Minecraft – Constructive fun, regardless of educational value

Regardless of your views of education, learning, gaming, gamification, serious games or any other buzzword that is thrown around, games like Minecraft are proving themselves to win people over for their inherent “fun” factor and potential as a learning tool. Not everyone agrees that games can be useful for learning and sometimes that isn’t even the point that those of us who extol Minecraft’s virtues are trying to make.

One recent article considered how much fun Minecraft was and made the point that has no educational value, yet, still has value as a tool which promotes creativity. Again, that’s the whole point of Minecraft. Whether or not learning is directly implied, Minecraft is fun and has value that is (without a doubt) tangible. Minecraft is a creativity game that allows children to express their creative side through building and construction. It’s a cooperation game that encourages players to work together. It’s a planning game that forces participants to calculate what they need and how big things are going to get. It’s a challenging game that invites users to expand their horizons by building PCs, writing mods, participating in communities that develop Minecraft plugins. It’s an expressive game that inspires its fans to draw comics, paint pictures, write jokes and sing songs.

Minecraft is all of those things … and at the end of the day there’s no test. There’s no essay or assignment. There’s no teacher marking down grades on a rubric. There’s only fun … and through fun comes the learning.

When you play computer games you learn, whether you want to or not … and that’s a pretty good reason to play games!

*For the record: There is a Minecraft curriculum. Minecraft teachers write units and build curriculum around the game and teach it in their classrooms. But that’s not the point. Minecraft inspires people to play, and to learn, and to do amazing things. You don’t need a curriculum for that!


Creating is Learning: Building skills and knowledge through Minecraft

Creating is Learning: Building skills and knowledge through Minecraft.

Computer games are fun and gaming is an important aspect of digital culture. The best part about computer games is that when we play, we learn!

This video was made as part of my Masters in Education studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

Full references, citations and the supporting paper can be found here:


Contact me or learn more about my other videos, studies and academic writing.


Thanks to Notch and Mojang for making such an excellent game. Thanks also to the Minecraft community (particularly /r/minecraft) and the people who have developed original content that I used in my video.

Can a kid make a Minecraft server?

Can a kid make a Minecraft server?

I think there’s plenty of evidence that kids, even as young as 11, are capable of making and running their own Minecraft server. 

Perhaps running a server sounds easy, but it’s not quite so simple. It’s obviously easier if you go the “paid” hosting route, which does it all for you. But what about hosting on your own computer? Well, that requires some learning, as one 11 year old boy discovered.

In the pursuit of making his own server, one boy learned about IP addresses, port forwarding and  technical issues that are related to computers and hosting a game server. A lot of valuable skills are learned through the process of ‘figuring it out’. As well, he learned really useful problem solving skills when he was forced to find solutions to unexpected problems.

This is a good example of learning “Beyond the Game”. The game itself is merely the stimulus for further learning (such as computers, internet networking, etc). Broader knowledge is acquired, as are skills related to computers, hardware or problem solving.

Gamers learn a lot, and an 11 year old boy who built his own server, is a good example of that!

Three Papers by Jesper Juul

Three Papers by Jesper Juul – A brief synopsis of his recent works relating to computer game design.

*Note, all of the papers below are available for free from the Jesper Juul’s website (linked above).

Paper 1 – Zero-Player Games

Juul’s analysis of gaming looks closely at the players themselves and how player is defined. Importantly, the paper shows that there’s a distinction between games and gamers, and also, that games do not require a player (the player-centric model).

Zero-player games are games which require no significant human interaction for the game to be played. These are divided into four categories:

  1. Setup only games – games where the player starts the game and observes (without interaction) the remainder of the game.
  2. Games played by AIs – simply, games where the computer (AI) assumes the role of the player.
  3. Solved games – Games played by computers with the purpose of solving it – such as figuring out guaranteed winning moves, etc.
  4. Hypothetical games – non implemented games designed to describe or examine a question.

