Hello, academic world! Welcome to my research blog for the George Garth Graham Undergraduate Digital History Research Fellowship, 2015. I will be posting every week some of my thoughts on Minecraft, digital history in general, and the educational and historical benefits of using Minecraft and videogames as a form of teaching and a form of scholarship.
I am currently a third year history student at Carleton University, and you can find me on Twitter here: @rapickering.
March 22 2015
Hello again, academic world! If you have been reading this blog with any sort of regularity, you will remember my short discussion centred around HullCraft, based out of the Hull History Centre and University of Hull in Hull, UK. If you haven't read the post, I recommend you do so - you can find it further down on this page. Hannah Rice is a Transforming Archives Trainee with the Hull History Centre and has been working with Joel Mills of the University of Hull and Aaron Harter on HullCraft since October of 2014. I reached out to Hannah after publishing the post and asked her a few questions about her process on working with the HullCraft team and the historical scholarship behind it. Below I have arranged our discussion over email, with blockquotes added in between paragraphs for my thoughts and reactions to her information about HullCraft.
Ryan Pickering: How did the idea of having students use Minecraft to recreate archival works come about, and how was the process of conceptualizing how it would work logistically?
Hannah Rice: The original idea sprung from traditional cataloguing work for the Hull History Centre archives. We received papers from a local architect company, Francis Johnson & Partners, containing architectural plans, invoices and correspondence. We were inspired by some of Francis Johnson’s Neo-Georgian architecture whilst carrying out the cataloguing process and began LEGO days at the History Centre where kids can recreate his buildings from the plans. We thought we could also do this virtually. Minecraft can be a fantastic pedagogical tool, and with my passion for gaming and my team member’s (Joel Mills) technology-enhanced learning knowledge, we began developing HullCraft so we can extend our outreach beyond the family days.
The development process was quite complex. We had to consider costs (staff time, server, game licenses for workshops, promotional material, web domain). We designed a website www.hullcraft.com. We developed a gamified reward system using digital badges. We digitised some of Francis Johnson’s architectural plans and made these publicly available for players to use. We had obtained copyright permission from Francis Johnson & Partners to use FJ’s architectural plans for educational use. We had to design the server and I wanted the environment to provide a virtual experience of visiting the archives so I recreated the Hull History Centre as the spawn point. With developing the server we had to consider issues such as griefing, boundaries, where players can build, task signposting, what items players can use, which game mode (creative/survival).
Update: This portion has read to appear as if Hannah was the original creator of HullCraft, where this was not the case - Joel Mills, through the University of Hull and the Hull History Centre, contracted her and others to assist in the creation and implementation of the project.
Okay, cool! Very interesting on how to set up a Minecraft server for a student experience. I am sure Dr. Graham had to go through many of the same processes in setting one up here at Carleton University, and I am going to help him in setting one up for our unconference next year, so some of this will definitely be helpful. A central location for students based on the real facility is something I've gleamed as a general strategy for most historians dealing with Minecraft. Additionally, of course I am excited with the obvious connection to LEGO with Minecraft - I haven't been able to shut up about the metaphors inherent in the mediums relating to creation since I started this blog. With that in mind, LEGO and Minecraft speak to each other in very similar ways.
RP: What have you found are the benefits, both intended and actual, for students engaging with archives through Minecraft? Or for yourself as a historian?
HR: Minecraft is a tool that the younger generation are very familiar with and can relate to. There is the stereotype that archives are dark, dusty rooms full of boxes and we need to challenge this stereotype by getting kids involved with creative projects. Minecraft is ideal for introducing them to the world of archives and it’s fascinating stories. For local kids, they may recognise some of the buildings they are recreating, and this can help reinforce a sense of place and help them appreciate their local heritage. For those who are not from the Hull area, they will be learning about historical Hull and the Yorkshire region.
From engaging with the architectural plans, students are learning about archives and the Hull History Centre, learning about Francis Johnson and the style of architecture he created. They will be interpreting old handwriting, and making mathematical calculations from converting Johnson’s building dimensions into 1x1m Minecraft blocks. They are developing soft skills- analysis, interpretation, evaluation- and our public server allows players to construct group builds which encourages digital citizenship, collaboration and negotiation of roles.
