A few weeks ago, my son convinced me to download Minecraft on my iPad. He’s been playing it for a few years now and is at that stage where he is entering portals, creating drop world and doing parkour.
Meanwhile, I’m at the basic level. I spent the first few hours trying to orient myself on the point of view and learn how to decode the various icons.
“Dad, that’s ice, not glass.”
I break it. “There’s water everywhere.”
“I told you it was glass.”
But over the next few weeks, I begin to hit a rhythm and I attempt my first creation. I quickly abandon my initial dream of a mid-century modern estate in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s too blocky. So, I move on to a quidditch stadium that eventually morphs into an arena for Ultimate Frisbee.
A month into it and I’m hooked.
Is it educational?
It’s easy to fall into two extremes on the question of Minecraft and education. The first is the Minecraft evangelists who see it as the ultimate solution to everything. Let’s have kids create Minecraft worlds for every book they’re reading. Let’s have kids learn integers by using colored blocks on Minecraft. Let’s teach about forces and motion by using Minecraft.
But that mentality quickly transforms something inherently fun into something that feels like school. A Minecraft version of a novel’s setting is no different than a diorama. A Minecraft version of “integer wars” actually works better with checker pieces played in person. And the rules of Minecraft don’t follow our rules, so we are actually doing a disservice when we teach about physics through Minecraft.
It’s no surprise that there is a second, more reactionary group of people who view Minecraft as “just a game.” What makes it any different than, say, Tetris or Angry Birds or FIFA 17?
I think it’s important to make a distinction here. Games don’t have to be connected to a specific content area to be useful. Nor do they need to teach a specific academic skill. For example, my kids also enjoy playing Set and chess and learning to solve rubix cubes and I’d argue that the logic, systems thinking, and problem-solving of those activities are actually more effective in learning to think mathematically than if they had simply played a math game on a tablet.
It’s easy to miss the deep learning that goes on in the world of Minecraft. However, here’s what I see happening when my kids play Minecraft:
- iterative thinking
- working within constraints
- imagination and world-building
- an increase in learner agency
In other words, Minecraft develops creative thinking in the same way that chess develops logic and systems thinking — by promoting intense, focused mental engagement. And I’d argue that there are things we, as educators, can learn from Minecraft.
What can Minecraft Teach Us About Creativity?
I love the concept of Minecraft. I love the idea of a game built around world-building — where the game is less about programmed levels and more about an open, flexible design that allows the participants to create in an immersive learning environment. The following are some things Minecraft can teach us about the creative process:
- Limitations can spark to creativity. Minecraft is built on the concept of limitations. People are quick to say, “think outside the box” and yet this game is built on boxes. Literally. They become the building blocks of what you make.
- There is power in simplicity. Similar to the first idea, this is the notion that the simplicity of Minecraft (the lack of options, the lack of complex plot lines, a graphical interface that harkens back to the eighties) actually enables users to be more creative. This is, by the way, why I think a stack of cardboard and duct tape might be more creative than a 3D printer. It’s the same idea. Simplicity pushes people to be more creative.
- You are most creative when you are not trying to be creative. When I watch kids play Minecraft, they are motivated by the goal of making something. However, they are not explicitly trying to be creative. They aren’t saying to one another, “let’s rate our creativity on a rubric.” It’s more of a means to an end.
- All creative acts are both social and solitary. My son will sit alone and build something only to meet up with others and plan something collaboratively. We move back and forth between one another’s worlds, working interdependently. It has me thinking that this is nearly always true of any creative endeavor. You paint alone and yet you are influenced by a social movement and you express your work to an audience. You act in a theater, surrounded by people, and yet you get into the mindset from a very solitary place. There’s a myth that things are either/or when it comes to alone or together. But in creative work, it’s nearly always both/and.
- The product matters. I know people say that “it’s not about the product so much as the process.” However, nobody seems to be married to a specific process. Instead, they have a vision of what their finished product will be and then they modify the process accordingly. It’s sort-of the opposite of what most creative work looks like in school.
- Mistakes are a part of the process. Users have multiple chances to fix what they screw up. This ultimately leads to a growth mindset as they re-assess their approaches and step back and try a new strategy. Here they are learning to engage in iterative thinking.
- Consuming is necessary for creating. My son loves to watch videos or read books about Minecraft. These ideas (much like the Steal Like an Artist concept) actually lead to creative breakthroughs as he moves through the stages from consuming to creating.
- You can see the progress. In other words, I want to build a quidditch stadium. I want to design a zoo for mythical creatures. I want to build a world that exists entirely underground. But for now, I’m making an arena. And that’s okay. I can see my progress. One of the key ideas in Flow Theory is that the skill matches the ability. Minecraft isn’t built with tiered levels. Instead, you can move from novice to advanced at your own pace through your own process.
- It respects user agency. Kids don’t necessary have a ton of autonomy in Minecraft. There are specific rules and parameters. However, it is built around user agency and the belief that people can have a sense of motivation, self-efficacy, and mastery over what they are doing. This is a critical piece of creative work. Too often, creative projects in schools are merely recipes that students have to follow — with point values, specific instructions, and lock-step processes.
I’m not convinced that all children need to play Minecraft. I don’t see it as a magic bullet that will fix every educational issue. However, I do think that there are some valuable lessons about creativity that children learn when they play Minecraft.