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Reinventing the Classroom Through Games-Based Learning

Minecraft 3

Before I decided to chase a career in the high-flying world *cough* of video games writing, I used to be a teacher.

I taught English and IT for four years at primary level in an English Programme school in Thailand. During this time I took a number of online courses, one of which was “Games Based Learning”. I’d read about a teacher in the US by the name of Joel Levin. He was reporting a huge improvement in his students’ engagement – and most importantly, their grades – after introducing Minecraft into their curriculum. Being somewhat already familiar with the game, I decided to conduct an experiment of my own.

I wanted to find out just how much my students knew about Minecraft, the kind of content they were consuming and how often they played. In total, I asked 148 students six simple questions. Here were the results:

It is worth noting that out of the 148 students polled, seven of them did not have access to a device on which Minecraft is playable. This includes mobile ports of the game. Also of note is that of the students that played Minecraft regularly, there was about a 40/60 split between those that played on PC and those that played on mobile/tablet devices respectively.

If you’re not familiar with Minecraft, it’s essentially a CAD program, cleverly disguised as a video game. Imagine a vast digital LEGO playset and you’ll start to get the idea. Upon release it had two modes of play: Survival and Creative mode. In Survival, the player must gather resources, build a shelter and craft items with the final goal of beating the Ender Dragon – the game’s final boss. In contrast, Creative Mode focuses solely on building. There are are no restrictions placed on the player in this mode in terms of resources. All are available in infinite quantity from the get-go in the player’s inventory, allowing for virtually unlimited creative possibilities. You’re also given the ability to fly, making construction that much easier.

“The beauty about teaching in virtual worlds such as Minecraft is the teacher’s ability to control, shape and alter certain parameters that govern the world itself.”

Each in-game item is represented by a block and each block is approximately one metre cubed in size. Perhaps the most important and versatile block in the Minecraft universe is Redstone. By mimicking the properties of electrical materials, it allows for the creation of everything from simple switches to a working 16-bit computer.

Minecraft‘s chunky aesthetic gives an illusion of simplicity, however this is far from the truth. The game is incredibly deep, allowing for user created content on a massive scale. Your imagination truly is the limit to what you can build.

There have been some remarkable creations made by the loyal and thriving Minecraft community. Some of the most well known include a working cell phone, 1:1 scale recreations of the Starship Enterprise and a 1:1 scale recreation of Denmark. That’s right. Denmark, complete with cities, rivers, countryside and perhaps Denmark’s most famous export, pigs. In a comedic turn of events, the server hosting the Denmark map was invaded by guess who? The Americans! They managed to sneak in virtual dynamite and destroy parts of beautiful Copenhagen, whilst raising American flags all over the city. How perfectly American: both amazing and ridiculous at the same time.

Youtube is crammed with Minecraft videos. From tutorials to parody songs to pornography, there’s no shortage of content external to the game itself. Since Microsoft paid a staggering $2.5 billion for Minecraft in September 2014, the corporate machine has been churning out merchandise of all shapes, sizes and forms. It’s no overstatement that Minecraft has become a social phenomenon, especially among kids aged between five and fifteen. Its simple to understand mechanics offer an incredible amount of depth, if you’re willing to invest the time to learn them.

Considering the depth and scope that Minecraft offers, and that the large majority of my students were already familiar with the game’s mechanics, it seemed like a no-brainer to try and use Minecraft in the classroom in some way or another. Now, I just had to convince the School Head to allow me to do so. The moment the words, “I want to teach my kids in Minecraft” left my mouth, I was expecting to be laughed out of the office. Luckily, and to my great surprise, he was very receptive to the idea. He wasn’t familiar himself with the game and after initially remarking, “Isn’t it just a kid’s video game?” I explained my plans and the potential benefits I’d read about. He quickly came round to the idea. And with that I was instantly the most popular teacher in the school – at least with the kids anyway. Other colleagues of mine however, were far more reticent to get involved.

“The moment the words ‘I want to teach my kids in Minecraft’ left my mouth, I was expecting to be laughed out of the office.”

