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Virtual Games as Classroom Space for Student Learning Online: A Spotlight on Minecraft

One student said something really interesting. He said, ‘When I’m on Zoom, I feel like I can turn my camera off and go do something else. But when my avatar is in Minecraft, I’m reluctant to leave him alone. And so I stay at my desk with my camera on to be there with that digital character.’

David Davies, Professor of Anthropology at Hamline University

Wake up. Turn on the big screen. Treat oneself for work by interacting with the small screen. Maybe go outside. Go to sleep.

This routine has been the monotonous reality for many students and educators in the United States of America grinding on with work throughout the prolonged novel coronavirus pandemic period.

And while online classes are a great way for students to access flexible distance learning opportunities around the globe, for learners and teachers of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions the experience can be exhausting.

Even so, educators have been innovative in their response to the massive move to online learning, whether exploring digital theatre arts or blockchain models in education. In particular, the use of games to support education and create a third-place, digital space for students to learn has emerged as an innovative model.

We talked to an anthropology professor who experimented with teaching online classes using the popular computer game Minecraft to find out about how using the virtual space has impacted student learning and class engagement.

Meet the Professor: David Davies

David DaviesDavid Davies, PhD, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the East Asian Studies Program at Hamline University

Dr. David Davies is a professor of anthropology and the director of the East Asian Studies program at Hamline University, a small liberal arts college in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He has extensive research, fieldwork, and professional experience in East Asia with a primary emphasis on China. In the past, Dr. Davies also served as the American co-director at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center in China in 2011, and from 2016 to 2018.

Dr. Davies holds a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Washington. He has extensive research and work experience in East Asia with a primary emphasis on China. For the past 25 years, he has published on a wide range of topics from the social memory and nostalgia for socialism in China to the rise of celebrity entrepreneurs in the country’s freewheeling market economy.

Q&A with Professor David Davies What led you to introduce Minecraft into your lesson plan?

Professor Davies: So it’s actually super simple. For a number of years, I’ve been really interested in a sub-area of anthropology called “digital anthropology,” which is primarily concerned with the way that human beings and human societies interact or engage with the digital.

Some of the things that I found really fascinating about that include this question of “What are we as humans when we primarily interact via a mobile phone, via social media, through game sites, basically through any sort of virtual digital medium? How does that affect who we are?”

And there’s some really interesting writing on that in anthropology.

Last year when the pandemic hit, I was thinking about the classes that I would teach this year and I thought, we’re talking about things probably going virtual and I’ll teach anthropology anyway, so that will be interesting—studying anthropology online at the exact moment that a big chunk of what we do is human beings, in the United States anyway, is sort of digitally mediated.

So, I was thinking through what I would do for the class, and when entering fall, I was getting really tired of sitting on Zoom and dealing with our course management software.

Basically, the pandemic has destroyed everything that I love about teaching and interacting with students, like all of the joy of discussions and in person, and that feeling you get when a whole bunch of people are really engaged and that energy that fills the classroom. That’s all gone, right? And students are tired.

We’re all working really hard to kind of stay connected, but we kind of know that something’s missing, and at the same time everybody is online through social media sites, streaming Netflix, playing video games. They’re finding human connection in these different ways.

At one point I just thought, there’s got to be something else. Can I mix the different kinds of media with the class in a novel way where I can capitalize on the energy of something like, let’s say, gaming, for example?

Many years ago, an anthropologist wrote about this old platform called Second Life. I used to teach in my anthropology class a book on World of Warcraft, occasionally play open-world video games, and I thought, what if I had my class meet in a video game? What would that look like?

I had been kind of messing around a little bit with the idea of Minecraft, and then I found out that Minecraft was free for my students via Minecraft for Education. The moment I jumped into Minecraft, I thought, this is going to work, great! It’s beautiful, colorful, easy to access and it’s free. So I recruited a couple of students to do a test run and it worked pretty well.

I decided, let’s set this up as an experiment and see if we can do it. And so I brought the class in and said, rather than me teaching this class [purely via Zoom], let’s have class in here and then observe how that works. And then run it kind of as an experiment.

