ECI 832 / Major Project / Reflections

Minecraft: The Sandbox Game You Can’t Really Box

I’ve spent the last month scanning handfuls of articles related to Minecraft and its impact on student learning.  Gamification and game-based learning are two of the most commonly tied words to Minecraft.

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Photo Credit: Minecraft Server Finder via Compfight cc

Unfamiliar with the true implications of either word and unable to distinguish between the two, I started to investigate these commonly used edtech buzz words.  The more I read, the more I discovered a clear lack of consensus in how Minecraft is classified.  I also came across many who use gamification and game-based learning interchangeably, which added to an already blurry understanding.  How do we distinguish gamification from game-based learning?  How does each approach impact student learning?  And how do we classify Minecraft?

On Gamification

Gamification is applying game mechanics to non-game situations to increase motivation and engagement.  At its simplest, it uses the fun factor of games to draw kids into learning!  Gamification relies on PBL: points, badges and leaderboards. At the heart of the approach is rewards, recognition and motivation. Like game-based learning, gamification doesn’t only happen in digital contexts.  From classic Jeopardy-style review games to classroom reward systems that use team or individual points, or lessons designed as scavenger hunts or quests, teachers find all kinds of ways to gamify in classrooms.  Options for digital gamification abound.  Class Dojo and Classcraft are recent online platforms for classroom management.  Kahoot! is another example (and a personal favorite).  Kahoot!’s slogan is a perfect tagline for gamification:

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Photo Credit: Minecraft Server Finder via Compfight cc

“We make learning awesome!”

Gabe Zichermann is an expert when it comes to gamification.  His TED talk argues that “The Future of Creativity and Innovation is Gamification”.  When playing games, students experience a challenge-achievement-pleasure loop.  The brain releases dopamime when a person overcomes a challenge and achieves a goal.  The more a person tastes success, the more a person wants to succeed, and the loop actually changes the structure of the brain.  Zichermann calls this experience the “winner effect” and explains how these gamified experiences can change behaviour.  Others, like Richard Van Eck, acknowledge the potential of gamification but perceives weaker effects because of its emphasis on extrinsic, short-term motivators.

On Game-Based Learning

Kevin Corbett explains game-based learning as a branch of serious games that explore defined learning outcomes.  “Serious” games focus on the player mastering a skill or concept that can be applied to a real world context, rather than playing for simply entertainment purposes.  Game-based learning creates a safe place for students to take risks and experience failure.  Multiple lives, second chances and multiple ways of achieving a task create opportunities for students to learn from their failures in a very relevant and hands-on experience. Games build qualities like perseverance, grit and the ability to focus and concentrate.


Richard Van Eck explains that “the true power of digital game-based learning lies in its ability to promote 21st century skills”.  He points out that the most important skill practiced through game-based learning is problem-solving.  While problem-solving claims the top of the learning taxonomy, US classrooms devote only 2% of instructional time to building problem-solving skills.  Digital games themselves are a form of problem-based learning and provide a relevant, authentic and challenging medium for developing these essential 21st century skills.

On Minecraft

After reading numerous articles on both gamification and game-based learning, I felt convinced that Minecraft is often misinterpreted as gamification.  I turned to the MinecraftEdu Google Plus Community for further clarification.  I was so impressed by (and thankful for) the prompt, insightful and thorough replies I received from members of the community.   In particular, entrepreneur and blogger, Garrett Zimmer (@PBJellyGames) essentially responded to my inquiry with a blog-post worthy comment! Garrett included competition, elements of progression, opportunity for failure and a defined beginning and end as prerequisites for game-based learning.  Because of Minecraft’s versatility, it can be used for both game-like purposes (there are many games and adventures created by users with Minecraft as well as “Survival Mode”) and creative purposes.  As Garrett distinguished, Minecraft is therefore both a game and a tool and its categorization is dependent on how it is being implemented by teachers.  In the end, he summarized:

“Minecraft in the classroom is not inherently Game-based Learning, nor is it inherently Gamification, but rather for most cases it’s simply a tool like blocks or Lego.  However the one of the greatest values for educators in Minecraft is the fact that it spans all three of these areas in a unique and all things possible way.”

I have observed the power of both gamification and game-based learning throughout my experience with MinecraftEdu thus far.  The first “assignment” I gave students was the task of completing the “Tutorial World”.  This is a challenge-based obstacle course created to help students gain familiarity with navigation and crafting in the game.  There is progression in difficulty (different stages), a “race-like” context, opportunity for failure and a defined beginning and end.  Students enjoyed the challenge and were very engaged and motivated as they navigated the Tutorial World.  Their current assignment is much more creative and open-ended.  Each student is creating a house that demonstrates their understanding of area, perimeter and volume.  The students are collectively building a community “village” together.  In this way, Minecraft is being used a tool to create and represent understanding.

I’m only getting started with Minecraft, but as Garrett explained, it is the incredible versatility of Minecraft that makes it such a powerful tool for learning in the classroom.  The fact that it can’t be singularly defined as either gamification or game-based learning only points to its potential to engage and motivate on multiple levels.  It’s the sandbox game you can’t box!

Have you seen the power of gamification or game-based learning at work in your classroom?   What kind of games have facilitated deep learning experiences for your students? 

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2 thoughts on “Minecraft: The Sandbox Game You Can’t Really Box

  1. Pingback: Through My Eyes: Final Musings on Minecraft | Digital Pathways

  2. Pingback: The Club Penguin Experience - Laura Hunter's EC&I 832

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