By understanding how games can be played without a player, paradoxically, the player can be more easily understood. Juul concludes with five distinct player traits:

  1. Players have continued agency
  2. Players as humans
  3. Players as temporal beings
  4. Players as having intentionality
  5. Players as having aesthetic preferences

Juul’s paper shows that a distinction can be made between game (artifact) and games (the activity). As well, it gives a strong rebuttal to the dominance of the player-centric model, since it doesn’t actually centre on players and overlooks their aesthetic preferences.

Paper 2 – Easy to use and incredibly difficult: On the mythical border between interface and gameplay

Interface and game play are seen, by many as Juul suggests, as vastly different. He argues that there’s no distinct border between the two. Interface is the tools (software and hardware) used to affect the game state. Gameplay is the core activity of the game.

The analysis focuses on defining the two elements and understanding how they have been used in game design. Importantly, Juul looks closely at the relationship between interface and gameplay, then compares their realisation in various games.

He concludes that gameplay is usually a simple premise or idea made challenging by the interface. The purpose of games is to be fun. Doing so often requires challenging the user. There’s a lot of fluidity between interface and gameplay. Because games are entertaining they are not always designed to be efficient. Intentionally adding inefficient elements to the gameplay or interface increases difficulty. This is a desired effect.

Most importantly, games provide an opportunity for the gamer to improve certain skills.

Blizzard uses the term skill differentiation to describe how requiring a range of skills allows a player to grow: a real time strategy game can have “twitch” skills, multitasking, strategic thinking, understanding of economy, knowledge of a map, and so on, as skill differentiators.

This means that difficulties of interface or gameplay simply become a skills hurdle for players to jump. The gameplay and interface in games is often blurred and, as games become more innovating, is redefined.

Paper 3 – The Fear of Failing? The many meanings of difficulty in video games

The role of failure in games is interesting and important to consider. Juul explores two important questions regarding failure.

  • What is the role of failure in games?
  • Do players prefer games where they do not feel responsible for failing?

There are two approaches to looking at “winning” in games.

  • Goal oriented – where the focus is on winning, which should be made as easy as possible
  • Aesthetic perspective – where there should be a reasonable combination of challenge and variation

Added to that are the methods of punishing players for failure.

  • Energy punishment – loss of energy, usually leading to life punishment
  • Life punishment – losing a “life”, usually bringing the player closer to game termination
  • Game termination – ending the game, forcing the player to start from the beginning
  • Setback punishment – making the player “replay” the game from a certain point

When a player fails, they might attribute the failure to three possible causes.

  • Personal – personal traits, skills or disposition (eg. I didn’t move fast enough)
  • Entity – the characteristics such as the game elements (eg. The enemy in game is too powerful)
  • Circumstance – luck, chance or other transient causes (eg. My fingers slipped off the controller)

Juul developed an empirical study, based on an earlier study by Malone in 1982, to test how players responded to different punishments (energy punishment and life punishment). The study concluded that players prefer to feel personally responsible for failure when they play a game. When players failed, then succeeded, they gave a higher rating for the game, reflecting that they felt more satisfied. This is in comparison to players who didn’t fail at all and players who failed too often (both groups gave less positive reviews of the game).

From the overall analysis, four observations were made about games and failure.

  1. The player does not want to fail (feels sad, inadequate)
  2. Failing makes the player reconsider their strategy (making the game more interesting)
  3. Winning provides gratification
  4. Winning without failing leads to dissatisfaction

This is an interesting outcome. Gamers want games to be difficult. While they hope to win, gamers will fail and feel personally responsible. Once they’ve reviewed their strategy and tried again, they will eventually win. The gamer feels gratification and is satisfied with the game.

Failure in games creates a sense of depth. Failure forces the player to re-evaluate strategies and practice their skills. Doing so reflects improvement and success (overcoming adversity).

A game should be neither too easy, nor too hard. Failure adds content!

High Score Education – Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.

High Score Education – Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.

Although somewhat dated, this short article by James Gee touches on some important elements of gaming and learning. The education system still pushes a “memorize and test” philosophy. Gee laments that children are not learning to think, they’re learning to memorise … and good students aren’t good at thinking they’re just good at “doing school”.

