Noobing it up in minecraft: survival, making, sharing

“In search of diamonds” Blocky mix (minecraft machinima)

Last week I finally got around to playing the lavatacular 8-bit sandbox PC game Minecraft! In addition to having lots of fun, I’m also thinking all the great forms of learning it engages.  Bryan Alexander, was among the first to identify the educational virtues of the game’s simple graphics, play/mechanics and sandbox maker-ness. I’d add: self-directed, autonomous, creative, metacognitive, social and experiential learning. That’s right, the learning that already exists – not stuff you add to minecraft.

Minecraft appeals to explorer type gameplay through open, self directed inquiry, exploring, testing hypotheses, reflecting and goal setting. While the game is lacking the kind of formal learning structures found in other games (i.e., starting areas, tutorials, tips or leveled activity), this is probably the best part where learning is concerned – because there is not only room for the learner but also for many creative adaptations and uses of the gamespace.  For me, the fun is all about the misadventures, retries and reflection versus the prescribed narrative, grinding and sensory overload most games pass off as “play”.

Since I haven’t yet been playing long enough to formulate “educational” insights, I’d rather talk about what I enjoy about the game (which is actually all about learning) and offer a few thoughts for educators looking for a meaningful way in. Often, teachers come to games wanting to know “how do I teach with this” or “bring it into the classroom” before they’ve even explored it. They forget two things: gamers are already out there playing it (many of them the kids you plan to “teach”) and all the most essential learning that is going to happen is already happening – type minecraft into Youtube and you’ll get 235,000 results. That’s 235,000 resources that have been developed since this past summer alone.

This post is about the importance of the exploring part – as both the focus of this game and also as a philosophy for learning itself. So say goodbye to an evening or more, get yourself lost, die, make stuff, break stuff, repeat. I’m going to call this a Pedagogy of Noobing It Up.

My first night in minecraft

I began my first hours in minecraft in the company of my husband, a longtime gamer interested in using minecraft with his elementary students. Having another player handy – either in person or via IM – was useful given the lack of support for a game without scaffolding. This helps with what one of my colleagues (an early childhood educator) refers to as, the “guess what’s in my head” design logic that alienates many players from less structured activities.

Here’s an idea of what to expect on your first night, simply articulated in this great tutorial: Minecraft Tutorial 01 – How to Survive your First Night. A lot of really basic things, like chopping trees with your hands, knowing how to build a crafting table and some of the “recipes” for basic objects you need to stay alive are not at all intuitive.


I’m a wanderer so I love just wandering around, checking out the flora and fauna and experiencing the world. I didn’t realize how quickly the day goes in Minecraft! and soon realized that those few minutes of daylight are precious for resource collection and building. I realised this because I had neither of the items needed to survive at night: shelter and torches (light).

With the sun descending on the horizon, I smashed away at trees to get enough wood for sticks for my torches and a workbench. With a little help from the tutorial and some conversation with my fellow-minecrafter, I got the resources I needed to make a torch and I dug myself a hole in the ground just as the sun was setting. It was nothing more than a dirt hole completely sealed in with a couple of torches to prevent zombies from spawning with me in the darkness. I could hear the zombies moaning and groaning above me along with the cows, skeletons and hissing creepers. I now had my first “authentic” goal (to build a proper place that didn’t feel like a deathpit). The motivation was authentic too: this sucks being stuck in this hole!

The day after, I was at a school and talking with a student who had told me played minecraft. He asked what I’d done so far and told me I should set the game to “peaceful” and “just build.” He said the monsters were fun (survival mode) but building was, for him, where it was at. Several other students, hearing us talking minecraft, agreed: “yeah, build on peaceful! what have you made?” So I decided to go with their way and spend the next while just exploring the world and making things. That it felt like “cheating” goes to show how deeply rules and structures inform our idea of games and how we “ought” to play them (where do we learn this?). What the students had chosen to do felt more authentic (i.e., making our own choices about how to “play” rather than following the implicit logic of the game – surviving zombies). Though the minecraft creators likely had this kind of play in mind or else they likely wouldn’t have offered the “peaceful” mode at all, right?

Here is one of the homes I built for myself while on peaceful. It took me just under an hour to build (thanks to a convenient rock structure that formed the foundation.

I left it until the second day to explore the minecraft wiki, where I’d be able to learn how to make objects I didn’t initially have the resources for (and would have overwhelmed me to look at). I taught myself how to make glass, stairs, smooth stone, cooked meat, a boat and a compass.”

Given the time I spent making all this stuff, I decided to capture it in a short video. I made this one after discovering a great little mine and realizing that the choice of where you build your home shouldn’t be arbitrary. I call the video “noobing it up” because I really am: note the abundance of doors and the crafting table affixed to my hand for the first part :)


Moving on to multiplayer: Eureka!

When I tweeted that I was playing Minecraft, a few folks in my network told me I had to try multiplayer. A local indie game designer I know invited me to come and play on his friend’s server inhabited by a very small group of game designers. I was excited to have the opportunity not only to play with others but also to see what kinds of things actual game developers had come up with. I was blown away by their skyscraper high lava towers and pathways, towns and minecart rollercoasters. Clearly the work of those who spend a lot of time designing things that both fun to look at and fun to engage – and something to contrast to my crude structural/design logic (though rich with learning for me).

During my first few hours on the server I managed to flood one of their mines. The following day I met one of the guys who came over to my humble home and invited me to explore his creations — along with playfully vandalizing another player’s living room with hundreds of torches ;-> It was wonderful to finally see another player and chat and get through a couple of hair-raising monster attacks (I died twice during our brief tour). As an educator, it was also interesting to note how much prior learning I drew upon to engage this other player – jumping up and down to indicate “happy” (something WoW players do) and negotiating unfamiliar terrain (when your skills with the controls are still clunky) definitely draws on prior knowledge (i.e., transfer).

