The Minecraft Generation

Screenshot of the first hour of survival mode in Minecraft

In this past week’s edition, the New York Times Magazine published a very interesting story by Clive Thompson about the popular video game Minecraft, which he argues is becoming an educational tool in a way, particularly in the arena of coding and problem-solving. I’ve played the game myself for a number of hours (probably somewhere between 50-150, which among the “Minecraft generation” would be considered pennies). I can affirm that this Swedish blockbuster–the game is built on cubes of different materials that you can break down and build up–is addictive, a creative outlet, and a fun way to spend time with friends.

As Thompson states, the STEM educational movement, where science, technology, engineering, and math are especially encouraged in the US system to increase competitiveness in students, can benefit from some of the habits and skills that Minecraft helps develop for those interested enough. The article is worth reading if you have kids who might play, enjoy playing yourself, or are interested in checking the game out:

Jordan wanted to build an unpredictable trap.

An 11-year-old in dark horn-­rimmed glasses, Jordan is a devotee of Minecraft, the computer game in which you make things out of virtual blocks, from dizzying towers to entire cities.

He recently read “The Maze Runner,” a sci-fi thriller in which teenagers live inside a booby-­trapped labyrinth, and was inspired to concoct his own version — something he then would challenge his friends to navigate.

Jordan built a variety of obstacles, including a deluge of water and walls that collapsed inward, Indiana Jones-style. But what he really wanted was a trap that behaved unpredictably. That would really throw his friends off guard. How to do it, though? He obsessed over the problem.

Then it hit him: the animals! Minecraft contains a menagerie of virtual creatures, some of which players can kill and eat (or tame, if they want pets). One, a red-and-white cowlike critter called a mooshroom, is known for moseying about aimlessly. Jordan realized he could harness the animal’s movement to produce randomness. He built a pen out of gray stones and installed “pressure plates” on the floor that triggered a trap inside the maze. He stuck the mooshroom inside, where it would totter on and off the plates in an irregular pattern.

Presto: Jordan had used the cow’s weird behavior to create, in effect, a random-­number generator inside Minecraft. It was an ingenious bit of problem-­solving, something most computer engineers I know would regard as a great hack — a way of coaxing a computer system to do something new and clever.

When I visited Jordan at his home in New Jersey, he sat in his family’s living room at dusk, lit by a glowing iMac screen, and mused on Minecraft’s appeal. “It’s like the earth, the world, and you’re the creator of it,” he said. On-screen, he steered us over to the entrance to the maze, and I peered in at the contraptions chugging away. “My art teacher always says, ‘No games are creative, except for the people who create them.’ But she said, ‘The only exception that I have for that is Minecraft.’ ” He floated over to the maze’s exit, where he had posted a sign for the survivors: The journey matters more than what you get in the end.

Since its release seven years ago, Minecraft has become a global sensation, captivating a generation of children. There are over 100 million registered players, and it’s now the third-best-­selling video game in history, after Tetris and Wii Sports. In 2014, Microsoft bought Minecraft — and Mojang, the Swedish game studio behind it — for $2.5 billion.

There have been blockbuster games before, of course. But as Jordan’s experience suggests — and as parents peering over their children’s shoulders sense — Minecraft is a different sort of phenomenon.

Read the rest of the article here.

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