I am looking forward to when we have a server filled with works from the archives. For me the server is a testament to Francis Johnson’s practice and has potentials for use as a research tool to see how kids have interpreted architectural plans. It can be used to see how kids have represented Neo-Georgian style architecture using the limitations of Minecraft- do they notice Georgian characteristics such as symmetry, materials and fenestration style?
That last point specifically to me is very interesting. While these soft skills on analysis and the like are very important, what excited me the most is the idea of accidental historical scholarship and learning being done, simply through engagement with the material. Kids examining this stuff and making discoveries about architectural styles in Minecraft while building? That's so neat! That is probably what I see to be the best use of Minecraft historically - learning about history through creative visualization.
RP: Do you think students reacted positively to this project? What were they supposed to pull from engaging with the work as opposed to what they actually did, or were they largely the same?
HR: In general students are reacting positively, and the digital badge system encourages them to build something from the archives. You do get those who just log in to explore, or build whatever they want (they don’t get a badge reward for this), and you do get those who want to cause trouble (but then realise they can’t because we have plugins on the server which restrict griefing). Feedback from players is that it’s “cool!” or “awesome” because they are using Minecraft, their favourite game, to recreate real history. We are hoping to implement a reflection system where players can feedback in-game, or by a blog post or video, anything they have learned during the process.
RP: What are some of the limitations you have found of working with Minecraft in doing this kind of public history? Conversely, what are the benefits?
HR: Limitations are cost and staff time to maintain an online server and fix issues that arise. It’s also getting the parents (and teachers) on board that you can use Minecraft for educational purposes and that we are providing a safe online environment- transparency is key here. We have a parents section on our website explaining what their child will be doing on the server and our contact details are available.
Recreating architectural plans is our first stage of the project and its quite simple, but we have plans to later include narrative and adventure which introduces more complex programming. You need people with the skills to do this.
Benefits are that kids are learning about history and interacting with primary sources without really realising it. A lot of my historical knowledge came from video games I played growing up, such as Tomb Raider, and I did my undergraduate degree in History of Art and Architecture because I was inspired by historical environments I had seen in these games.
Again, historical environments in Minecraft as a tool of learning! Just discussing this stuff with other historians and academics and looking at other works is really illuminating to me what I find interesting about Minecraft.
RP: Since you have engaged with Minecraft in this way, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to use Minecraft to do history, or historical scholarship?
HR: Plan and communicate! Look at how much it will cost. Speak to people who know how to set up servers if you want to do multiplayer, speak to IT departments too (as they may have restrictions on the network). Archives and history is all about stories, and Minecraft is an ideal platform for creating and exploring these. It also brings out those same feelings when people create with LEGO, and its rewarding to have people learning about history from your reconstruction.
I want to thank Hannah Rice for engaging with me on this material - I think the HullCraft project is very cool and while I haven't gotten the chance to explore in depth the actual server, I am going to update this post with a short reflection on seeing the server and if that changes any of my conclusions about the project. You can find Hannah on Twitter at @hannahbeth_r - she's always Tweeting out interesting stuff related to this project, so check her out if you're interested! Additionally, you can find the project's creator, Joel Mills, on Twitter as well at @ilearninguk - he too is posting wonderful stuff about HullCraft and other Minecraft education pieces on there regularly. Next week, I hope to engage with him regarding the initial phase of conceptualizing Minecraft for this kind of use and the pedagogical strengths of Minecraft in this kind of area.
In the coming weeks, I am looking forward to be analyzing another piece, or perhaps finally fleshing out how I think Minecraft is useful for historical scholarship. Once again, if you have anything to comment about this piece, please feel free to talk to me through email or Twitter - I am always glad to hear from people willing to comment on my writing! Cheers!
Update: An earlier version of this blog post was written under the impression that Hannah Rice was the original creator of HullCraft, though this is not the case. Through miscommunication some of her responses may look as though she was the original creator and lead on the project, where in reality Joel Mills of the University of Hull is. I apologize for any misunderstandings.
March 10 2015
This weeks marks the beginning of the busy season in my semester, which means it marks the beginning of the end as well. In my life, it's an unfortunate coincidence that my work has also begun piling on the hours I requested from them two months ago. Such is life, I suppose. With that said, I want to do my best to keep up with this fellowship work, and I'm looking forward to synthesizing and working towards a final paper discussing Minecraft and the student experience.
