Minecraft: building an understanding

I’ve never ‘got’ Minecraft. My nephew tried to teach me how to use it a few years ago and I failed in his eyes: I was ‘slow’ and kept asking ‘stupid questions’. When Mary shared this video on Twitter, it struck a chord.

However, my experience of exploring Edinburgh University’s Minecraft space felt entirely more comfortable and I’ve been thinking about why. As with Second Life, meeting virtually and synchronously in a shared space scaffolds our understanding of that space. It ‘feels’ like a safe collaborative arena. In our Minecraft tutorial, Noreen was there to guide us and provide us with tips and hints. She also took me on a tour of ‘her’ space – an outdoor theatre she’d created – and she showed me an underground tunnel which snaked below the buildings above ground. In terms of my own actions, I simply planted some flowers and laid some tiles: I struggle when I have to build ‘high’. But what I enjoyed and what I hadn’t appreciated prior to this is that there isn’t always the requirement to ‘do’ to ‘act’ within a game space. Observing and looking can also bring rewards. It was my desire to act and do before I was really ready which resulted, after all, in my death in WoW.

I also began to reflect on why I’d failed to learn how to use Minecraft previously and I realised that I was trying to work from the abstract into the situated and embodied world of the game rather than the obverse. I was trying to learn the rules, understand the world, before I’d immersed myself in it. As Gee notes, ‘Abstraction rises gradually out of the ground of situated meaning and practice and returns there from time to time, or it is meaningless to most human beings’ (Gee. 2007, p.87), ‘There really is no other way to make sense.’ (ibid, p.84). The ‘probing principle’ (ibid, p.105) offers a more effective approach to game/world familiarisation and to learning.

Our week in Minecraft coincided with a visit to a little primary school in Lancashire. I was there to carry out an ICT audit and support the school in developing an understanding about what actions they needed to take if they were to progress their use of ICT in teaching and learning. Given the recent re-launch of Minecraft Education, I thought that I would, informally, speak to as many students as I could about their use of Minecraft and how they had learned about it.  A lot of pupils reported that they had approached their learning of the game using the probing principle, through ‘Just doing it’, ‘Seeing what happens’, ‘Playing’. A lot also learned from their close friends/relatives – to an intimate affinity group – to seek guidance and support about how to progress through Minecraft. Many of these guides were older siblings/cousins/friends. A couple of pupils reported that they read books and articles about Minecraft but that they did this once they had already been immersed in the world for some time; as Gee notes, it is unlikely that such texts would make any sense if approached without a prior appreciation of the world, ‘texts associated with video games – the instruction booklets, walkthroughs, and strategy guides…do not make a lot of sense unless one has already experienced and lived in the game for a while.’ (Gee, 2007, p.98).

The children were keen to tell me about their work and their play in Minecraft and they sent me an image of the Parthenon that they’d built.  They also told me about a game that they thought I’d enjoy: ‘Slither‘. They really became enthused and open when asked about their game-play; I was recognised as a potential member of their affinity group: we shared a ‘common endeavour’ (Gee, 2007, p.206) (although they were ‘endeavouring’ much more successfully than me!). I’m not yet ready to refer to myself as a ‘gamer’ though. I’m not sure when that will come. Is there a level of proficiency or a stage of achievement to be reached before I will feel like I am adept enough to feel like I am an ‘insider’? (ibid, p.212).

I’m dying here

It was a bit of a shock, getting attacked. Until this point, I’d felt in control of choosing my enemies and therefore being ready to respond to their (slow) advance. This time, I was set upon by a gang of Blackrock assassins and was killed three times.

I’d accepted a mission from Mashal McBride and then was tempted by a supplementary task: to extinguish the fires that were burning in the vineyards. Why I didn’t see the quest name (Extinguishing Hope) as a hint that I should perhaps avoid this, I don’t know.


The attack felt brutal and I felt hopeless as I watched me/Lyrabloom/us die. The impact of my character’s killing was experienced with more of a sense of panic, of helplessness than I would have experienced if I were watching a film or reading a book. As Gee notes, the ‘tripartite play of identities…is quite powerful. It transcends identification with characters in novels or movies, for instance, because it is both active (the player actively does things) and reflexive, in the sense that once the player has made some choices about the virtual character, the virtual character is now developed in a way that sets certain parameters about what the player can now do’ (p.54).


