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Minecraft: More than a game.


It has always seemed odd to me that there is a constant backlash against computer games from parents, no matter what the game. Not only because of the hypocrisy of the older generation, who will loudly denounce computer games as a 'waste of time' or that  'they make you stupid', and then go and spend several hours a day reading inane articles on facebook and HuffPo and trolling through pictures of some tabloid star's latest online faux pas, or watching so-called 'reality television' for hours on end.

Sometimes this attitude is justified; if a parent begins to denounce GTA as unsuitable for children, I will happily nod along (I actually really enjoy playing it myself) and agree that it is definitely not appropriate for 7 year olds to be mowing down hookers in stolen cars while running from the cops on their way from a robbery to a drug deal, but when adults start to take shots at Minecraft as a time wasting, brain numbing activity, I will speak up vociferously in its defense. In the interests of spreading the Minecraft Love, let me list some of the cool and educational applications of minecraft that 'grown-ups' often overlook or don't know about.

1. Minecraft is a totally creative excercise. Unlike other linear games, Minecraft is a 'sandbox' game, which means you can change virtually everything about the game environment to suit yourself. Would you be upset if your kid sat down and built a house out of lego for a whole afternoon? No? Well, Minecraft is pretty much just an infinite set of digital lego. The creative nature of the game is built in to its very fabric: the first thing you need to do is build a safe haven which you can escape to at night, which is well lit and secure from roving packs of monsters. You can build giant castles, or dig expansive caves. You can even use a substance called redstone to create electrical circuitry to power your house (more on that later), and now there are even 'command blocks' which allow you to write scripts for your electrical systems. If you want to see some really amazing creative constructions wihch will inspire your kids to greater levels of Minecraft mastery, you should take a look at the Youtube channel of FyreUK, a group of Minecraft builders who produce amazing works of digital art.

2. Minecraft teaches your kids about more than building. The Minecraft world is essentially a huge cube made up of thousands of smaller cubes which can take the form of a myriad range of materials. Not only will you pick up a decent sense of 3D geometry just by playing Minecraft, you need to understand a lot more math than that to be any good. While we use it to teach geometry to children as young as 7, any kid who has played it no matter what age can understand the concept of forward/backward, left/right and up/down. Once you start making shapes in Minecraft, geometry seems obvious. Once you explain that wherever you are in the world, you can define your position by using three simple variables; x,y and z and that these variables relate to those three directions of movement, we start to understand vectoring. Using these variables, you can teleport yourself anywhere, something kids love to do.
Minecraft also uses the aforementioned redstone, which acts as electrical circuitry within Minecraft: you need a power component (redstone torch), a transmission component (redstone dust, or a redstone repeater for wireless transmission) and a mechanism component which responds to the electrical signal, just like a real electronic device.
It also works on loads of other levels; I've seen it used to teach history by asking students to create replicas of historical buildings like Windsor Castle and the coliseum, and thanks to the Ordnance Survey for creating their amazing map called 'GBMinecraft2', a 1:25000 scale map of Great Britain using 83 billion blocks, which allows users to find their town, street and own home using real-world geographic data. They even recreated the geology beneath the ground with the aid of the British Geological Survey. Unbelievable! To download the map, click here.


3. You can create a private server. By making your own private Minecraft server, you can ensure that you know exactly who your kids are associating with online, for your peace of mind. If you want to know how to do this, there is a pretty good Instructable here. You can also play it over a Local Area Network (LAN) really easily, assuming you have a wireless router (or a router with enough cables to go around, if you're kicking it old school!)

4. It's free on the Raspberry Pi. If you own a Raspberry Pi, the tiny computer that only costs about $30, Minecraft comes pre-installed with your operating system. The people at Raspberry Pi have worked out long ago that Minecraft is a big deal with kids today, and they worked with Mojang to get a creative version for the Pi which comes with an API (Application Programming Interface) using Python, which allows you to change the game live and in real-time (while it is playing). We use this all the time, and our Minecraft workshops are by far the most popular ones we run. If you want to know where to get started, uber-geek Martin O'Hanlon has a website at www.stuffaboutcode.com which can give you a bunch of interesting API 'recipes' to get started with. The kids love the idea of writing their own 'mods', and it makes them feel powerful and engaged to be working inside a program they already know and love, allowing them to see the power of coding from the inside out. If you want a kid to feel like programming can change the world, first get them to change their Minecraft world!

For a great explanation of the expansive applications of Minecraft, watch this excellent video:
Martin O'Hanlon talks MinecraftPi @ Raspberry Jamboree

I hope that allayed some fears and resentment toward Minecraft. If you give it a chance, you'll see that it has unending applications for creativity and stretching your kid's thinking.  As we say here at the HackLab: don't hate, participate! After all, it could be worse: your kid could be watching the Kardashians while playing GTA and chowing down on MickeyD...

-MrC