them with curriculum and serious learning.
In this post, we’re going to explore how to make that happen in any classroom, and for any lessons without diverging from the fun and inspiration that entertainment games provide to billions of kids around the world. Whether teaching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Math, Science History or Language Arts, going Game Based with our lessons has proven exceptionally successful for those educators who are doing it.
In my work with Minecraft in the classroom and my work with serious game design for learning, I’ve learned that one of the biggest missing features in Minecraft lessons is the use of it as the game. To be honest, much of what I’ve seen in Minecraft classrooms has been the use of Minecraft as a tool for creative expression, much like photoshop can be used to draw or Lego can be used to build. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Project Based Learning and creativity and believe that it’s fabulous, but I also believe that there are many tools in our toolbelt and true Game Based Learning can be a very effective one. When we can turn a lesson into a game, we see far more long-term engagement, stronger retention results come test time, and a deeper level of critical thinking and meta-cognition from students. For educators like Steven Isaacs, John Miller, Lynne Telfer, Ben Kelly, Glen Irving and myself the successful development of a real game based lesson has taken students beyond a state of “I need to learn to get the grade” to “I am having fun exploring my learning”.
So, my goal today is to cover the basics of how to make learning FUN and more game like with Minecraft while achieving deeper and more engaged learning. And the best part of Minecraft is that it’s a brilliant game design tool for creating classroom learning games without a game design background.
This of course will not be an exhaustive how to, where we cover all the nuances, best game design practices for subject matter, or deep Minecraft training (That is something you or your institution can reach out for further work on). This is the SIMPLE 6 Step - How to Make Curriculum Fun Guide, without sacrificing your content or curriculum.
I want to start with an Infographic that synthesizes the process in 6 easy mindful steps.
STEP #1 – Play the Game – Understand Games
Minecraft is a unique game filled with so many options and opportunities, but it’s fun lies in its base simplicity. It’s easy enough to get a handle on the controls, but there are also so many advanced elements to it that you will never stop learning. Code Building, Redstone, Minigame development, Command blocks and the sheer power of creative mode means a never-ending supply of versatility to the classroom.
To get the most from using Minecraft authentically we recommend you play it, test it, and tame it. Play with your children, by yourself or with your students. But actually play it. Watch some Youtube videos from builders, Redstone masters and even talented PVP’ers (player vs player – is a battle game-mode where you compete in battles with other players) to get ideas on how to use it in a way that kids are seeing it.
Remember if your goal is to design a good Game Based Lesson you need to understand how and where it is a game. The best place to start is unequivocally in the survival game. Creative Mode turns Minecraft into a tool where it is missing game elements of Risk, Reward, Rules, Formal Structure, Competition and Goals. So, start to understand the game by playing and getting into the challenge. Always question as you play through: how can I use these game elements to teach a certain lesson? As an example: “Can the game mechanics of scarce resources in survival be used to authentically teach about the sustainable development goals? Can I create a competitive story driven adventure that excites my students to learn, understand and apply data gathering and analysis by surviving a zombie apocalypse?
Don’t worry you don’t have to be an expert and play every day. But playing, watching, and understanding how most kids play it will help you shy away from using Minecraft as a piece of graph paper or virtual set of building blocks. Kids see Minecraft as so much more than that, and if we pigeon-hole it into thus use in school, then we’re never going to get close to the true potential of the tool.
STEP #2 – Who? What? Why?
Before beginning to design your curriculum around Minecraft, make sure you cover the basics of what will work for your students and think about tying it in to their way of playing the game. You need to fully understand what it is you’re trying to achieve with the game. Is it to engage and inspire? To solidify skills? To develop soft-skills? Or, to teach a specific curriculum? Start by asking these 3 Key questions of yourself and your class:
- What do I hope to achieve with my Minecraft lesson?
- Is there a dry and difficult subject that would inspire more understanding and engagement by using Minecraft? Is there a place or a person in ancient history that you feel your students should meet? Is there a concept or abstract that Minecraft can help demystify? Perhaps there is an experiment that cannot be done safely outside of a virtual environment.
- What do My Students enjoy in Minecraft? Or, what kind of gamer are they?