When I finally got to talk to one of the guys offline, he talked to me about the pleasure he took in sharing his creations – and collaborating on new ones. My designer friend brought up the question of whether the game ought to have more built in structure and the need for this in future iterations versus the scaffolding thus far created around the game by players.

Social and collaborative learning FTW

One of the things I love about the game designers space is that they set up a kind of “safe house” which is right near the water. I didn’t know or think of it as such when I spawned after a death but it was obvious that’s what it was. A tiny building unlike all the rest, well lit with torches and not obscured by trees. Inside, there was a chest with some basic items, a crafting table, a stove and a bed (which allows you to speed up the night cycle within a few seconds). When you die, you have nothing, so this little place gave me just enough items to head back out into the land and get what I needed. Plus, it keeps you safe from creepers. Here’s a picture of a couple of them hanging out outside the safehouse, waiting to blow me up. Notice the items in my inventory: a wooden sword and pick and three torches.

Being collectively minded, I knew that any items I took should be replaced – and I also thought about the items that I might like to be there (and would probably provide – a sword, for example). At the same time, I think it’s important that there’s a bit of challenge for the survivor. My experiences at the safehouse got me thinking how minecraft can be used to scaffold: collectivity, resource sharing and community building versus the dominant message of our culture: consume and compete. Competition may well be another game element that players could explore but I’m more interested in collaboration.

I also wondered about resource sharing. Would I use their mines or dig my own? I did end up mining a bit in one of their mines and then after learned that I ought to make my own. So when I created my own mine I made it clear that they were welcome to it – and anything they find there is theirs for the keeping. The more of the mine gets opened up the better – and I don’t really have time to light up the huge caverns I’ve discovered. I built this walkway to my own house but the idea is that these structures can be used by anyone who wishes to avoid monsters while traveling to and from safe spots.

Minecraft in school (and situated in player’s spaces)

This part is for those of you who have already noobed it up. Lucas Gillespie’s Minecraftinschool wiki, a resource I was proud to contribute to, has some great starting points for educators interested in using minecraft in the classroom. What I like most about Lucas’s approaches (in both WoW in schools and with Minecraft) is that they are highly open-ended, creative, exploratory and reflective. As a gamer, Lucas connects the curriculum with the gameplay in ways that feel authentic rather than forced and he never loses sight of what makes each game special to players.

But locating the game in the classroom is not the only way to ‘teach’ with this game. Given all I’ve written about situated learning lately, I want to emphasize the importance of the community of minecraft players and makers already in existence and to emphasize the point that teachers need to be mindful of the abundant practices and culture that these people have developed — and in a very brief time. And the ways we could tap into learner’s insights developed outside of school.

By mindful,  I mean before charging into this space with ideas of our own or locating the game in an educational setting, we think about drawing out the existing experiences and knowledge of players (and learners) to shape how it ought to be. Before we begin to “plan” how to use minecraft, it is more mindful to ask the students/players: What do they already know about it? How do they play it? Where do they play it? Do they play it with friends or alone? What kinds of things do they like to make? Etc.

For many learners, the richest “learning” experience they’re going to have is going to be out of school. At their own pace on their own time and on their own terms. The experience they have in their minecraft world (a truly magic circle). This is true of all situated learning that takes place in an authentic affinity space. Ultimately, great uses of minecraft in school will recognise that the “learning” is already well underway outside of schools and classrooms. Tapping into that, rather than trying to re-situate the game is key.

Finally, minecraft isn’t for everybody. From the aesthetic to the lack of structure and focus on “crafting”, it’s important to remember that games are as personal as music. Not every kid is going to go nuts when you propose the idea of playing a sandbox game. And for those who like other kinds of games, maybe there is a way they can tie those games to minecraft – as we might do with comparative literature study or other contrasting projects. Or, again, just ask them what they’d like to do with it – or maybe think about how minecraft might be used with some students but not all.

Getting started with minecraft

Without creating an overly structured approach (and leaving room for you to figure things out on your own and do some online inquiry and hands on problem solving), here are some tips:

1) Find out a bit about the game – what it is, what it isn’t. That might clear up some assumptions before you get started. You mastery learners ought to watch yourself. There’s a wealth of info out there that will rob you of some of the challenge and surprise you will otherwise learn from. This post alone might be enough (plus a visit to the included links).

2) Buddy: consider asking a friend to try the game out with you – or ask around to see if you know anybody who is already playing. That might be helpful as it was to me. If you’re really lucky, you might even know somebody who has it on a server :)

3) Download and install the game (I suggest paying for it: best 20 bucks I’ve spent and goes a long way to supporting this indie game)

4) Watch the “first night” tutorial (link above) and make sure that it’s open when you’ve installed the game.

5) Explore, test, experience, enjoy, die (yes. over and over. it helps, trust me). Try not to set anything but the most basic goals for yourself (i.e., learning from your mistakes, reflecting on what worked and didn’t and setting goals that speak to those learnings). Building massive structures, creating eletrical circuits, monster traps and pvp might be thrilling to think about but you must face yourself before facing Darth …

6) Share your creations (and accidents) – one of the comments that keeps coming up over and over again is the pleasure and pride players take in sharing their creations with others — as well as their disasters – see below. Unlike many other games, the time you spend in minecraft yield’s creative works worthy of showcasing and celebrating as any other artform. Create a log, take screenshots, do a machinima – put together a gallery of your life and times in the world. Here are some of writing/log ideas I included for students (what Lucas called “The Explorer’s Journal”, which I scaffolded).