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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Can Minecraft Be Educational? Readers Respond

When I published my Disruptions column this weekend about Minecraft, a relatively simple computer game that children today are utterly obsessed with, I was fully prepared for a barrage of angry e-mails and comments from readers. After all, I wasn’t just writing about the game, I was noting that a video game could actually be a good thing for children.

But the response to the column, “Disruptions: Minecraft, an Obsession and an Educational Tool,” was completely the opposite. To my surprise, the majority of parents who commented or wrote e-mails about the piece agreed the game can be great for kids.

“It’s not like when we were kids. Being capable and comfortable with technology is important - children use computers for school assignments now more than ever,” wrote KidManiaBlog from Ithaca, N.Y.

Another reader quoted Katie Salen, a game designer, animator, and educator: “Playing video games is a kind of literacy. Not the literacy that helps us read books or write term papers, but the kind of literacy that helps us make or critique the systems we live in…. When we learn to play games with an eye toward uncovering their procedural rhetorics, we learn to ask questions about the models such games present.”

To my surprise, several readers noted that they have set up password-protected servers in their homes so their children can play with their friends in a safe and secure environment.

Some parents even encourage their children to play. “If the games were getting in the way of homework, sports, or sleep, we would have to make an adjustment. But to date, I have seen no downside whatsoever. Only a bunch of bright kids using their brains and having fun,” wrote one reader.

But not everyone agreed with my view that games can be good. Aimee Yermish, a clinical psychologist, likened Minecraft to a weekend in a Las Vegas casino.

“Far too often, I see Minecraft, as with other video games, functioning as an addiction. The kids are playing Minecraft many hours per day, to the exclusion of other activities. They’re not playing with other kids face to face, they’re not playing outside, they’re not getting their homework done, they’re flunking out of college. Minecraft overuse is *rampant* amongst bright-to-gifted kids,” Ms. Yermish wrote. “Video games, like slot machines, function as low-risk variable-ratio reinforcement â€" highly reinforcing.”

Perhaps one of my favorite comments came from Joseph Moulton, a 13-year-old reader from Connecticut, who seems to have taken to computers and programming because of the game.

“I’ve been playing this game for almost 3 years now (Since Feb. 2011), and being 13, I’ve pretty much been growing up on it. Minecraft has introduced tons and tons of new things into my life, such as programming, proper language skills (heh), and some negative stuff as well,” he wrote. “These are the people that inspired me to learn Java, the language Minecraft is written in. Since then, I’ve learned all I can about computer programming, learning languages such as PHP, CSS, C#, and Python.”

But Joseph also noted that he got into some trouble with his parents when they found him lurking on a Minecraft hacker forum. “All in all, the game in amazing. I love every aspect of it.”