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).