- Minecraft is “their” game! They know it, they love it, and they have their own preferred way of playing it (Minecraft has many different game-states and ways of playing it). If your goal, in any way shape or form, is to keep them engaged by way of Minecraft, you must ask them what they like about it, and try your best to tie education into that preference. Do they like PVP and battles? – Perhaps your history lesson centers around a great battle reenactment. Do they like Creating? – Perhaps you allow them to recreate historical Elizabethan London like we did. Do they like Survival Mode? – Perhaps the best lesson will focus around resources and ecology, or sustainable development.
- If you’re interested in understanding more about ‘Gamer Types’ I often use Bartle’s Gamer Psychology to teach an understanding of how different gamer can be in their motivations to play. At the beginning of this blog you will find a helpful graphics that describe the 4 Key Gamer Archetypes in Bartle’s model and I encourage you to explore them as a tool to engage your students at the core motivations.
- Why am I using Minecraft?
- Ask yourself: why Minecraft? What is it that Minecraft will do that nothing else can easily do? Remember on the SAMR model out goal is not to use Minecraft as a replacement for the blocks in a Kindergarten classroom. Answering this question honestly will help you refine your lessons over time, and truly harness the immersive power of games across the body of your classroom responsibilities.
STEP #3 – Collaborate
Minecraft is not easy, it’s tiered. Minecraft’s potential lies deeply in the tiered design, it’s beginning simplicity and its end complexity. As a Minecraft Expert, I can say that I’m still learning all about it’s newest and fastest growing potential. Therefore, the only way to keep learning is to either have the time to play it consistently and test its limits, or to collaborate with other experts. There are many experts out there who are more than happy to help, whether you’re interested in the PBL side the GBL side, the Coding and Computational Thinking Side or the Professional Building side. Even more there are plenty of educators just like you who are interested in collaborating to get amazing results.
I’d recommend following #MinecraftEdu and on Twitter, especially on Tuesdays when myself, @PBJellyGames and Mark Grundel manage the #MinecraftEdu weekly Twitter EdChat. Here you’ll find many of the experts and educators that are putting Minecraft to practice successfully sharing freely the lessons we’ve learned along the way. And of course if you’re interested in learning more about Game Design for Education, feel free to tweet me and I’ll be happy to help.
STEP #4 – Plan it all out!
A great game-based lesson can engage, inspire, and add relevance to curriculum content for students. But game design doesn’t happen on its own. As an educator, you can make the difference between a game spliced into the classroom or a game purposefully belonging in the classroom by design. As the educator and using Minecraft as a Game Design Engine you get to put in unique Characters with story, plan or find a build that is authentic and inspiring to explore and think deeply about, plan to have assessment points either given by the characters or by yourself, and above all we you are the gatekeeper to it being fun.
STEP #5 – Make it FUN!
I cannot stress this part enough. Minecraft is a game, and students recognize it as a game. What it isn’t is graph paper. If the fun element is lost then the game itself will lose its growing appeal. Game Based Learning may not be easy, but it’s effective. In fact, research shows that students engaged in a game: retain more information, become more excited by their learning and are driven to do more personal learning outside of class-time. Games drive players to deeply analyze, push beyond failure to find success, to make faster and more intelligent decisions, and to push themselves beyond their expected limits while all the time having FUN!
But what makes it a GAME? I want to lay out a few elements that will help you make a good learning game. Some of the requirements of game design, and all part of the Definition of a Game:
1. A Game is Structured with a formalized set of rules.
Often these structures are called mechanics, these are elements within the game that set the boundaries for what can and cannot be done to achieve the win objective. As an educator designing the lesson, your role is to make sure that those rules are in line with what you want to teach.
A simplistic example can be a game design to teach and practice place value. The objective is to capture the right number of animals where each animal relates to a place value. To succeed the students must collect the number 525 when cows equal 100’s, pigs equal 10’s and chickens equal 1’s. So, 525 would be a collection of 5 Cows, 2 pigs and 5 Chickens.
2. A Game has Risk vs. Reward and provides immediate feedback.
Games that are too easy, or too hard, are no fun at all. In fact, research shows that imbalanced games are almost never successful. To make an exciting game, we need to add some element of challenge, risk and reward. The risk and challenge are intrinsic motivators and the reward is an extrinsic. In the same game example above, we can choose to add points for each correct challenge completed, and we can also add some challenging obstacles to make it fun. Perhaps we want to have the kids capture the animals but they must traverse a dangerous lava strewn plateau to get them back to the right pen.
