National Edition

Could Minecraft help kids get smarter?

By Menachem Wecker

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

In a March 22, 2012 photo, fifth-grader Andrew Riachi, 11, looks through his inventory while playing a game of Minecraft.

Roger Nomer, Associated Press

When Rob Patrick’s then 7-year-old son Riley started asking to play Minecraft two years ago, the Edmonton-based radio morning show host and his wife had no idea what he was talking about.

After asking around and doing some research, they decided Minecraft was much better than most of the other gaming alternatives because it was creative and had no violence.

“What we weren’t warned about,” Patrick says, “was how addicting it is for boys that age. Before too long, we started noticing his addiction taking shape. Asking him to turn it off became more of a struggle and eventually a full-on fight.”

It's a concern many parents can relate to — Minecraft is a phenomenon, with over 100 million users. A game with Lego-like promise in which users construct things out of blocks, the game was officially released on Nov. 18, 2011, and, according to the Mirror (U.K.), it was the top-selling app on both iPads and iPhones in 2013. More than 9 million Facebook users like the game’s official page, and among those users and fans, as one might expect, are teachers, professors and students.

Teachers are drawn to the game because it has educational benefits that encourage active, rather than passive, playing and can teach coding to children. For those reasons, some experts are convinced that Minecraft is a better teaching and learning platform than most other games.

But its potential to be a time-suck for children and its possible privacy issues surface early and often in conversations with parents of children who play the game. And given the game’s rapid and widespread growth, those questions are likely to continue to grow in scope.

Educational benefits?

That Minecraft is clearly a gaming phenomenon to reckon with is tough to dispute, and even though one of the versions of the game calls for users to fend off zombies and skeletons in between building houses and otherwise altering the landscape, the game is not violent, especially compared to some of the other games young children might stumble across online.

Users with expertise and experience on Minecraft point to the malleability of the Minecraft “space” as something that offers particular educational promise.

“I think Minecraft has a lot of potential as a teaching tool. At the most basic level, it is a medium for free or directed creative expression, which, I think, is largely underappreciated in elementary education,” says Kerry Lee, who recently earned his doctorate in Old Testament studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Using Minecraft for math and science is a no-brainer, says Lee, who is an independent researcher. He has given a lot of thought to using Minecraft to illustrate biblical stories and structures — such as Noah’s ark and Solomon’s Temple.

Others have also noticed other educational potential in Minecraft. Maximilian Owre, interim director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Program in the Humanities and a history lecturer, says his impression from watching his 7-year-old daughter play Minecraft is that the game is “really like an online version of Legos with a lot more options.”

“She mostly builds outlandish houses and walks around taming cats,” he says. “I think play — in and of itself — is incredibly educational, and her interaction with Minecraft is not at all passive. She certainly has learned a lot about types of building materials and the concept of mining.”

An educational community of Minecrafters

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