Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Reflection on Minecraft Game Design summer school class

This summer, I taught a two-week Minecraft game design class for the first time. This was an elective class as part of our school's Summer Institute. I taught two sections: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The students were aged 10 to 13, and were incoming 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Out of 37 students in the two classes combined, only seven of them were students who attend my school during the school year. I normally work with high school students and teachers, but I have a lot of past experience with middle schoolers. This was a refreshing opportunity to return to working with kids this age.

This Custom NPC teleports you to Nathan's and Matthew's game.
Now, I say that I taught this class. However, it's more accurate to say that the class taught me. I decided early on that I would not try to be the authority on anything in this course. Compared to most kids who play Minecraft, I really don't know all that much about it. I have only dabbled with things like command blocks, Custom NPCs, and redstone. Who has the time to devote to learning how all of these things work? I'll tell you who: 10 to 13 year olds.

I also don't have all that much experience with game design. I mean, there was that one class on games and simulations in my master's program, but that was a long time ago. I happened to find a really good article at GamaSutra that talked about thirteen essential principles of game design. I used this article as a basis for explaining important things to consider in my students’ game design. They knew a lot about the types of games that one could create in Minecraft and the kinds of activities people like to do in Minecraft. So, of course, I let them take the lead there too.

Several games required that you change from creative mode to survival mode before playing.
We started off by playing a tutorial world together, and then changing that world’s server to survival mode. On that server, they could build their community, and learn how to work with each other, and find opportunities for collaboration. I inadvertently found out that the way they behaved on the survival server gave me a sense of how much I could trust them with on our creative server for each class. Whereas the one group of students behaved respectfully toward one another on the survival server and showed me that I could trust them with PVP, fire and TNT, and other dimensions on their creative server, the other group struggled to be respectful to one another in their survival server. They snuck into each other's houses, took each other's things, and destroyed each other's creations. So, for most of the two-week period, the latter group was not allowed to have as many privileges on their creative server. We had many discussions about how they could earn back my trust and gain those privileges; however, as a group, they struggled to come up with creative solutions to this problem.

As the students began to generate ideas for their games on the creative server, I was introduced to new terminology for me, such as spleef games, and the concept of creating an escape room that players would have to solve puzzles to get out of. Although I knew their ideas came from watching YouTube videos of others’ creations, I was also delighted to see the unique spin they would put on each different game they would try to create. Most of them did not want to be seen as ”ripping off” something that everyone else had seen on YouTube.

Many students used Custom NPCs in their games. This one provides the player with help.
We didn't have too many mods on our servers, but we did have Custom NPCs. We also had ComputerCraft and ComputerCraftEDU, and the students got a chance to play Turtle Island by Mike Harvey. This gave them a chance to see how Custom NPCs and command blocks and other functions were used in a game setting. This also set the students up for new problems that they wanted to solve. For example, a student wanted to be able to have a player's game mode change from creative to survival when they entered the game area, and then change back to creative at the end of the game area. This led to discussions about how to do this with command blocks, and a lot of collaboration from the students solving the problem together. I just sat back and listened. When they had come up with a solution, I described the process as I had observed it. I also pointed out to them that I did not know the solutions to their problems, but that I had confidence in their ability to come up with it themselves.

This pattern continued throughout the remainder of the two-week period. A student wanted to create a Custom NPC that would teleport a player from our spawn area to that student’s game that he had created. Again, I was going to be no help here. I described the problem, we talked as a class about some ways to solve that problem, and I referred them to what we had seen in Turtle Island. Before long, one student had spent some time experimenting and had created the Custom NPC we needed. I was then able to direct the students’ attention to this Custom NPC, and show them how to inspect it to find out how the student had done it.

By this point, the kids had gotten into the habit of talking to each other to find out how someone had done something. They could all see each other's creations, so they got ideas and then new questions from one another. I kept reminding them that I was not going to be very helpful, but that I wanted to learn from them as well. So I would present questions to them, asking if they knew how to solve a problem. I ended up finding out that there were several students in the class who were much better teachers than I was.

A parkour game created by one of the pairs of students
I also talked to the students about the concept of engagement in the learning space. I informed them that I had gone around the room recording audio with my phone for short periods of time. The students had not even noticed me, as they were so focused on what they were creating. I told them how excited I was to see how engaged they were in what they were doing. I asked them to compare their experiences in this class with their everyday experiences in classes during the school year. I asked them if their traditional classroom situations were as exciting and engaging as what they were doing here. They did not want to seem to throw their regular classroom experiences under the bus, as it were. But they admitted that everyday school is not as engaging as self-directed, self-driven, project-based problem solving like they were doing for this class.

Again, I do not take credit for this. All I did was to set a problem before the students, give them a platform in which to create solutions, and get out of the way. Of course it helps that they were using Minecraft as the platform, and this was something they were already excited by. Almost all of the students had played Minecraft before, and for many of them it was their favorite game. I know this because I gave a survey on the first day of class asking about their experiences and comfort levels with various things we would be doing in the class. I also took a survey at the end of the class. In it, I asked students to rate how much new learning they had gotten on each of a number of topics. On a scale from 1 (“no new learning”) to 5 (“AMAZING amounts of new learning”), both playing Minecraft in survival mode and playing Minecraft in creative mode averaged 3.03.  Other notable results were ratings of 2.81 for redstone, 3.61 for command blocks, and 3.75 for custom NPCs.  I felt pleased that students, overall, felt they had learned a lot.  Many students said that what they would change about the class was that it should be four weeks instead of only two. (Give me strength!)

This team used signs to remind players to use the command blocks to change their game mode and return to the server's spawn point.
All in all, I found it to be a very rewarding experience for my own Minecraft learning, and the kids really got a lot out of the experience.  Next summer, I hope to offer the class again, but I will likely hand it off to someone else to teach, simply because I don’t really have the time to devote to it.  Also rewarding for me was the positive energy I felt from the kids as they learned on their own terms.  The adult in the room (I guess that’s me) didn’t try to take over or get in the way of their own discoveries or efforts.  This reminded me that I want to be more like that during the school year with my older kids.

Images are all screen shots from screencast videos, made by students in the class, in which they shared the games they created.