Of course, we also have that element of immediate feedback. The player will know immediately if their cow falls in lava or if they succeed in collecting the correct animals.
While intuitively we may think these added rewards are just extrinsic motivators and don’t support the learning, we must look at the deep critical thinking and increased desire to succeed that this imbues in players. By making this challenging, students are more motivated by the desire to succeed, leading to them to critically thinking about and analyzing their choices in context of the game. Provide the explicit opportunity for failure, and motivation and critical thinking tend to increase.
Risk and Reward can also be created by adding elements of competition between groups. Competition is such an important part of games, in fact it’s one of the easiest game mechanics to incorporate in my opinion. Competition, however, is one of the most difficult to align to educational mechanics, so think critically about your use of it. Here’s a few questions I always ask when designing a game for education: Is this mechanic going to cause the students focus and critical thought to be more on the “Click to Attack” (as an example) mechanic, or the lesson element I want them to learn? Do enough of the mechanics and structure of the game lead impact the success or failure of the ultimate learning goal? Is there a way that I can structure this game mechanic or rule to focus the students critical thinking on the lesson objective?
A good example of this would be our aforementioned game. We’ve added a failure (Risk Vs. Reward) opportunity with a lava plateau, but this challenge doesn’t yet relate explicitly to our learning objective of place values. Can we enhance this challenge to incorporate? What if we added a mazelike path where the successful path requires the understanding of place value? And the incorrect choice leads to an untimely demise. “Choose path A if the place value has a 5 in the Hundreds category” or path B if the place value in the Tens category is less than 2. Going back to the first step, “Play the Game”, there will be infinite ways that we can use Minecraft authentically to embed learning challenges if we learn it.
3. Story, Adventure and Goals are powerful engagement tools.
Every game requires a finite goal. This can be as simple as Survive 1 night in Minecraft on survival mode. Or as deep and more long term as defeat the Ender-Dragon. Goals, story and adventure can also be very fluid in a survival game like Minecraft where the player makes the determinant choice on how far they want to go; or in a game like World of Warcraft where the player decides what path to the endgame they want to achieve. I caution, however, that in a game designed for education, being too open-ended actually limits our ability to create quick, efficient and effective games that will teach a specific piece of subject matter. So, I encourage those I teach to choose a small goal and focus on making it fun, and engaging with specific challenges. There is however one type of games that can be used to deeply connect students to a much broader motivation for acquiring content and context. That is the story driven adventure.
Story driven adventures are a staple of Minecraft and other successful games throughout history. In fact, if we look at the most successful game development organizations in history like Blizzard and Ubisoft as examples, we see a pattern. They focus a lot on the storyline. Compare this to the success of Hollywood and we start to recognize that story and adventure are key pieces of engagement. It’s an easy but effective linear form of progression allows us to connect deeper and deeper as we go, leading to an immersion that we’re unlikely to want to break out of until we complete the story or in our case the game.
I highly encourage the use of the adventure model for educators looking to teach subjects like social studies, history and language arts but it can also be effectively used to tie together units of STEM and cross-curricular activities. The model of an adventure is simple, and with Minecraft Education Edition easy to apply as a game with NPCs(Non-Player-Characters), Redstone and Command Blocks, and even the new Code Builder.
It simply follows the path of a story, where a student player must complete quests, objectives and challenges with help from non-player characters guiding the direction and supplying the quests. As students’ progress, deeper and deeper through the challenges, their immersion in the world becomes deeper. What is more, they also begin to absorb the language, tone, and environment around them, and if done well this affords us the opportunity to embed all sorts of hidden learning gems within dialogue and environment. Using a quest based approach we can have immersive non-player characters such as Shakespeare asking a student for his opinion on the play, or better still asking the student to learn the elements of a play and help him write one. Once a player is immersed in the story as the Hero or Villain, they will more often do whatever the in-game characters ask to remain in the immersive state.