“Video games in the classroom? Where’s the use in that?” was the general consensus. Unfortunately, their knowledge of video games extended to having maybe heard of Call of Duty, watching their nephew kill a prostitute in GTA and playing a SNES 20 years previously. I found this incredibly frustrating for a number of reasons. Surely teachers should pay an active interest in what their students’ enjoy doing in their free time? Another example of this was when a fellow colleague asked their students to name their teams (each class was split into usually five or six teams). One team chose “FUS RO DAH!” – an iconic Skyrim reference as their name. The teacher had no idea what this meant. However once I  heard this I laughed harder than I had in a long time and felt very, very proud.

The battle for student engagement in the classroom is won by providing variety, fun and structure. Minecraft provides all three of these. For a teacher, managing your students’ behaviour is priority number one in the classroom. Effective classroom management is the key to effective teaching. Structured lessons and a clear rewards and sanctions system are the basis for success. The same applies when teaching a lesson in Minecraft. A clear learning objective, structure and rules are needed. The great thing is, Minecraft makes these very easy to implement.

The beauty about teaching in virtual worlds such as Minecraft is the teacher’s ability to control, shape and alter certain parameters that govern the world itself. Games can be orchestrated to provide certain gameplay scenarios or challenges through the use of mods and custom maps. Teaching an ecology lesson? Load a world with small biomes in close proximity to each other. This way students can easily move between them, observing the different flora and fauna associated with each. Egyptology? Perhaps download a map of the ancient pyramids of Giza for the students to explore. Maths, languages, chemistry, architecture, agriculture, geology, conservation, tourism and music are just a few of the other subjects that anyone can explore in Minecraft, given the know-how. This is all thanks to the detailed yet relatively simple crafting system and a die-hard community of creatively-minded fans.

The success I encountered in my students after using Minecraft in the classroom was fascinating. I saw improvements across the board, especially in science and language related studies. An example of this is when the player hovers the mouse cursor over a specific block in the inventory, the name of the block appears. Some of the names of these blocks were well above my student’s perceived reading level. And yet they were not only able to name and spell the names of the blocks, but also tell me about their real world properties and uses. All this from a “kids” video game.

Minecraft is just one of the games I can recommend to be used to facilitate education in the classroom. Others include:

  • Sweatshop – a deceptively cute yet dark and somber look at child exploitation in the clothing industry. The player takes the role of a sweatshop manager, in charge of employing child labour to meet various clothing production quotas.
  • Assassins Creed series – set across a variety of locations throughout different time periods and featuring architecturally accurate historical landmarks.
  • SimCity 2000 – a strategic city management sim. It can be used to educate students about city planning, the needs of citizens and potential social and political factors that effect them.
  • Plague Inc. – the player takes control of a deadly disease. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites all behave differently though they all have the same objective – the eradication of mankind from the planet. Diseases evolve differently over time depending on the player’s choices and countermeasures taken by the AI.
  • Civilization series – a turn-based strategy series simulating the rise and fall of various empires through the course of human history. There’s a lot of mechanics in play here, some of which can be fairly obtuse, so maybe not recommended for younger players.

There are many more, far to many to mention here. Teachthought.com has by-no-means comprehensive list, but its a good place to start looking if you’re interested in games-based learning. Also one of the best studies on the subject can be found here. It’s a fairly long report but a fantastic read. Just by browsing the summaries, you’ll get a good overview of some of the advantages to a games based learning approach to education.

To summarise my thoughts: video games are being drastically overlooked as a learning tool in the classroom. Most educators are guilty of this, however there is a growing number of teachers that are now realising the potential of games-based learning and the advantages it brings to conventional methods of classroom education.

“The success I encountered in my students after using Minecraft in the classroom was fascinating. I saw improvements across the board, especially in science and language related studies.”

Too often in the classroom video games are used as a reward. A “well done” from the teacher to the student; the equivalent of a small prize, maybe allowing for 10 minutes of play. But video games offer so much more than this! They shouldn’t be seen as a pastime, but instead as a valuable classroom resource in the same way that text books, documentaries, movies and other literature are viewed. Used correctly, video games can provide an immersive experience like no other. They enable teachers to send their students to virtual worlds where they can explore, experiment and investigate at their own pace. But most importantly, they can do it in a structured learning environment.

I’m not saying that all classes should be taught virtually. However, with the hopeful proliferation of VR on the near horizon, virtual worlds will begin to play a larger role in the education of our children. It’s time most teachers and educators got on board and realised the incredible potential of video games to enhance learning experiences.