Tinkering with Minecraft: Learning from the EDGE

The following post was originally published for Ryerson University’s EDGElab blog

This is a picture of learning in action. It’s what happens when you go off-road and really explore and test the limits of things and disaster becomes success. It’s also the basis for meaningful, autonomous and open ended learning and play. And the starting point for EDGElab’s exploration (and destruction) of Minecraft.  DANGER: reading the rest of this post may cause: dizziness, disequilibrium, panic … and, possibly, a new way of thinking about games-based learning and play.

In a lab devoted to experiential design and gaming environments (EDGE), we’re mostly known for our adaptive design projects. But we do other stuff here too, like researching learning and play in games and virtual worlds.

‘Ya, so?’

Believe it or not, not all of us were on board with this game. The gamers in the lab were excited, but the non-gamer skeptics were, well, skeptical. As Jason put it: “I wasn’t interested. And what I heard bothered me a bit.” When he first saw it, he found it “totally visually overstimulating and overwhelming.” For Jason, and those like him (Jason is one of the autistics in the lab), Minecraft seemed to present more problems than opportunities. Among the questions we typically ask of games and learning environments:

  • Does Minecraft promote autonomous play and exploration? (if so, in what ways?)
  • Is the game open ended or close ended (definitions needed)
  • Do I have to guess “what’s in your head” to play?
  • How much customization, adaptation or modifications can I make?
  • What types of gameplay and mechanics are promoted (or left out)?
  • Does the game support or promote making, creating or critical thinking (or memorization/mastery/repetition?)

Unpacking assumptions

Minecraft presented interesting opportunities and challenges for each of us – critically and otherwise. So before we could start investigating the more practical questions of teaching or learning with Minecraft (or, even why to “teach” at all), we needed to ‘unpack’ a few things about who we are as, players, gamers, learners and how our assumptions, prior knowledge, lived experiences and biases mediated our perceptions and experience of the game. For some of us, the open-ended play felt like a better key to learning than following rules, for others, viewing tutorials or achieving mastery within the bounds of the game. Jason wanted to explore the “liminalities” (i.e. break it), Vlad wanted to make to adapt it (i.e.hack it), Noah wanted to explore , and I wanted to, among other things, create a PvP battleground. Remarkably, the autonomous explorations (and collisions) of our differences resulted in enormously creative (and sometimes dangerous) tinkering, learning and play.

Melanie observing the rift caused when Vlad showed Jason how to make an enormous TNT sphere and detonated it

Jason created this enormous glass sphere using the sphere tool and then filling it full of water

We all found our way in through a combination of self-directed inquiry, hand-holding, occasional pushiness and open-ended exploration. This led us to further modify, augment and scaffold the game to our own interests and needs rather than those defined by the game or some “best” or “right” way to play it. Vlad was integral to showing us all the ways we could alter, control and monitor a great number of variables via hacks and mods to our server install. For Jason, it was about removing the elements he didn’t like – not adding more: “I started liking Minecraft more once I could remove the game from it.”

Early on, Vlad pointed us to the “many videos on youtube and tutorials online showing what people have built.” But what inspired him the most were, as he put it,  the “mods or plugins that were used to add to the game, for example the motorized minecart mod way before electric rails were even introduced. This led to a greater appeal of being able to install and run these mods on my own server. Since we had a server at the EDGE Lab I was lucky to be able to use it and try all these things out.” As for myself, a long time WoW [link]player, there’s a feeling of affinity, community, mastery and connection arises from participating in the larger culture of a game in the form of player-created resources and showcases.

But let’s not forget that Minecraft is still, essentially, in-development and missing conventional learning structures (starting areas, tutorials or hints) that creators intend to build in gradually over time. Vlad notes, “with the new achievement system in version 1.5 I think it will be a lot easier for new users to learn the basics of the game and surviving that first night. The one thing that I have always enjoyed about minecraft is the fact that there is no right way of playing the game. In essence you are making your own games or adventures inside this game” (i.e. achievements).  Markus Persson, the game’s chief developer says, “free building mode is fine and dandy, but for many people it will ultimately become boring once you’ve got it figured out,” which is true for the player who is interested in those challenges though may not apply to those who, like us, are more interested in using Minecraft as a crafting tool – to design our own game mechanics and play them with our friends.

