What is it about Minecraft that is so captivating, engaging, and just plain fun?
I’ve been playing and teaching Minecraft for over 10 years now, running Minecraft Clubs in my schools, coding Minecraft, working with content creators, serving as a MInecraft Global Mentor, and doing LetsPlay’s and tutorials on my YouTube channel. And I’m constantly amazed at how people respond to this mega-game with its indie roots. So what is about Minecraft? I’ll start with
Back in 2012 or so, I was teaching middle school computer science and kept hearing students excitedly sharing their adventures in this game, referencing “diamonds” and “creepers”, and sharing tips and tricks. Besides the obvious enthusiasm, I also noted that boys and girls were equally into the game. The engagement factor was off the charts. So I owed it to myself to find out what this was all about.
I got a copy of the old MinecraftEdu and loaded it up. First impression: what is going on here, with these clunky old 8-bit boxy graphics?? Aren’t we well into the 21st century, where we have photorealistic 3D gaming? So I asked my students what the deal with Minecraft was. Got a firehose torrent of reponses: it’s so cool, you can do anything you want, you can build whatever you want, you can play with your friends, etc. When I mentioned the graphics, they told me it was all about your imagination, and that you could make whatever you imagined. Well, ok then!
So I asked for help from the experts — my students. Full disclosure — even though I have taught game creation on multiple platforms for decades, I really suck at playing games. Like, really suck. But one of my students was so eager to help me that he volunteered to stay after school and be my own personal tutor. We’ll call him Alex. You should know that Alex wasn’t the most committed, productive, or organized student in school. But he was the best tutor I could ever have had. He was patient, thoughtful, willing to explain what I was doing wrong, didn’t make fun of me for my fumbling, and also didn’t “take over” the keyboard! That said a lot to me, not just about the game but about Alex. I’ll always be grateful.
And darned if Minecraft didn’t start casting its spell on me. I wanted to keep going, get back to it, learn how to survive the night, and master how to build and craft! And beyond my own personal pull to the game, I thought: If I can’t figure out a way to use this in my classes, I need to have my teaching license revoked.
In all my years of teaching (and there have been a lot of them!), I had never seen anything with the engagement factor of Minecraft. As a computer science teacher, I was interested in seeing how it could be used for teaching coding. Fortunately, there was a “mod” called MinecraftEdu, which gave the teacher some added controls over what players did. And there was also a mod called ComputerCraft, which used the game to teach basic programming concepts, like moving in directions, looping, variables, etc. It really was magical!
Fast forward a couple of years. It’s a morning before school, and I’m scanning tech headlines to keep up with news, and I come across the announcement that Microsoft had purchased Minecraft. For $2.5 billion. And I really believe my heart stopped! Why? Because I, frankly, viewed Microsoft as the Evil Empire at that time. It was a little like hearing that the death star was suddenly parked right above your planet. I feared what might happen to our beloved “little” indie game, with its fervent community, extensibility, and fun factor!
However, I tried to keep an open mind. I had had some interactions with Microsoft in the educational field and was impressed with their commitment to learning. That summer I went to a CSTA conference and immediately found the Microsoft tables in the vendor space and grilled them about their plans for Minecraft. What changes were they going to make? How would they “monetize” it? How were they going to use it in the educational space? Who was in charge of updates and the direction it took? And honestly, the answers were pretty reassuring. I learned that their developers had strict instructions NOT to mess with the DNA of the game and were even given a book to read about the origin story of Minecraft and its roots in Sweden as a little community-driven game. Since then, I think they’ve been as good as their word, and though they haven’t done everything “right”, they’ve kept that same community-driven, indie spirit alive as the game has kept growing and growing. And I’ven also been impressed with their use and support of Minecraft in the educational sphere, with a new MinecraftEdu with built-in support for learning coding. Speaking of growing…..
Popularity of the game
How big is Minecraft today? Total revenue is now over $3 billion. There are over 140 million players worldwide. YouTube views of Minecraft-related content were over 200,000,000,000. That billions, folks! And it’s still growing, which is crazy for a game that was introduced in 2011.
Why is it so popular? Here are some reasons:
- the basics of the game are still the same. You can explore, create, survive, engineer, or build whatever you want!
- it’s hard to beat the price. Still under $30 for a lifetime license (not subscription based!) on desktop or console. and cheaper on a mobile device!
- Microsoft has done a great job of “feeding and watering” the game, with 2 major updates a year with community input, an annual virtual convention featuring developers, content creators, and other Minecraft stars, spinoff games, and a very active social media presence.
- an entire ecosphere now, supporting a whole raft of jobs: content creation, mapmaking, developing, building, etc. Kids can now earn actual money doing these things, regardless of their age.
- availabilty on every platform: desktop, console, and mobile.
- and in my lane, MinecraftEdu, with its ecosphere of teachers, Global Mentors (I’m one), free lesson plans on everything from math to computer science to sustainability to science (check out the mixable chemicals in the chemical update), and pretty much any subject you can think of.
What makes it so magical?
One thing I noticed at the outset, which is still true, is that the love of Minecraft cuts across all boundaries: nationality, race, gender, even age. Everybody loves it! To give you an example on the last one, I just finished a camp for 3rd graders and am preparing to offer a course in my local lifelong learning group for seniors. As in people with AARP subscriptions, not high school seniors!
It has an easy entry point. Once you learn how to move around, break and place blocks, you’re good to go! But there is so much to learn! And people with experience are ALWAYS happy to share, just like my tutor Alex.
It’s immediately engaging for all different types of players. Do you love to have epic battles with imposing foes? Yup. Do you love building beautiful houses, castles, even cities? Yup. Do you love to code and engineer cool stuff? Yup. Do you want to live your own unique adventure? Yup. Want to play in any of these modes with your friends? Got you covered there, too.
And all those old-school, blocky graphics actually are part of the charm! It does leave a lot to your own imagination, and you can build, create, whatever you can imagine. And you can do it pretty quickly, too.
As an educator, though, I keep returning to that thought I had way back when I first heard my students excitedly chattering about their adventures: I’ve got to find a way to use this in my curriculum. I’m happy to report that I have done that ever since, and am still doing it in my “retirement”. Minecraft forever! Come join me!