I don’t own it. I’ve never played it. I don’t know how to play it.
But I love it.
Why? Because, as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I have seen it have a HUGE impact on my learners over the last couple of years. Despite it pixelated retro looks, complete lack of storyline, missions and targets and its minimal direct language input, it has enthused and engaged a vast majority of my students, both boys and girls, like no other game. In fact, it has a positive effect on them like nothing else I have seen in my years of teaching.
How does this impact the learning process? First and foremost, this game demands and encourages a high level of creativity. Players/learners must find a way to use the limited resources they start with to craft things and manipulate the landscape to their own ends. It allows imagination to develop as there are no ‘off limits’ areas or restrictions to prevent the player/learner realising their creations. It also encourages inquiry-based learning and collaboration as the users scour the internet for advice, walkthroughs and knowledge about how to do things in the game (see the ever-growing number of screencasted videos of YouTube to see this in action). The game also helps learners see the value of experimenting, revising and starting again as they try to perfect their creations.
And what relevance does this have to English language learning? The most immediate thing I have seen is an explosion in my students’ active vocabulary. Recently, we were reading a text about volcanic activity and words such as lava, eruption and bedrock came up. Whereas in the past these words would have required extensive explanation with the help of diagrams hastily drawn on the board or downloaded from the internet, now I find most of my students know them already and are willing and able to define them to those who don’t. They then go on to tell me about obsidian, gravel, cobblestone, clay and all other types of rock and earth – all with no further input from me!
Another example came when, in typical coursebook fashion, a caption accompanying a photo said the farmer was ‘cutting’ wool from his sheep. “Cutting?” my students said. “Isn’t it shearing, teacher?” When things like this happen now, I don’t even need to ask. I just know it’s from Minecraft.
But it doesn’t just stop at a few incidental words picked up from the context of the game. There is a whole world of materials and media connected to and inspired by this game that almost everyone who plays seems to be enthralled by as much as, if not more so than, the game itself. Chief among these are YouTube videos (recent research found that more than a third of players had first discovered the game through such videos) in which players share gaming tips, walkthroughs, ‘how to…’ guides, and their own weird and wonderful creations in the Minecraft world, more often than not narrating the clip in English as they do so. This provides great exposure to spoken English in a meaningful context with high motivation to understand and extract information. My students tell me they often watch these videos and then try to recreate what the narrator showed them. A few of my students even make their own videos (in English!) and share them on YouTube or through our class blog as well – great speaking practice!
And it’s not all games and videos either. Many of my students access wikis and forums about the game, carefully scanning for information and also contributing their own comments. Away from the computer screen, a series of official handbooks about the game have now started to appear and every Minecraft playing student of mine has one. Recently, I caused a storm when I revealed that I had bought the ‘Redstone Handbook’ for my son from a local bookshop. I was immediately flooded with questions about which bookshop and how many copies were in stock, as this book has not been released in Turkish yet.
“But it’s the English verison” I pointed out, “not the Turkish translation.”
“No problem, teacher” they told me and, sure enough, by the end of the week I had seen five or six kids from my classes dedicatedly reading the English version during breaktimes. They were completely unphased by the native-speaker level of the language as they got together to talk about what they had read and build a common understanding, something I have rarely witnessed when it comes to reading before.
And then there are those Minecraft based projects – underground homes, treehouses, elements of nature, wildlife and so on all collected and created in the gameworld with screenshots or screen captured videos used to present the final product to the class (but more on those in another post!)
Ah, yes. I love Minecraft. It’s the best game I’ve never played.