Today's post may seem like some to be a sort of backtrack, considering my discussion of historical material being created on real landscapes in Minecraft, but my brief analysis of what I'm looking at will hopefully point the other way, and indeed illuminate some factors that I haven't been able to really put into words about how I feel about them. I'm looking at Leonard Richardson's post through the New York Public Library (hereafter referred to as the NYPL - perhaps obvious, but I just thought I should state it) about historical maps transferred into Minecraft.
Richardson talks about his work alongside Paul Beaudoin bringing in some of the NYPL's many digitized maps into Minecraft. Comparing their work to the trend of many organizations bringing in real-world landscapes to Minecraft, an interesting educational enterprise in itself, one of the key differences in the work Richardson does is that his maps are brought in without the aid of satellite imagery, with imagery and structures superimposed on top of that. (Incidentally, this method is the way I and my group created our Vimy Ridge video game in Minecraft, which can be found here.) Instead, the landscape is created from actual contour lines on a map of the Fort Washington area, made in 1860. The map was brought into QGIS, a mapping software, and a grayscale image representing elevation levels and water levels was constructed from the contour lines, with blending between the lines to simulate the actual slopes of the region. In doing so, Richardson and Beaudoin attempt to create a representation of Fort Washington not based in today's topography of the region, but rather in the topography as it was seen, experienced and recreated on a map by the creators from 1860. They then proceed to superimpose the markers and structures of the area as seen on the map on top of the constructed landscape. This is important, but not the focus of my exploration.
When I first took a look at this piece and skimmed it, I didn't realize off the bat the implications of this - I treated this more as a tutorial for creating historical maps in Minecraft out of satellite imagery. But returning to this piece later, I was shocked at the implications of this. I should say that this map and it's contour lines can be assumed to be a fairly rare occurrence, and indeed Richardson even says as much. Regardless of that though, elevation representations of land at a point in history have enormous relevancy when working with historical maps, especially when being brought into Minecraft. These allow not only for a representation of the land in a way that may not be available through typical methods of landscape recreation in Minecraft - for example, the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) and it's capture of topography as it stands in the 21st century. This kind of information disallows engagement with past landscapes and landscapes that might not be able to be represented through satellite imagery, due to water or structures. Indeed, recreating a historical map of an area that, for instance, was destroyed and reshaped through a massive construction project such as the St. Lawrence Seaway could now be doable in a much more accurate way. Richardson's tutorial allows someone interested in archival maps to use that material in Minecraft in a way that gives access to a historical landscape rooted in actual experiences of the mapmakers.
This kind of recreation of land from a historical document can be seen sort of as a reverse archaeology: creating a sort of artifact for examination and exploration. The contour lines on this map represent the land as it was in 1860, not in 2015, and are an element of the map rooted in human experiences, something that is important for historical engagement. While Richardson and Beaudoin do not continue their recreation of Fort Washington circa 1860, one could easily recreate the fort through images, personal accounts, etc., in a way that also engages with the subjectivity of lived experiences, as is the case with these contour lines. These lines need not be 100% accurate to the topography of the time to give the viewer information of value, but instead are related to the lived experiences of the people who would have walked that terrain. I could go on talking about that for hours, but I feel it might be best to wrap this up.
In relation to the student experience and the educational value of Minecraft - subjective experience is incredibly important in building Minecraft worlds with historical value. In engaging with the creation-based metaphors of Minecraft, a student gains historical information through subjective portrayals of historical situations. In creating landscapes from subjective interpretations of the land from the past, the creator of a Minecraft world engages with the importance of historical representation in the context of a certain time and place on a very base level, which facilitates further use of this subjectivity rooted in historical information. I understand that recreating this sort of landscape is not the same as Hannah Rice's student engagement with archives as seen in my post about HullCraft (located below); however, this acts as another example of the benefit of archival integration into Minecraft for learning, and indeed takes into account the subjectivity and perspectives of sources, even when into a medium that might not immediately be seen as having it's own biases and assumptions regarding representation of land. The land is an integral part of any Minecraft map, and if the creator of a world recognizes the biases and intentions of the information they are using to create a space rooted in historical accuracy yet shaped by human subjectivity, they can be freer to engage with that material more fully because of that understanding.
