Well, okay, not just gun control. When high school teacher Douglas Kiang set his students up with Minecraft, he didn’t really know how it would play out. The goal wasn’t to teach them anything, necessarily, but rather to get them acquainted with one another and working together. The experiment started when one student couldn’t even recall another’s name, despite being two months into the Computer Science course.
First, the students were tasked with setting up a Minecraft society in a special classroom server, accessible by no one else. The mission was to “create a self-sustaining community that reinforces trust between individuals and rewards prosocial behavior.” Students were expected to keep a central question in mind at all times: “Does what I’m about to do create or destroy trust? Will it help my community?”
What happened next was a series of interactions that ended up being an incredible tool for education in Kiang’s classroom. The first question was what would happen if someone broke something someone else had made. Some students wanted a strong set of rules that would end in a student being banned from the server if they were violated. Others preferred to make each individual’s creations invulnerable, to avoid the risk altogether. “This led to a great debate about whether we should let technology control our actions or whether we should be allowed to make mistakes and live with the consequences of those actions,” Kiang explains. “What if I invite you over to work on my house? Can we trust external systems to make ethical choices on our behalf?”
The students also encountered somewhat less existential problems with public art. One student was creating giant billboards of cartoon characters’ faces in various places. Some complained that this student was ruining the property views (I built my house by the ocean because I liked the water), while others thought some of the pieces were alright. Some weren’t comfortable with the idea of destroying somebody else’s work, even if they didn’t particularly enjoy it. And then of course nobody could decide which pieces were acceptable. The end result was to designate a special public park space. If that isn’t civil planning, I don’t know what is.
As for the gun control question, the parallel here was Minecraft TNT, which is used for clearing large areas of land. There was an intense classroom debate about whether TNT should be allowed on the server, given that it was so damaging if used improperly. Some students felt that if it was used irresponsibly, the consequence should be to ban the player, not the material. (Sound familiar?) The conversation then turned to real world problems of nuclear proliferation and gun control. This was exactly what Kiang wanted—Minecraft as a catalyst for learning.
“What I really wanted to find out…was if this digital collaborative experience would translate to the face-to-face classroom. If kids learn to work together in a virtual environment, would they watch each other’s backs in the real world? Would it make them more willing to admit to each other that they didn’t understand something?” Writes Kiang. “By using Minecraft as a virtual world co-existing in tandem with my classroom environment, I hoped my students would develop strong working relationships while helping each other build houses, tackle community projects, and make their world sustainable.”
The whole article is well worth your time, and I highly recommend checking it out.