STEP #6 – Assessment is Key
If you’ve been using the first 5 Tips you will already have many ideas for how you can assess the learning activities outside of the game. But equally important is the ability to assess some of the activities inside of the game. Again, games are an immersive formally structured environment, a place where part of the objective is to stay immersed in those moments of play. So, a key area to think about is how do we keep the immersion going and still enable assessment. Well if we’ve designed our simple game activities well than we’ve consider the fact that they must be able to provide immediate feedback. Therein lies data that we can design for and capture.
Here’s a few Minecraft Game Objects and Mechanics that you can use for in game assessment with Minecraft, and design your Game Based Lesson around capturing the results and growth.
- In Game XP (Experience)
- Every character playing in the game has what’s called an XP-bar (NOTE: This only exists in survival mode). It’s a little green bar that fills up as students get experience. This can be used in a custom-made environment, by giving each student a “Bottle of XP” for each success, correct answer, achievement etc.
- Collected Items
- Items can be scattered around certain areas of your custom world as Treasures to be found. In fact, you can go so far as to lock these items behind a door until a student as accomplished something specific.
- Quest Completion
- Using the Mod Custom NPC’s can be a wonderful way to set up chained quests where the characters give the information. If chained correctly you can set it up to only allow completion of the quest once certain knowledge has been gained.
- Skills Building
- Allow creative expression in math / history by having the students partake in a creative build project and assess the quality, structure, number of or use of materials.
- Red-stone is a system in place in Minecraft that acts as electrical components. These can be used to build contraptions based on electrical or physics related theory. Assess the completion and application of skills.
- Command Blocks and Code Builder
- Computer coding is such a relevant part of the future that it must be taught and assessed. Using Code Builder students can learn to program and educators can assess the completion. But Minecraft itself also has built in commands that can be placed into what is known as “Command Blocks”. These command blocks can allow for the most complex interactions and modifications. Using these for advanced coding can be a fantastic opportunity for students and educators.
Ultimately there is plenty of Data in Minecraft that can be used to assess learning but as educators we know that we will also have to rely on our ability to assess deeper understanding. This is where my favorite piece comes in: The students written or portfolio submitted work.
- Written Work Via Reflection Journals
- Minecraft has books, signs, boards and other elements that students can write upon allowing lasting artifacts of in the moment learning? I want to repeat and emphasize the term “in the moment learning” as in play theory this is very important. As stated above try to utilize these mechanics in a way that doesn’t break the immersion, but rather enhances it. A good example would be to have Shakespeare near the end of an adventure ask the player to help him write the players adventure into a new play to be shared with the King and Queen.
The End Is Not the End – Back to Step #1
Learning Never Stops! And especially learning to design learning games. The field of learning game design and game design in general belong to what I and others call #IterationNation. The reality is that once we create and play it we’ll see plenty of areas for improvement and many questions that need to be answered for the next time such as: Was it fun for the players? Did it achieve the educational results, why and why not? Did it fit the balance of Gamer Types that are in a standard class of mine? How could I improve upon any of these elements for next time? To find the answers to these questions my recommendation is not to simply stop at self-reflection, but rather to adopt a practice from the Game Industry. Look at the first iteration as a prototype and survey the players on how it can be improved. One of the greatest points to note is, especially if you’re not a traditional gamer, your players are the experts of what they like and you are the expert of learning. So be a team in designing and iterating upon these learning games!
As a final thought on the key-word TEAM, this process of developing a learning game for your curriculum and content can just as easily and in some ways more effectively be used with the Students as the Peer-to-Peer Learning Game Designers. My ideal educational world sits where groups of students are given the curriculum to teach, told what must be taught, and must then create a game (with the educators help of course) that all other groups must play, analyze and learn from. But that’s a whole other, advanced, workshop.
Whatever your subject matter. Whatever your role, be it parent, educator, admin, or advisor, our growing responsibility is to bring learning to students in a way that inspires them to be the best that they can be. I believe that the power of games and the increasing authentic use of games, paired with other pedagogical methods is going to support that effectively. I hope that this post allows you to begin creating immersive learning environments that cause your students to think critically, deeply, but more importantly have fun at the same time.
If you’re trying this for the first time or creating iterations please reach out to me on twitter @PBJellyGames, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and share what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and the successes and failures that will support our continuing research into this area of higher engagement and learning.