With all of that said, I am deathly afraid of that making little sense. I tend to write very train of thought, and in rereading that I believe it looks sound, but my conception of a 'sound' post and other's conception of one may be completely different. If anyone has any comments or questions about this material, I would love to hear from you - you can find my email and Twitter at the top of this page. Anything you say to me can definitely help me flesh out these ideas a bit more, and I would love to give you full credit as someone giving me guidance in this harsh academic wilderness I now find myself in. In my next post, I hope to reflect on a number of questions I intend to ask Hannah Rice about how students reacted and engaged effectively with her project HullCraft (again, see below), and if those reactions shaped her work on this project or others in any ways.
Thank you everyone! Take care!
March 2 2015
I'm somewhat embarrassed to be posting so infrequently on this page - between balancing work and school, it is hard to find time to be examining Minecraft as historical scholarship. Today's blog post will simply discuss a scholarship project through Minecraft that i have found very interesting, and allows me to ask some new questions about the processes of video game scholarship.
HullCraft is a Minecraft project put on by the Hull Historical Society and the University of Hull in the UK. It is a way for young people to engage with archival material in a way that allows for visualization and experience with the material. Students recreate the buildings of an architect, Francis Johnson, from archived blueprints and plans and explore the historical time and place in which they were conceptualized. Students learn numerous things: how to engage with archival material (and why it is useful), architectural knowledge, and information about the area around which they live.
This constitutes a good historical video game in my eyes for a number of reasons. One, the gameplay mechanics and embedded learning in the game mesh seamlessly, and indeed the mechanics of the game facilitate fully the learning that is required when the outside materials (ie. archival material) are gathered and understood. As the only real thing a game teaches you is how to play said game, the inseparability of the learning and gameplay in HullCraft is perfect. Two, the gameplay intended matches the outside material very well. Not only do the mechanics and learning go together very well, the suitability of a game about recreating historical architecture seems tailor-made for Minecraft. Games that speak to the metaphors of the platform in question (creating in Minecraft, simulation in Civilization, etc.) are significantly more powerful learning and scholarship tools than games that have a discord between the goals and the platform.
Does this game count as historical scholarship? In some ways, I don't believe so. Aside from the engagement with archival material, this game does not add anything to the discussion of Hull's history, and instead acts as a good visual aid for those looking to understand some history of the area. No historical truths are being discovered through representing the history of Minecraft in Hull. Wait - are there? Is visualizing the past a sort of historical truth? Now I am inclined to say yes, that there is definitely some sort of scholarship value in this visualization and representation. But not in the same way I originally intended. Connections with other information on the history of Hull or architecture or something would have to be made, and then brought into HullCraft as a secondary objective.
This game is excellent historical gaming for young people, though. Engagement with archives is not something that many young historians get to experience, and having a project that allows for this in a fun, creative environment gives kids good experience with historical research processes that they can implement later on down the line for whatever their needs may be. This is a project that I would be interested in hearing how the student experience was for the paper I intend to write on that topic.
February 1 2015
This week's blog post has a very simple agenda. I will lay out what Dr. Graham and I are looking to achieve in the coming weeks in terms of concrete, acheivable material and the people we hope to speak with in those terms, and I am going to discuss what I have come to believe is my favourite project using Minecraft for historical research thus far: project1845.com.
Dr. Shawn Graham and I are still exploring ways to a) present video game creation as a means of historical scholarship to academics, and b) to develop a plan to create a website that caters to these academics and high school teachers on how to effectively use Minecraft for history - both tools and theoretical frameworks to work within. While the latter has been put to the side for the moment, our focus on developing tools and theoretical frameworks for Minecraft's use in school has been recently on hosting an "unconference" here at Carleton come next September. With that, we are in discussion with both Jim Pedrech, a history teacher from Holy Cross Secondary School in Strathroy. We are hoping to sit down with him on Skype or something similar in the next little bit to get a sense of what he thinks students and teachers both get from Minecraft, and what kind of help they need to fully experience all that it has to offer. As well, Dr. Danielle Kinsey, from the History Department at Carleton along with Dr. Graham, will be sitting down with us to talk about the possibilities of such an unconference in the near future, both theoretically and practicality-wise. I do realize that writing this doesn't give a whole lot of information, but in the coming weeks I will be sure to give some updates on this!
