Monday, November 14, 2011

Minecraft & Me

I like video games. Despite the fact that I'm not a very skilled player, I believe that games are fantastic ways for kids to have fun and learn, almost without realizing it. Some of my biggest influences have been my own family members, as well as Beth Gallaway (author of "Game On") and Melanie McBride (researcher and educator at EDGE Labs, associated with Ryerson University). Melanie pushes my thinking and follows the philosophy of James Paul Gee, who lauds the situated learning inherent in game play. Schools and video games don't always mix and Gee says that we need to transform the way education systems operate. I can't see the school system changing in the ways Gee hopes for anytime soon but I can't resist incorporating video games into my school library program whenever possible. I maintain a separate blog that documents the non-school, situated learning that my own children experience through their home use of games - it can be found at Family Gaming XP. For a long time, I felt pretty alone in my use of video games in school. However, I've expanded my Personal Learning Network and some of my newest virtual colleagues and I have embarked on an exciting adventure.

We play Minecraft together.

Minecraft, for those of you unacquainted with it, is an online co-op game in which you work with the natural world to build and create. Take trees and cut them down to use the wood to make all sorts of things. Three of us educators are playing Minecraft together on a server and we plan on starting Minecraft clubs with our students in the next couple of months. We have a wiki where we share tips, post photos and write journals of our experience playing. These are some of the things I've learned - about learning, Minecraft, and myself - as I've played this game.

1) Following your own interests make things more fun.

IRL (In real life), I like to scrapbook. In the game, I'm the player that takes the most screen shots. One of the other players created a gorgeous inukshuk-like statue near her online home. The third player is quite a tinkerer and just recently built a underground rail system with carts. The nice thing about Minecraft is that there's no one right way to play it and we can do all sorts of things there. Here are some "photos" I've taken.

This is a screen shot of my character in Minecraft.
2) Doing things together beats doing things alone.

I already mentioned that I'm a pretty weak video game player. This is especially true in Minecraft. On my first day of playing, I spent most of the time practicing how to walk. If it weren't for the kindness of my fellow players, I'd be doomed. Minecraft characters need shelter to hide from the spiders and creepers that come out in the night. I am not yet talented enough to build a house (or even a secure hole in the ground) to protect myself, but my fellow players have invited me into their homes to stay and be safe. They never mock me for my lack of crafting abilities - they applaud when I figured out how to feed myself or kill a pig for food. Despite the huge difference in our skill levels, we have fun playing together. One person built boats for us and we went sailing together. We learn from each other. We problem solve. We learn more when we're together - even our expert player is discovering things by interacting with us.

This is my character's viewpoint while boating.
3) Messing up is part of the experience

One of the "gameducators" playing with me is keeping a list of all the different ways she's died in the game. It's a pretty lengthy one so far. I died my first few minutes in the game; I walked up to read the welcome sign and a creeper attacked me. I've fallen in lava, been mauled by spiders and destroyed by creepers. Sometimes when I die, I laugh. Sometimes I holler. Sometimes I curse. The follow-up is always the same - I respawn and keep going. No one's perfect and that's okay.

This is a picture of me trying to kill a cow for food. I ended up hacking my boat to pieces in the process.
4) Research is good.

If I don't know how to do something, I ask someone or look it up. My own children helped me with this when I was online by myself and got stuck in my boat. They read the Minecraft wiki and found out what I had to do to exit my ship. I tried the tips out and if it didn't work, I searched for more information or re-read the instructions. Isn't this the essence of research - having an authentic question, seeking answers by accessing information found in resources, and doing something with the found/processed information? I like research. I don't like writing long lists of references in proper APA format but I like discovering things I didn't know before.

This was my inventory. I learned that I needed a crafting table with a 3x3 grid to make things.
4) It's fun

My husband doubted that I'd like playing this game because it's very different from the few games I do play of my own volition (like Just Dance on the Wii or Webkinz). However, he's noted that I seem to be enjoying myself even though this is something outside my comfort zone. (I'm taking Melanie's advice to "go to the places that scare you".) It's hard for me but it's been fun. There's something beautiful about a virtual sunrise and surviving the night.

Sunset (or sunrise?) as seen from a safe house in Minecraft
I've been talking about my Minecraft experiences through Twitter. The day after I first mentioned it, no less than five students approached me to say "I hear you're starting a Minecraft club at school. If it's true, can I join?" I have a feeling that, like my Just Dance Club, this will be a way for students and teachers to learn and have fun together. Big thanks go to Liam O'Donnell (@liamodonnell) and Denise Colby (@nieca) for being my Minecraft buddies and mentors. You'll hear lots more about this project as we continue to play.

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