Category: Virtual Worlds

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!

Related articles

Rik is one of those people who always inspire me to keep on trying to explain why virtual worlds like Second Life and Gaia Online really do provide ways to make a better world.

Sorry I missed the presentation both f2f and in SL — but asynchronous viewing rules in my world these days!!!

You haven't lived until you've died in MUD. --...

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I’ve been collecting dissertations (and theses) about virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games.  This is my list thus far …. if anyone knows of others, please share.  This would especially be helpful for all of us who are breaking new ground at institutions that don’t currently have professors well-versed with this type of location for research.

Bruckman, A. S. (1997). MOOSE Crossing: Construction, Community, and Learning in a Networked Virtual World for Kids. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Long, B. T. (2008). Online Communities on the MUVE: Using Second Life to build an Online Peer-support Community for Pre-service Teachers. University of Dublin.

Smith-Robbins, S. (2011). Incommensurate Wor(l)ds: Epistemic Rhetoric and Faceted Classification of Communication Mechanics in Virtual Worlds. Ball State University, Muncie, IN.

Steinkuehler, C. A. (2005). Cognition and learning in massively multiplayer online games:  A critical approach. Unpublished Dissertation, University of WIsconsin, Madison, WI.

Recently, some professors asked me about using Second Life to augment second language acquisition classes.  So, I dove into old emails, landmarks, can websites to pull together a rough list of some of the opportunities that exist either formally or informally.  Forgive me if your particular institution or event is not listed – and add it in the comments, please.  While there are some lists available (wikis and blogs), many have become out of date – which is just frustrating for someone who wants to do a quick dip into the pool of possibilities.

I’m offering this short selection to get the reader started in thinking about Second Life (and other virtual worlds) as locations for instruction and practice.   For those students who are particularly good with technology, they can also be locations where students prepare and present their understanding of language and culture.


Yes, Virginia, there is a conference devoted to the topic.  SLanguages is free and held in Second Life.  This year, it is almost upon us – October 15 & 16, 2010.

Electric Village Online also has annual gatherings and work sessions.

Multiple Language Sites

Several language education groups work with multiple languages or with language acquisition pedagogy in general.  Also, Second Life has multiple sims where English is not the locally spoken language.  I provide three here to get the reader started:  the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Avatar Languages, and BABEL Language School (Link to location in SL).

Spanish Language

Instituto Espanol is an immersive language and culture site. They have a nightclub in Second Life with information and opportunities for practice.  Spanish language and location reproductions are relatively common in Second Life, offering students locations and situations in which they will need to use their language skills to navigate the space and interact with objects and people. I am including this YouTube video for a quick overview of some of the Spanish sims.

Penn State also is using Second Life to enhance their Spanish courses at Penn State Isle, and you can find objects for free there to enhance or start your own Second Life educational effort.

German Language

The Volkshochschule runs several dozen events each week, focusing on different topics and vocabulary sets.  The Goethe Institut also has an installation in world, and there is a virtual Berlin (modern) as well as 1920s version available for Second Life residents.

Chinese (Mandarin) Language

Chinese is taught at Chinese Island under the auspices of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.  The University of Hawai’i also has a Chinese School in Second Life.


At Bryn Mawr, a professor is experimenting with using Second Life to enhance Italian courses at the Experience Italy sim.


English as a second language is taught (or courses enhanced) at many locations in Second Life.  Places like English City, Languagelab, and Virtuoland HQ all offer opportunities to see how English is taught and practiced in this virtual world and could even be a practice ground for some of your ESL preservice teachers.

Informal Practice Opportunities

If you have read many of my blog posts,  you realize that I have a love-hate relationship with Second Life that has gone on almost as long as the platform has been available to the public.  It has many defects, but it also provides us many opportunities.

One opportunity that I relish is the fact that I can end up in an area where I do not speak the local language.  As a native English speaker in the middle of the United States, I rarely am forced out of my language comfort zone.  But in Second Life it happens fairly frequently (often enough that I keep a text-based translator in inventory for emergencies).

A wide variety of well-educated young people are roaming around this virtual world, creating sites in their own language, and they do not automatically agree with the idea that English is the default language of the web.  This means that your students can go interact in a space in a rather authentic manner.  This is not always easy for them; in fact, they will run into non-formal, slang fairly often.    But if they are serious about being ready to go to another country, these informal situations may be instructive.

Second Life

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Yea, I’m slow.  The announcement that Second Life would be adding a user-selected display name came out months ago, but I am just getting around to logging pixels on the topic of what this means for educators.

While I’m preparing to duck here, I have to say that, as a teacher, I actually welcome the idea of having display names and user names.  I realize that there are issues to work out, especially during the transition.  However, I think it would be particularly useful to be able to greet a student in world without having to sort through a cheat sheet to try to line up a bizarre Second Life name with a name on my class list — a list that is, inevitably not handy at the moment when I need it.  For class purposes, I would be able to require a student to use his or her real name when doing school-related work … at least if the student wanted to get credit for course participation for that day.  It might be useful to be able to switch that name more often than weekly, since I’m sure many students do not want to be identifiable when not at my educational build, but for selfish purposes, my aging mind welcomes the ability to remember one name per student.

My current work around has been to use the various roleplay combat system attachments or roleplay name changers, which bring about their own issues such as scripting lag and the association of school with gaming and roleplay activities.  The display name option is, you have to admit, more elegant.

It will no doubt take time for us to adjust.  I am fortunate in that I do not have any scripts currently that rely upon user names for security or other reasons, since I base my scripting on active group membership.  But, I am looking forward to this, and other recent updates announced over the summer.  For good or ill, Second Life remains one of the more accessible and usable user-created content platforms available to the average user.