With that said, I'd like to turn my attention now to a brief discussion on the Minecrafted history project that excites me the most, which is project1845.com. The idea behind this is nothing if not far-reaching: they wish to one day have a representation of everywhere in the world at everytime, what they have termed a "four-dimensional source of information." They have already recreated Beijings Forbidden City in 1751 CE as a representation of Chinese culture before Western contact, and they are currently in the process of building a scale representation of Tenochtitlan in the 16th century, the centre of the Aztec world before, once again, Western contact. This idea of simulation is exactly what I think is best suited to being represented in Minecraft: their use of tools and elements of Minecraft's creation and exploration based gameplay encapsuates very well what I find so fascinating about history in Minecraft: representations of a world that strive to be both aesthetically pleasing and rooted in historical accuracy.
Despite this, though, I can now grasp that this is not the height of what Minecraft can do for historical scholarship. This simulation of large-scale areas based on research and scholarship is excellent, but there needs to be a larger element at play if this is to be considered a game rather than a simulation. Where could there be conflict? Can there be characters and plot? Can those be historically accurate, or should they rather be rooted in historical accuracy while simultaenously contributing to our understanding of history? Finding this project has made me realize the difference between game and simulation, and that is critical engagement, not just free-roaming with no basis on which to engage with the world, however well-built it may be. This is the element that I want to discover through engaging with other educator's and scholar's material in Minecraft.
So, just a short post this week. Hopefully next week I will have something a little more formed and focused than just a short discussion. As always, if you have any comments or desire to give feedback or criticism, feel free to tweet at me at @rapickering. Thank you for reading - have a wonderful week, everyone!
January 25, 2015
This week's discussion will be short, and regrettably is coming a little bit late. Earlier this month I submitted a paper abstract to a colloquium going on at Concordia University (you can find the information about it here: Dr. Graham will be giving a talk there as well I believe), and while it was unfortunately not accepted, I have decided to complete it and submit it to a journal by the end of this year. As of right now, this is what I have determined so far.
In a recent history class at Carleton University, we examined Minecraft as a platform for writing history. Academic researchers and professors who engage with Minecraft have power - they are not obliged to write history this way. As students in such classes, however, we have no choice. In this paper, I examine the idea of using Minecraft for exploration of historical topics from a student’s experience specifically, and what kind of learning comes out from the student’s perspective. How have the theories of using Minecraft in the classroom translated to the student experience? Through a comparison with traditional academic essay writing, I will discuss some of the assumptions inherent in either medium, and how ideas of “historical accuracy” can be skewed in either one. Furthermore, I will discuss, the pros and cons of building in Minecraft as a type of learning: the elements of creativity needed, the limitations inherent in Minecraft as a program, and how to structure a game with meaning within the confines of Minecraft. Finally, I will discuss what a student can pull out of personally creating a historical videogame, and what they can possibly miss from the experience. Through an examination of what students actually get through Minecraft, educators and academics can better use Minecraft to engage with students on a new level.
I am extremely excited to get to work on this piece. Dr. Graham and I are going to workshop it throughout the year so hopefully it can be published in a suitable open source journal somewhere as a sort of culmination of the work that Dr. Graham and I will be doing this semester, along with studio3812.com (which I still need to fully form in actual code soon). So if this finished paper is the end of the fellowship, I'd like to see this abstract as the beginning of it. Looking at this abstract brings my unarticulated ideas into a much clearer light for me. Essentially, this paper has to strip away all the superficiality of Minecraft in education and understand, at both a theoretical and physical code level what makes Minecraft effective at doing history, regardless of the audience or content. Perhaps still conscious of audience, but conscious of an audience whose purpose in using Minecraft is not at the behest of a teacher, but to more fully communicate to other scholars historical research and historical scholarship in more effective ways than perhaps a traditional essay can.
A lot of my sentiments about Minecraft and why it needs to be used in ambitious ways can be summed up in Cameron Blevin's piece entitled The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology. His contention is that people have a continuous vision of digital history as something we will do and engage with in a meaningful, scholastic way in the future, instead focusing attention on newly developed tools and their potential applications - in short, focusing on the possibilities and not enacting them. I completely believe this is the case of what we are doing with Minecraft, and indeed this was one of the main points of HIST3812 last semester: we cannot treat Minecraft and games like it as just an add-on to traditional papers, but instead reframe our conceptions of education in order to utilize wonderful tools like this to their fullest capacity.
