I made the plunge into the world of Minecraft last weekend when I wasn’t invited to a beta testing weekend (for an unnamed MMORPG, but if you know me, you know which one).  Minecraft has been getting a LOT of buzz of late.  Even while it was still in beta, it had millions of users, and teachers were using it in K-12 classes to teach computer science, writing, collaboration (in multiplayer mode), English, and progression of crafting.  It just released into verion 1.0 on the same day I decided to buy a copy, and I have to say that I’m pleased with its functionality and stability so far … although all I’ve played at this point is the singleplayer, survival mode.

What It Is

Minecraft is a sandbox game – which means that it has no rules or set roles.  The player decides what to do and what success means.  At first, this can be a little frustrating because, like life, making choices and giving up other possibilities is a bit of a challenge.  Until you know what you CAN do, it is hard to decide what to try.  So, I took a look around the Internet and the Minecraft wiki to see what other players have been doing.  I was blown away by images of fancy castles, a replica of the Globe Theater, and old-fashioned masted ships.  Ok, so the world really is wide open in this game.  I had a high bar to meet.  And that’s just in creative mode.

You can also play the game in survival mode or hard mode.  So far, I’ve just tried survival mode, which gives a little spice to creativity.  Monsters come out of dark places (like the night and caves) and don’t necessarily go away during the day.  This means that the player must take measures to survive while building and pay attention while exploring.  My character died quite a lot at first, but then I started to develop strategies (with the help of tutorials), buildings, and weapons.  Now, while I need to be cautious, I haven’t lost a great deal of resources or time for a few (real time) days.

Hard mode looks like it plays more like the traditional MMOG with a lot of potential for monsters and fighting.

So, the player can pick the type of game experience desired and set his or her own goals.  In survival mode, the character does level up gradually, with the defeat of monsters and resource animals.  As the player/character progresses, there is a technology tree.  While the educator (and former classics minor) cringes at the use of gold and diamond armor), I am greatly enjoying the challenge of playing a stone-age farmer who is trying to find enough ore to craft iron weapons and armor while also keeping myself fed and housed.

It Ain’t Easy

The best thing is that Minecraft is a challenging game.  Resources are scarce and spread out.  And they are unpredictable.  Unlike World of Warcraft, mobs do not stay in the same place.  Resources spring up in various locations.  Monsters appear randomly – sometimes almost out of nowhere.  There is serious risk/reward assessment to be done, and planning ahead, being prepared, and playing smart are rewarded.

This game could be used to help players work on mapping.  With days only 10 minutes long in real time, you want to be efficient in navigating lest your character be caught away from shelter at night.  A lot of calculation practice could also be supported so that students would calculate how much of a resource they needed to achieve a crafting goal or how far they can move from shelter before they need to turn back.

And history …. oh how I love history learning opportunities.  With resources so scarce, students could really understand why cities are built near certain juxtapositions of resources such as mountains for ore, water for irrigation, pasturage for animals, etc.  And why stone-age buildings were built as they were.  And why the Romans, with their roads and aqueducts were able to roam the continent and into Britain.

Roman roads … as my character roams up and down hills, I’m really appreciating the Roman road …. and I’m planning to build more than a few now that my little farms (finally irrigated) are starting to generate a surplus of food that allows me to travel more and spend less time on finding food!   The world is vast enough that it is easy to get lost, and so students would also begin to understand why either mapping or signposting were necessary before the GPS was invented.  Of course, once the map and compass are developed in Minecraft, this is less of an issue.  Nevertheless, students each have to get to that point of technology creation first.  Which means that they need to do old-school navigation before they can tech up.

I’m going to experiment next on stone towers and try a Roman villa to see which keep out the monsters at night better while letting me feel a little less claustrophobic (stone buildings have their limits!).  I’ve been keeping my character’s living quarters in my mines up to this point with torches for light.  This works just fine, but the view is a little dull over time.

I find myself intrigued by questions of what types of building, crafting, food gathering, defense, and exploration strategies will work, especially pulling ideas from historical periods.  The cost/benefit equation feels very “right” to me – and I look forward to seeing how historical solutions to survival problems will  play out.

It Ain’t Perfect

It’s a game.  The technology progression is short and skips the bronze age (and steel — although you do get chain mail).  Torches burn forever, and water doesn’t evaporate or sink into the ground once you irrigate your fields.  Still, for an inexpensive indie game, the basic ideas are there for use by a clever teacher.

The graphics are very basic and old-school.  It gets a little annoying at times, but it also loads quickly and movement is smooth through the world.  It’s kinda like playing Legos, but that also makes calculation of volume for building pretty straightforward.

I’m planning to play this for the next month, until the new Star Wars MMOG from Bioware comes out.  Then, I might alternate between them after that.  Having a world in which to build anything without worrying about prim count (a la Second Life) but having some imposed challenges and limits is highly interesting, even for an adult.  I’d love to try this with a middle-school after school program!

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