I had failed. I had failed Lyrabloom and I had failed as a gamer. My virtual character was dead. My real-world identity was confirmed in its suspicion that I am not, and never will be, a gamer, and my projective identity was now a ghost. I thought that this ‘project in the making’ (Gee p.50) was done.  And then I was told to make my way back to my corpse. I could be resurrected. My failure was not total and I was able to resurrect Lyrabloom (granted, for her only to die a few more times before we made our way out of there).


The game allowed ‘repair work’ (Gee, p. 57) to happen.; the game creates a ‘psychosocial moratorium’  (p.59)There was a low cost of failure: Lyrabloom lives again.


Me, myself and I

This week we have again been exploring notions and experiences of identity through immersion within Second Life. I have spent more time ‘there’ this week: engaging in the treasure hunt, exploring learning spaces, having a ‘voice’ tutorial and dancing. The strong sense of presence I experienced in Week 7  has been consolidated and extended this week through further virtual adventuring and through more interactions in Holyrood Park. Although I don’t identify with the physicality of my avatar (I haven’t yet got round to altering ‘her’) I do have a strong sense of being present through her: for example, I visited Echo Beach to test my sound and, when a large, muscular, scantily-clad avatar also arrived, I quickly left, feeling a sense of threat and inappropriateness. Marshall/Pancha’s refrain ‘it’s only pixels’ rang in my virtual/metaphorical ears as I teleported out. I did enjoy dancing later that day though and truly felt a sense of ‘presence enacting itself as an embodied activity’ (Taylor, 2002, p.44), an embodiment powerfully linked to vision (M. White, 2006)’ (quoted in Boellstorff, 2008 p.134) and, in this instance, sound (George Benson…)

Silverback's new avatar
Silverback’s new avatar

We explored this sense of connectedness with our avatars further in Thursday night’s tutorial. Paul/Silverback appeared as a Gorilla: he had spent 600 lindens (£4) on this as he had such a strong reaction against the set of default avatars which Second Life offers. He mentioned that, when his avatar initially appeared, he felt like he was ‘lying’ and so was willing to invest real money to change his virtual self. He had invested in  his ‘projective’ identity, projecting his own ‘values and desires onto the virtual character’ (Gee, 2003, p.55) and seeing ‘the virtual character as (his) own project in the making’ (ibid, p.55). As Boellstorff notes, avatars are ‘the modality through which residents experienced virtual selfhood’ (2008, p.129); if I end up spending more time in Second life beyond this week, I too will invest more in developing my avatar and, probably, changing its sex.

Like all of our learning on the course so far, because we are engaged with the spaces we are reading about and exploring, loop input methodologies were at play this week. This was strongly felt when our tutor Rory/Algernon Twang.asked us to explore Gee’s concept of virtual spaces offering a more risk-free environment: a ‘psychosocial moratorium’ (p.67). In the discussion which followed, I highlighted that I felt that our interactions within this virtual world and in our other tutorials felt more risky that real-life more sustained interactions as they were irregular and therefore more imbued with a sense of import. This was, I felt, especially true where voice was concerned as this felt more like the ‘real’ me spilling into the carefully curated, virtual ‘me’. Cultivating a community of inquiry through ordered and controlled discussion forums is different to ‘exposing’ a facet of one’s identity through voice. I certainly feel more comfortable, as I have touched on before, with an identity constructed from text. As the virtual opiniontator showed, I wasn’t the only one to feel like this. The gorilla disagreed.

Voice tutorial_009

This is of real interest to me at the moment as I am currently devising and delivering a sequence of webinars for teachers at the schools I work with. They will be asked to interact with me and with each other via voice through Skype for Business and I will now be attuned to how unsettling this can potentially be. To have a facet of yourself, of your identity disembodied can be disconcerting, even if it is re-embodied within an avatar.

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Personhood. In Coming of Age in Second Life (pp. 118-150). Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Gee, J. P. (2003). Learning and Identity: What does it mean to be half-elf? In What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (pp. 51-71). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.