Another point I want to really explore is simple: Minecraft is not just for kids. Just by mentioning to friends of mine that I am working on a research fellowship centred around Minecraft will get them starting to make jokes and poke fun at this idea. "Minecraft for learning? Uhhh..." "Sure, maybe for kids in middle school, but not in any serious way, right?" The idea that Minecraft as a learning tool can only be effectively used for younger children and adolescents is something I really want to dispel with this fellowship, or at least try to. Minecraft can be used for such heavier topics and such more immersive experiences than just building museums or little villages for students to play in. What if an academic set out to build a scale representation of Sparta in Greece at the height of the Peloponnesian War? Or a map of a plantation in Alabama in 1850? Or the death chambers at Auschwitz in 1942? Original research represented by university students, grad students, Ph.D candidates, and professors at universities across the world could be a reality one day if enough people get educated about this kind of technology as scholarship.
Dr. Graham brings up every so often in his classes about landed professors and academics at Carleton who scoff at the ideas of digital history as something that can be used for things more advanced than simply digital transcription into databases. A lot of the points that I want to explore with this fellowship are to debunk the academic elites who think this way in order to maintain their stature in institutions. With increased historical scholarship through non-traditional mediums such as Minecraft, perhaps we can begin to normalize this kind of creativity and inclusiveness in the educational system that needs a gross amount of reform in order to keep the students of today and tomorrow engaged, without antiquated Industrial Revolution ideas about making good workers - lets not create robots who can churn out five paragraph essays, but instead create scholars who can engage critically with concepts and ideas in whatever medium works best for the material.
So, to conclude. I realize I began to ramble in that last paragraph, and as it is quite late and I have had a busy weekend battling some bug that's been going around in Ottawa, I may be losing coherency fast. However, that does not shake my excitement and resolve to work on this paper and document the abilities, limitations, and strengths of Minecraft in historical scholarship, while hopefully examining larger trends in education and digital technologies in general alongside. ]
Again, like in the first post, you can send me an email here or Tweet at me here: @rapickering. Please give me any feedback or thought that you might have on this, and suggestions on where to go from this starting point would be greatly appreciated. Goodnight!
Welcome to the first blog post of my research fellowship with Dr. Graham! This week, a simple task. Dr. Graham asked me to take a look online at what other educators in high schools were doing with Minecraft in terms of history. I needed to figure out what history teachers were doing, what they were trying to do, and what they needed. What I found was surprisingly in-depth and good history for the most part! There were some very interesting usages of the tools in Minecraft, in MinecraftEDU especially, and in looking at the actual gameplay of Minecraft, there were some unorthodox approaches which surprised me and were surprisingly effective.
In a game with limited text capabilities such as Minecraft, it would be difficult to create a historically based videogame without some sort of outside reference. The majority of projects I found had this, either in the form of outside class discussion of what happened in Minecraft, or supplementary assignments to discuss what was done primarily in Minecraft (and vice versa - Minecraft does not have to be the primary focus, it can be supplementary instead).
Coming at this, I drew from what I had learned from HIST3812A in the fall semester about Minecraft. Namely, good historical gaming in Minecraft is not superficial: it does not simply act as a facade of historical learning over an already complete game. To make good historical gaming, one must come at creating the game with the mechanics and metaphors inherent in the platform of Minecraft in mind: the game must be built in a way that puts the history directly into the gameplay mechanics. Not to contradict what I wrote earlier, but the projects I found online were varied in their success with this.