This is a very valid concern. Gee believes that games are an agent of mental training. That children aren’t meant to be memorising.

Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them.

I like that. It’s a very succinct way of describing what should be our relationship with information. This is exactly what the internet can do – provide an environment where we manipulate information by mixing, sharing and remixing between collectives online.

Gee states that the secret of video gaming’s success isn’t the games themselves or the 3D graphics, but the underlying architecture of the game. Each level is incrementally more difficult, pushing the gamer further and further beyond their abilities. This is the ‘regime of competence principal’. The game is just difficult enough to simultaneously provide pleasure and frustration for the player. It’s hard enough to be challenging, but through effort the player can be rewarded by winning the game.

Games also incorporate expertise. Gamers become masters of a game, but are then forced to adapt and evolve as the game becomes more complex.

As Gee notes, kids often say that playing games doesn’t feel like learning. They’re focused on playing. Again and again, educational experts push this point. Learning must become a secondary objective to having fun. When students are focused on having fun they forget that they’re also learning.

Teachers, Students, Digital Games: What’s the Right Mix?

Teachers, Students, Digital Games: What’s the Right Mix?

There’s lots of buzz around computer games in education now. Various studies are being conducted to ascertain how much access kids have to computers, how often they’re being used in class and how effective games are as a learning tool. 

While more and more teachers are starting to use games in the classroom, there’s concern that tech resources aren’t being used effectively.

What’s more important is drawing a line between “educational games” and everything else. COTS computer games (according to Zichermann) are much more suited to educational purposes than education-centric games. 

Further, this kind of analysis doesn’t consider related factors such as social networking, which is a natural extension of modern gaming culture.

The shift away from an educational focus is gaining momentum. Even Prensky, known for his loathsome “digital native” theory, acknowledges the attitude that learning is becoming a background to achieving goals. This is the direction which education should be taking – how are students learning beyond classroom walls? By playing games, sharing and socialising, and being a part of a community, students are learning valuable knowledge and skills … which is secondary to having fun and hanging out.

The best learning occurs when we forget we’re learning at all.

Does Game Based Learning Work?

Does Game Based Learning Work? Short answer: Yes. Blunt’s analysis of three studies draws together enough empirical data to suggest that there is a correlation between gaming and test scores.

The idea of the study was simply to discover whether COTS (commercial, off-the shelf) games facilitate improved learning in a classroom environment. The results strongly suggest that there’s benefits to combining gaming and learning. Blunt used a theoretical framework which considered multiple concepts:

  • ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction). This model identifies four areas in which learning is broken into parts. The theory is that students require motivation as well as practical examples of how a system works (which the students can use to help their understanding).
  • Good Video Game Design. Of particular importance is the computer game’s quality. The game must have rules (restrictions and generic codes), goals & objectives, be challenging and be engaging.

Blunt conducted three separate studies at a university level. All of the subjects were business related – business, economics, management. Each subject had a corresponding COTS computer game which fit the curriculum. As a study control, the subjects that were chosen had two or more class groups. One group was allowed to play computer games as a part of the curriculum, the other class (which was learning exactly the same content) didn’t have access to a computer game – ie it was a standard class. At the end of the course, students were given standardised tests.

The results were very encouraging. The classes which included computer games had a much higher average score and more “A” level results than classes without the games. Also, classes with computer games had no students fail the course, while the other classes had a number of fails. The results also considered other matrices such as gender and ethnicity. Overall, computer games seemed to have almost no discernible affect on gender or ethnicity. The only other significant factor was age. Students under 40 years of age performed significantly better with computer games. Students over 41 didn’t benefit from using computer games in class.

Blunt concludes that his results are significant, however the problem he is trying to address is the lack of empirical data which can be used to prove a causal-comparative relationship between computer games and learning.

Simulations. We have plenty of empirical studies about simulations over the last 25 years. We know simulations work. We know simulations improve performance. We know simulations improve learning. Yet, I challenge anyone to show me a literature review of empirical studies about game- based learning. There are none. We are charging head-long into game-based learning without knowing if it works or not. We need studies. – Dr J. Cannon-Bowers