Those interested in the promise of gaming in education should be paying more attention to the unlikely success of Minecraft. Far from boasting impressive graphics or an engrossing storyline, the 16-bit game that looks the computer version of Lego is the ultimate in free-form entertainment. There are no quests, no tasks, no goals, no levels. There's just imagination, creativity and building – and the occasional killing of zombies.
Considering the game's popularity – its fans are notoriously obsessed, and examples of their breathtaking projects are all over YouTube – it's hard to believe that it was only opened to the public in November of 2011. Initially available on PC only, it is now playable on smartphones and tablets running Android and Apple iOS.
And although the kind of devotion the game inspires in its players might worry parents, according Nick Bilton of The New York Times, at least some child development experts – and a growing number of schools – believe that Minecraft has a lot of positive things to offer to children.
Earlier this year, for example, a school in Stockholm made Minecraft compulsory for 13-year-old students. "They learn about city planning, environmental issues, getting things done, and even how to plan for the future," said Monica Ekman, a teacher at the Viktor Rydberg school.
Around the world, Minecraft is being used to educate children on everything from science to city planning to speaking a new language, said Joel Levin, co-founder and education director at the company TeacherGaming. TeacherGaming runs MinecraftEdu, which is intended to help teachers use the game with students.
The potential of gaming to transform education has been discussed long before Minecraft — in reality, for decades. Recent studies touted the benefits of gaming to everything from cognitive development to surgical operating skills. Yet, in some ways, Minecraft is special. According to Eric Klopfer, professor at MIT's Scheller Teacher Education Program, Minecraft improved spatial reasoning and construction skills and help students better understand the world around them.
Professor Klopfer suggested that if parents were worried about the game, they should simply play it with their children. He said he set up a server in his house so his children's friends could play together and he could monitor their behavior and then explain that some actions, even in virtual worlds, are unethical — like destroying someone's Minecraft house, or calling them a bad name.
But Professor Klopfer warned that, as with anything, there was — probably to my nephew's chagrin — such as thing as too much Minecraft.
"While the game is clearly good for kids, it doesn't mean there should be no limits," he said. "As with anything, I don't want my kids to do any one thing for overly extended periods of time. Whether Legos or Minecraft; having limits is an important part their learning."