So using Minecraft started very organically that way, but to a degree, it started out of desperation.

I would never have taught a class in Minecraft in a non-pandemic moment. So this is an innovation of the moment. But we’ve had really fascinating discussions and I think it’s been for the most part really an incredible and novel thing. How did you format lessons in Minecraft, and what types of activities did you have students engage in within that virtual world?

Professor Davies: One of the primary things that’s irritating about Zoom, and I wrote about this in my first blog post, is the fact that Zoom is very flat.

There’s no place where we’re meeting together. I’m on one side. My students are on the other, and everyone is all alone in their rooms.

When we meet in Minecraft, it’s not a game. It’s primarily that place where we go to meet. We do, however, keep Zoom on for audio. And while the students built their own avatars, we also found actually in the last couple of weeks that we should have our cameras on so that we can see each other as well. But when we interact through our avatars in Minecraft, there’s this real undeniable sense that we’re actually together somewhere else. And it’s something that we really had a lot of discussions about.

One of the things I did before the semester started was that I built a model of our university’s signature administration building, called “Old Main.” I thought, well, I’ll build this in Minecraft so I can learn the ropes, but also so there’s a school presence that’s sort of there as well.

So when the students arrived the first day, they saw that building and that signaled to them so they knew, okay, there’s something going on here that’s school-related. And then I built out another building behind that with a classroom in that building. So we actually were meeting in a virtual replica of a physical classroom. This kind of gives a sense of being there. Sometimes the avatars will just sit in class while we’re talking on Zoom.

Then, when I do break the students into workgroups, I’ll have the group use Zoom for audio and I’ll tell them to turn off their cameras. Then they’re really in Minecraft and then they’ll move their avatars to mountain tops, the sides of streams, or the forest, and then have their conversations about the material that we’re covering in class. Then we’ll come back together into the classroom, and make the transition kind of back to Zoom because we found that we do need faces. Minecraft’s are a little too rough in terms of the graphics to capture emotion and things like that.

So we actually use a hybrid of Zoom and Minecraft for class.

And what’s interesting is that part of the fun of Minecraft is building, and so many of the discussion breakout groups come with building tasks.

The students really love the fact that they can have a discussion and they can build a hut and they can sit in the hut with their classmates. They have a discussion and build a bridge across the river, or they can go walk around the river to a grove of trees and have a discussion there.

So while we’re on Zoom because we need the audio and some video, part of the class is in another place and we’re all there together. It’s been really a fascinating aspect of it. Were there any challenges or hiccups when the class met in Minecraft?

Professor Davies: There were lots of hiccups. And if there’s one thing that prepared me for this is that I used to take a lot of students studying abroad.

When you take students to study abroad, you learn very quickly what it means to, for instance, have a student get lost or have a student get ill from bad food. You learn how to deal with sudden changes and problems and how to manage student expectations.

So at the very beginning, I told the students, this is an experiment. We’re going to try this together. It’s a pandemic. I’m doing my best to try something new and interesting. But it’s also something new and interesting that’s directly related to our course. Content about anthropology. And they were all really excited about it. Some of them have been playing Minecraft for 10 years and were our super experts. Others had no experience whatsoever with it.

And so I set it up as a kind of study abroad opportunity for everyone. Basically, there will be some rough moments, maybe someone’s going to eat bad food or someone may slip and fall but we’ll figure it out.

Immediately there were some issues. For some students, for example, their equipment wasn’t fast enough. I found this out with my own home Internet connection because Minecraft for Education has to be hosted on a computer. It can’t be used through an external hosting service. We had to resolve those issues.

So, when you first generate the world it’s really resource-intensive. There were a lot of students getting booted off in the first week or two. One by one, I troubleshot these problems and we figured out that these are the settings that will reduce lag; students that have slower equipment should not run this program or reduce the graphic quality, and other things like that.

But for the most part, within a couple of weeks, we figured out all those problems and the best habits for interacting and making it work.

We had some students get lost in the game and then other students who are really good at Minecraft would literally go get them. That’s like studying abroad. Right? So you’re in China and somebody doesn’t speak Chinese but somebody else does. The person who speaks Chinese gets the taxi for everyone. So, the Minecraft-savvy students ended up becoming people who could help out.

