Interview: Games in the Classroom and Society

By Richard Wirth
I had the opportunity to sit down with a guest and discuss the ways in which games affect both the behaviors of students, traditional teaching methods, and the ways in which games affect culture and society. Dr. Adam Brackin received his bachelors in English and Art from Hardin-Simmons University, a master’s of education in Gifted and Talented Studies, and his PhD in Humanities: Aesthetic Studies. Adam has written chapters for several game studies books, including Understanding Minecraft, Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy, and Cultural Perspectives of Video Games, and taught for several years at a family-owned and operated private school, where he frequently utilized games in one-on-one education. Dr. Brackin was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss how games like Minecraft – the cultural phenomenon – affect behavior and learning in the classroom, the role it plays in learning and society, and how he utilizes the game in his own work. His work is accessible at his personal website, as well as on YouTube, where he produces the LABventures series


Richard: So as you well know, the effects of games like Minecraft extend beyond the individual and into the social and cultural. As somebody who has taught in a wide variety of roles – middle school, university, one-on-one private school, et cetera, what would you say are the affordances that a game like Minecraft gives you over traditional teaching models? What does the “new media classroom” do better or worse? Adam: Well Bridge Builder, my one-on-one school, was of course a different model, but when you’re talking about a traditional classroom, you’re talking about group communication theory. Any time you have three or more people it falls under group communication theory, and a traditional classroom nowadays is going to have 30 or more people in it. So the question becomes: how can you address an individual’s needs within the context of the group’s needs, without the group suffering? A great way to do that is computer-aided instruction. The classic format for instruction is going to follow: guided practice, independent practice, and assessment. The cool thing about computer-aided instruction is that we can do a rapid-fire sequence for guided and independent practice, and assessment. The problem is that we allow it to become a crutch, and we forget that there is a human element of interaction that is fundamentally important in what you might think of as an apprenticeship system, where I can address your individual needs, have a conversation about what you need, and make sure that your individual needs are answered. There’s value in answering that in front of the whole class, but it can often become a distraction and a waste of time. So to connect that back to Minecraft specifically: it transfers the tools of the level designer over to the player. I’ve written about this as being a form of authenticity, which allows you to make their own choices, in a real space, with consequences. What’s interesting about Minecraft is that it has very set rules. The thing about those rules is, let’s call them “comforting”, for certain students who would be uncomfortable in an open-ended social setting – especially students with autism and Asperger’s. This transfers over to any MMO environment because you’re questing and using those traditional game design models, which fits very well into the autistic mind, or even the ADD mind, in order to be able to accomplish tasks by breaking them down. So for me, to sum it all up: it comes down to the ability to do guided practice in the context of shared space, then independent practice within that same shared space, allowing students to learn from one another as they witness the building occur, and then assessment, which can occur either in a group or individual format as needed. I would never say that teaching should be done in any one tool, but Minecraft is a very good tool. Richard: With these traditional game design models, rules-driven systems, and structured play environments, how do these tools affect things like classroom engagement and behavior? Besides personalized and computer-mediated lessons, what tools does the new media classroom give you as an instructor? Adam: Well there are a couple of things that games do very well. For example, they can track every footstep, and everything that is measurable in a game can be measured in output. So you can have an independent experience that I’m not a part of and vice versa, and then we can still compare our experiences with granular precision. We can do this in a mechanical way, or we can just have a discussion about it. The other things games do very well is gating, so you can set constraints. If I hand you a blank sheet of paper, that can almost be more terrifying than if I asked you to work through a series of quests. They aren’t teaching the same thing by any means, with that first example being more about assessment, but I think that the dangers that many teachers face is: if you have 40 kids in a classroom, how are you going to grade those 40 things fairly? How are you going to be able to spend the time that’s necessary to give each individual kid a response? The cool thing about a system is that if the goals are set, if they’re very measurable, the computer can do that and give a response to the student without the teacher being directly involved. Richard: You mentioned when comparing the blank sheet of paper and the video game, one is more of an assessment of what you already know. Would you find that in a new media classroom, computer-assisted teaching is one thing, but traditional assessment is still required? Adam: Absolutely, but there are multiple forms of assessment, which is why I’m happy you’ve been mentioning Minecraft specifically. Minecraft is a blank slate; it’s that blank piece of paper. We have a set amount of tools, but you can make the same argument for the English language. If you’re going to write an essay in English, there’s a specific format you are to follow if you’re an eighth grader, which is: 5 paragraphs, transitional sentences, opening paragraph that talks about your three points of support, each body paragraph is to be on one of those points of support, et cetera. Those are rules, just as Minecraft has rules. So when I say that I want you to show me, visually, that you understand the fundamental principles of design within the context of, say, a cathedral, you’re going to be able to visually demonstrate your understanding of what we studied in class if that is in fact what we studied in our art history class. Richard: Interesting example! Ever since the “advent” of Minecraft, we’ve seen a huge social presence of using games to “make” things. Videos seemed to spring up every week where