Now that we’ve experimented among ourselves, we are planning a research paper about open-ended approaches to Minecraft for learning and teaching. For now, we thought our most transformative and transgressive insights could be summarized in a 5 “dangerous” things approach, which we encourage you to hack, modify and extend in your own way!

5 Dangerous Things (to try in Minecraft)

The following 5 things are inspired by Gever Tulley’s 50 Dangerous Things approach to learning through experimentation – and danger! We’ll rate these according to types of risk:

1) Get lost
Frustration, lost time
When you first arrive in Minecraft you have the greatest opportunity for open-ended exploration of all: getting lost. Being lost in the wild’s of your New World, there are no landmarks, no map, no compass.  Everything looks – almost – the same. For the unarmed-orienteer, being lost presents you with a number of interesting, time consuming and frustrating learning opportunities. Everything is new and unexpected – just like in a good story: hills and valleys, rivers and trees, animals and beasts.

2) Play with fire (and lava and TNT)
Death, loss health, loss of stuff
Most people talk about Minecraft in terms of creativity and crafting.  But what about destruction? Minecraft offers a wonderful assortment of dangerous elements to play and learn with. Like fire and lava. My favourite Minecraft Tutorial captures the beauty of learning with fire. There’s nothing like falling into lava or catching fire to teach you the value of each. TNT is an explosively fun thing to play with that delivers one-of-a-kind results and “creations” – especially when it detonates “by accident” while you’re friends present (which brings us to #3!)

3) “Grief” or kill your friends
: Death, smack talk, taunts, loss of friendship
A variation on Gever’s “poison your friends”, griefing is all about doing not nice things to other players – intentionally. It’s an experience few of us have had online and fewer still admit to doing or enjoying. It’s that ‘rough and tumble’ dimension of learning normal to sport, combat or natural play. Griefing or killing your colleagues generates surprise, shock, adrenalin and, hopefully (if you choose the right one), laughter. OK, we’re not talking about the really mean spirited griefing driven by a desire to really hurt somebody’s feelings but playful pranksterism. For example, not every friend will appreciate being covered in lava, set in stone and decorated with torches and signs that say “HA HA AFK!” – but some might.


4) Hack the game
Unintended results, Lag, server meltdown
One of the benefits of running Minecraft on your own server is the ability to customize it in all kinds of crazy ways. As Vlad explains, having mods, plugins or enabling special privileges “lets you create things that you would never have even thought about in the past. Scripts like ‘world edit’ can enable the creation of superstructures in very little time, something that might not have been attempted if scripts like that were not around.” From an adaptive design standpoint, the ability to customize a play or learning experience is at the heart of what we’re researching – and this ‘maker’ ‘hacker’ spirit runs counter to the notion of ‘expert/teacher driven’ structures in which the learner’s needs, ideas or ways of being or doing are secondary to those of the power holder or system in which they are located.

5) Get Op’d, play in God mode
Loss of peer respect, addiction to power and control!
“Op” (operator) is when a player has access to server commands and the ability to acquire items and increments of items similar to “all weapons” cheats. Instead of getting stuff through gameplay, the Op just types in the ID and quantity and voila, 65 saddles, 50 diamond pick axes, 25 monster spawners or any other object that might time, effort or luck to get. That this might “ruin” the game is precisely the point. As with Godmode (i.e., you never die), once you remove built in challenges and expose the “time” sink of games, you have new challenges to think about: like making your own fun. God mode is about exploring the limits of Minecraft itself … without concerns for lava plunges while building or running out of food (it gets tired after a while). You just keep building, exploring, digging, blowing things up. Advice: play the game normally for at least a few weeks so you experience the challenge of obtaining things legitimately.

Finally, this post is not intended to explain how you ought to learn or play with Minecraft. It’s just a summary of our explorations, discoveries and disasters. All of which, we could only find by tinkering, testing and breaking the rules.


Lucas Gillespie: Minecraft in School wiki
Strategies for teaching minecraft in schools

Noobing it up in Minecraft: Survival, Making, Sharing
An extended post about my introduction to Minecraft

“Tinkering with Minecraft: Learning from the EDGE” was originally published in Ryerson’s EDGElab blog