I think the other thing we’re still kind of dealing with is the issue of distraction.

One of the most interesting aspects of the class is the visual nature of screens in our culture as the places we go for entertainment. We watch movies and we play video games there. These are places that we go to sort of get away. But the pandemic now has us going there to work and go to school. And so it’s been a huge challenge to reorient students to think about screens as interactive and not just passive consumption sources.

There are students who were building stuff during class, throwing digital snowballs, and one student created a harry giant that walked through the classroom. Very quickly for the first time in my life I had a student complain that somebody built a giant or threw snowballs at them, which was disrupting class.

So we had to establish norms for interacting in that space because there were none before, unlike students’ proper behavior expected in a physical classroom. What is proper behavior when you’re in this beautiful digital place?

But that’s, again, part of the class. So then we talk about that when we say, well, what are these norms and what are we going to do? We can’t have people throwing snowballs during class because it’s distracting. And so that’s kind of fun to talk through that.

That’s actually why I’ve been blogging about it because it also allows me to kind of record when these different things happen. And by far it’s the most interesting aspect of the experiment. How did teaching a class in Minecraft’s digital space impact students, and what did this mean for their learning outcomes compared to other modalities of learning?

Professor Davies: In one of my blog posts I shared a whole bunch of comments from students from a recent assignment. They’re all anonymous and the students agreed to let me post them to share their reactions to being on Zoom, being in person, and being in Minecraft. And those quotes, I think, really kind of are the whole range of responses that the students have.

Without a doubt, students are exhausted; I’m exhausted; we’re all exhausted.

I think the novelty of going to this third space in and of itself has had a great impact on the students. There are a few that say they are not really interested in games and not really interested in being in this place. They will say it’s not particularly valuable to me.

But I think of the range of responses, the majority of students valued this as a really novel thing. And it’s nice for them because it’s different from all of their other classes and it’s different from the other things they are doing. And so that’s really been a big impact.

We’re still figuring out certain things as we kinda go along, but if it gets them engaged and it gets them talking about these issues and we can have a discussion about them, I think that’s really useful. Again, some students find it distracting but some students find it a great way to sort of stay engaged.

One student said something really interesting. He said, “When I’m on Zoom, I feel like I can turn my camera off and go do something else. But when my avatar is in Minecraft, I’m reluctant to leave him alone. And so I stay at my desk with my camera on to be there with that digital character.”

That avatar connects this student and pushes him to do something that he alone doesn’t do, and I thought that was a super interesting comment.

In terms of learning outcomes, that’s a really interesting question that I don’t have a lot of information yet. I can consider whether the discussions that we have with Minecraft are better or deeper or more engaged, than my classes that are just on Zoom. But I don’t really have a way to evaluate that right now because so much of digital-mediated pandemic education is kind of up in the air.

What I can say is that the quality of student work is the same. Students, in general, are quieter and discussions are more difficult on Zoom than they are in person. And that the Minecraft students are more connected to the class. But is that a significant amount? I don’t really know yet. But I’m pretty confident that however we define engagement that is off the charts.

I’ve got students saying that this is the class that they’re most connected to because we’ve built things together in this other place whereas all the other classes are just online. So anecdotally I feel like that engagement really makes it worthwhile.

When we met in person (socially distanced and with masks) a couple of weeks ago, it was the first time that many members of the class had seen each other physically.

I don’t say in real life, because that’s one of the points we discuss in class. It’s all real in actuality, online and physical.

And when we were in class, some students very quickly commented that they feel so much more comfortable in person, feel the pressure of the community, feel more engaged, and that it is so much better than anything online, which is how I felt.

Other students, especially the ones who have anxiety or are more nervous in public spaces, said that they really miss being online because they can have more control over their environment, and don’t feel the pressure of a large group.

But the general consensus was that the best is between these two extremes. The people who prefer in-person learning do feel that interacting through Minecraft is still better than Zoom. Because at least it’s something we’re doing together and that makes the situation somewhat better.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.