I’m not totally convinced about the educational value of minecraft, but my children are pretty obsessed with it. Even limiting their computer time doesn’t prevent them from spending all their extra time talking about the game, comparing notes on how to build the best mob spawners or toilets for the computer game characters that have no use of them. I find that if I’m going to have conversations with them these days, I need to come up with some ways to tie it in with minecraft. Here are a few of my ideas and a bit about how some of them turned out.
How is minecraft similar to lego? How is it different? We talked briefly about what it would be like to build a foundation out of basic blocks, and then have to mine and use those blocks in the building of a house or setting. Obviously strip-mines and open-pit mines would be easier than tunnels, since a person’s hands would have to reach through. Gravity would always apply, unless the pieces are of different size and overlap, which they of course could be because lego has more size options than minecraft.
How is Minecraft similar to Settlers of Catan? How is it different? In Minecraft there’s more variety of products and resources, and you have more choice about which ones you gather when, whereas Settlers of Catan the luck of the dice plays a larger role. In Minecraft there’s less rules about how you interact with your neighbours, though in both games you can help supply someone with resources they need or choose to withhold them – or steal, for that matter.
Do minecraft characters get lonely? I’m thinking particularily about players playing single-player, and the idea that they can meet villagers but the villagers count as “passive mobs” that interact only through trading objects. Would a character get lonely? “One of the reasons minecraft characters don’t get lonely is there’s always a zombie knocking at the door – except in peaceful,” someone told me, but I wonder what type of interaction does it take to not be lonely.
Does it matter if your minecraft cat and dog get killed? Are they pets or are they just tools in a computer game? How much attachment do you form to your characters? Sometimes the minecraft animals can become a nuisance, sitting on chests and generally getting in the way, and yet they’re tolerated anyway, and that makes me think about how pets can be. Is the value of a cat determined partly by its rarity, or its usefulness, or by a sense of protectiveness that comes from viewing it as a pet?
Of course questions don’t always have to be open ended. There’s lots of math questions that can be asked too about the minecraft economy. Do you calculate the costs of different minecraft products? One block of wood turns into 4 planks. 2 plants turns into 8 sticks. Stone and wood can both be crafted into pressure plates, but which one is more expensive and why?
I listened for weeks to my children obsess over the different characteristics of minecraft mobs. They talked about how slimes don’t swim upwards and so people use water to seperate slimes from zombies in mob spawners, and all I could think about was the pages in the science textbooks that talk about using the different characteristics of physical objects to seperate them. Can learning about the minecraft equivalents help them think about real life, or does it remain a seperate catagory of random facts in their brains?
Imagine approaching a minecraft chest. Now imagine what is inside it. Do you picture the grid on which the items are stored? Is that how they’d look inside the chest? Is there an inside to the chest? Can you picture items floating in it as though they were dropped objects? Or as though all the square items were tiny packed neatly in it? Or just the grey grid?
I can definately see the appeal to minecraft. It has all the fun of making little electric circuits but none of the real life frusturation of two bits of wire refusing to stick together. They can build models in minecraft without worrying about the glue not holding or the balsa wood breaking. They can build complicated creations without having to clean up or worrying about whether they can hold the pen gently enough. They can flip through their inventory instead of dig through the pile of lego. I just wish they’d spend more time doing those things things too.