somebody used Minecraft to make a 3D printer, a Rube Goldberg machine, or some other interesting invention. The STEM to STEAM movement seems like a place where Minecraft fits perfectly, for example. Would you call Minecraft a big player in maker culture? Adam: Well I think it’s really important to understand that, in terms of the community, Minecraft is all about the modifications. If I was teaching a lesson on bees or maybe on genetics and I wanted to get an object lesson across, I might install the beekeeping mod to Minecraft. I could load up the new world and have the students work through the process of genetically breeding their bees within that virtual environment. The nice thing about that is that it exists. It may seem niche and crazy, but there are groups out there creating tiny apps and self-contained games that are all about beekeeping, and that’s all it does. Now we could surf through all of the apps out there that do that, or we could surf through the thousands of mods to Minecraft and pick out the one that does that. This way we don’t have to learn the vocabulary of a new game, and we can find a good lesson within a space we’re already familiar with on whatever is contextually appropriate to what we’re learning in class. Richard: So then would you classify Minecraft as a maker space? Adam: Well I think it certainly is, but I think it’s also a maker template, if you will. It’s a platform that you can develop for. I think the unique philosophies of Mojang and Notch, from the beginning, created a game that anybody can create their own version of. Richard: So then, would you say that Minecraft is not just a space for making within the context of other people; it’s about making objects and tools for others? I had always put the positive feedback from Minecraft as being in the realm of showing off your efforts. Adam: Yes. Because when I first started playing Minecraft, I found it to be incredibly boring and I was pretty much done with it. That’s when a friend of mine contacted me and said “Hey, they’re working on this multiplayer thing for Minecraft”! Suddenly we were playing together, it was collaborative, and now I’ve played tens of thousands of hours of Minecraft, probably. Richard: So then if Minecraft is all about its online nature, which I would certainly agree with, how would you say the Minecraft community has evolved through the game mechanics? Adam: Consider Twitter. Twitter is all about subscribing to who you want to subscribe to and pushing out information that you think would be valuable to others. That’s what Minecraft is. It is engaging a community, whether that be your personal friends on a private server or complete strangers on the internet, in order to say “Look at me!” You could make the same argument for Facebook or any other social network.  Now I’m not picking on social media, the point is that there is no real “win state” of Minecraft within the game’s mechanics. Technically there is, with the addition of slaying the dragon, but it really exists as a sort of joke within the community. It’s more about setting a personal goal for yourself, whether that is to head into a mountain and carve out a space for yourself, or in my case to construct a replica of Hogwarts. Then you’re going to spend 2 years doing that, and you’ll finally be able to brag about it. It’s something to look at; it’s not intended to be a functional space, that’s for sure. If you’re looking for functional space within Minecraft, you can just hollow out a 10x10 space underground and you’re good to go. You’ve got everything you need to “survive” the game. Richard: So then you would say that the primary motivating factor, the underlying behavior pushed by the design of Minecraft, is personal expression? Adam: Absolutely! It’s individualization, personalization, and it’s the very real fact that my Minecraft experience is fundamentally unique from anyone else’s, anywhere else, for the rest of time. The same thing can be said for all social media outlets, and a select few other games, including most MMORPGs since sequencing becomes important. Most video games, most linear, prescriptive games contain experiences that are “somewhat” different. Oh, I got shot or I didn’t get shot. Still, in order to beat the game, our experiences will be fundamentally so similar that we have a large amount of common ground. In Minecraft, it becomes “I need to show you this”. I can’t simply describe it to you; I have to show it to you. There needs to be more games like Minecraft, but not in the way that it’s currently being imitated. Not the “let’s throw down a block” part, or even the toolset part, but instead the part that makes the individual believe that they’re having a unique experience, whether it’s true or not, because that’s what’s important. It’s also the future of games, in my opinion. Richard: Well then, if you had the choice to create a curriculum around Minecraft, what sort of project would you want to implement? Adam: Well that’s tough, since I’m not sure which subject we’re talking about, but let’s just say we’re teaching a high school level English class. Let’s say a 9th grade English class, because I think that age level is right where they’re still able to have fun in a class, but at the same time mature enough to be able to handle an out-of-the-box kind of project, though that is changing! One of the things that’s in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills is to understand the elements of plot, and to create an understanding in the student of Freytag’s triangle, of conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. I would require my students to create a space, in which the individual player going through that space experiences the five stages of Freytag’s triangle. Richard: So to essentially create a story space? Adam: Yes, to create a story space, and I would want it to be very linear and very structured for that assignment and for those students. There are so many teachers on my Facebook stream that if you spend enough time there you’ll inevitably see some complaints about common core, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about it. Keep in mind, here in Texas we don’t even use common core, we use the TEKS. Common core is a set of standards. It says that you need to teach your first graders how to add single-digit numbers, that’s all it says. When you start getting down to the granular examples of these standards, that’s curriculum. That being said, Minecraft, as I said earlier, is just a tool. It’s important that we identify the essential knowledge that we’re trying to achieve, and these tools are helpful in reaching that point. Richard: That sounds like something I’d enjoy doing in a university setting, honestly. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me today. Adam: Not a problem, thanks for having me!