One of my favourite pieces I found, by John Miller from Chalone Peaks Middle School, was about Japanese poetry. His unit on medieval Japanese history utilized multiple aspects of Minecraft to explore the history and social structure of feudal Japan through the imagery of Japanese poetry. Students would research one of four hierarchical classes and the history of a certain time period of Japan outside of Minecraft. Then the students learnt about the traditional tanka poem as an expression of emotion and imagery in Japan. Miller wrote that he felt Minecraft's visuals were very Japanese in nature, and thus had his students write tanka poems that represented said emotion and imagery from the viewpoint of one of the four research hierarchies in feudal Japan. The students then picked one of several designated areas to place their poems, created pathways through the landscape, and used MinecraftEDU blocks to read the poem to the player and give them symbolic items. It is a very visually stunning project that incorporates writing, research, and beautiful imagery that seems very effective. In some ways, however, this project does not use the capabilities of Minecraft to it's full effect. Why not place the players in actual feudal Japan? Using GIS imagery and terraforming to create rice fields and country roads, as well as building ancient Edo, would make the connection between Japanese society, poetic language, and environments all the stronger. Most of the work is done outside of Minecraft, as well: while this may be unavoidable, especially for teachers who do not want their classes just to turn into video-game time, I cannot help but feel there is more immersion possible with this topic.
Another history project I found was led by a teacher at San Antonio Academy about the American Civil War. Students were to research Civil War battles and create simulations of them in Minecraft, then present them through video (links to those videos can be found on the aforementioned page). This particular project, while still utilizing outside research as the basis for the Minecraft experience, used Minecraft in a very different way than John Miller's did above. Facts about the Battle of Atlanta and the Battle of Gettysburg are presented in a guided museum tour through books and signs. Though I first thought this was a poor way to represent this history, the guided museum tour of the information used Minecraft's exploratory mechanics of gameplay in a good way. The battlefields are represented on the landscape outside of these museums and seen from a bird's eye view when climbing onto the creator's "sky bridges": troop movements and battle strategies of both the Confederacy and the Union are laid out in red and blue respectively. This representation of battles allows for a better understanding of how the battles actually happened, but again, this is somewhat of a superficial rendering of history in Minecraft. For example, yes, one can represent battle history in Minecraft fairly easy. But what about the political, social and economic factors that led to the Civil War and these battles in the first place? Is there not a way to utilize Minecraft in more subtle ways that subvert traditional military histories like this? Granted, these are student created projects, constrained by (assumedly) limited time and resources, and no doubt an educational bias for these kinds of traditionalist history. But I personally would much rather see a more creative use of Minecraft than simply to document battle facts in new ways. Instead, teachers should strive to have Minecraft worlds that don't represent one small aspect of a history, but utilize all the tools available in Minecraft to create more inclusive, subversive history programs that document other factors and include excluded voices.
With all of this said, I will say that right now, I do not have any concrete solutions to the problems of Minecraft in high schools. And perhaps the problems that exist are unimportant if Minecraft is already helping students succeed. But it does feel like it is as accessible and well-used as it could be (for example, the majority of the projects I found online were at private schools). But examining what is out there being done in elementary and high school Minecraft education, especially concerning history, can help us understand how to better it.
These are just two projects out of many that I saw, not all concerning history, that used Minecraft to teach history in a less traditional way than textbooks or essays, though both are implicitly still there in the background of these blog posts. You can find many of those projects on this Google+ page, where educators share. People who are working with Minecraft are doing good things generally. They are engaging with the game, they are learning how it works, and they are letting it be another tool in their teaching arsenal to get concepts across to students who might not necessarily want to read everything out of a textbook. History teachers realize already that Minecraft is a wonderful platform for simulation, and many are doing that. What they need from educational technology is the tools and resources to more effectively do that simulating, without so much impact from outside resources. While it may be unreasonable to expect a Minecraft history game to be fully self-contained, more emphasis can be placed on the history actually being discovered within Minecraft, instead of simply being represented superficially.
Over the next few weeks, though, I will be spending a lot of time listening to a YouTube series I found that deals with this exact material: Minechat. Educators discuss their own uses of Minecraft in the classroom in a number of disciplines, such as science and math, but also humanities, social studies, and history. As I found this series shortly before I wanted to submit this blog post, I did not get to delve into it as much as I would have liked. Next week, though, I will share some of the things I learn from this series and discuss them here.
I hope you've enjoyed this first post - truth be told, I am fairly nervous to put this first piece out on the web that Dr. Graham will undoubtedly share with his edtech and DH peers. If you thought this was a good piece, an okay piece, if I violated some rule of academic blogging I was not aware of, or if you have any sort of feedback (constructive or otherwise), feel free to send me a tweet at @rapickering! Thank you for reading, and check back next week for another post about Minecraft and education!