Levin sees enough educational value in the game to take it beyond the walls of his school. He is co-owner of TeacherGaming, a startup company with a product called MinecraftEdu. Through a partnership with Mojang, the Swedish company behind Minecraft, TeacherGaming sells Minecraft downloads to educational institutions at up to a 50 percent discount and is testing customized versions for teachers to use in classrooms. (The original Minecraft costs $26.95 for a one-time download.)
According to Levin, about 300 schools have bought the discounted Minecraft so far, and 50 schools are testing MinecraftEdu. One teacher, he says, is using it to teach English as a second language through Minecraft’s online chat system. Another has her students write nightly journal entries about their Minecraft adventures.
My girls, who beg me each day to look at all the new buildings they’ve created, broached the idea of an educational Minecraft before I could even mention it: “I like Minecraft better than my homework,” my 8-year-old told me this spring when I struggled to redirect her to that night’s math. “Maybe my homework could be on Minecraft? Like when we were learning shapes, I could go on Minecraft and make pyramids! And I could put up signs like, ‘A pyramid has a square on the bottom.’ ”
The thing is Minecraft wasn’t designed to mesh with school life, at least not under the blocked-time, subject-specific schedules that define most classrooms today. In fact, as I learned from Scott Traylor, founder of 360KID, a consulting company that tracks virtual worlds, Minecraft wasn’t built as a learning tool for kids at all. And with the exception of the nascent MinecraftEdu partnership that was prompted by fans outside the company, there haven’t been any attempts to promote it for kids or for school use. Last year, when Minecraft won an award for the best virtual world for children at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Minecraft developer Markus “Notch” Persson didn’t even appear to pick up his prize.
Now families with Minecraft-obsessed children have to come up with new ways to accommodate it in their daily lives. Some have banned Minecraft on school days. (If Minecraft becomes part of lessons, they’ll have to adapt, I suppose.) Others have put time limits on its use each day. (A much trickier strategy than time-limiting TV watching, where programs conclude after 30 minutes.) One father wrote into the question-answering site Quora to find out how to cope with his 12-year-old son’s Minecraft addiction. (The advice: Engage with him. “Don't just unplug your kid, teach him how to unplug himself, and encourage him when he does,” said one.) In our house, we have rules about kids doing their book-reading first and making sure to have daily outdoor time. We also encourage them to tell us about what they are making on Minecraft and show them how to conduct research online to figure out how to concoct new things. My husband, nearly as Minecraft manic as they are, has created quests for them and their friends to find treasures he’s hidden.
But I’m alarmed at how the minutes can turn into hours if I’m not there to tell my kids to take a break. I love that they are creating things, talking about their creations, and planning ahead for new projects. But I hate that the real thing—their Legos, the cardboard boxes saved for building forts—can’t hold a candle to Minecraft in capturing their interest. (There’s even a Lego version of Minecraft.) Finding balance between the real and the virtual worlds now requires some real vigilance on my part.
I’m fascinated to watch whether Minecraft and other immersive games will eventually change the culture of our staid and struggling elementary schools. But I have to admit: I’m worried about what might happen when they do.