“You’ve got these kids, and they’re creating these worlds, and they think they’re just playing a game, but they have to solve some of the hardest problems facing humanity.” Words by Seth Frey, a postdoctoral fellow in computational social science at Dartmouth College, as quoted in a feature* of the New York Times. What’s this?
It’s Minecraft, a computer game with over a hundred million registered users—played singly or with other players on the internet. This game’s different. Rather than point-and-click in response to programmed antics on the screen, the Minecraft user actually creates his own game with symbolic “blocks.” Starting with a landscape, the player can use blocks to make objects like buildings, but other blocks can be tools that cut trees or cut stone to make more blocks to build other things. Some “redstones” can transmit energy like wires, and can serve as on/off switches, enabling control of the flow of information–like a telephone operator. Properties of blocks can be changed. Animals can move and do things.
In effect, the Minecraft player is doing what computer geeks call “object-oriented programming,” but with a somewhat limited set of “objects.” Long ago, we older folks learned to program with Basic or Fortran to solve algebraic problems on central-station computers. Our building “blocks” were routines or subroutines, little programs you could call in sequence to do whatever was needed. Later, when computers became personal and powerful, programmers learned to manipulate graphics like photos and maps. And to manipulate someone else’s computer. Thus, today’s kids using Minecraft gain the fundamental skills of logical programming along with forced experience in overcoming disappointment: a programmed thing rarely works on the first try.
When multiple players participate in the same game on a private or public server, the kids can also learn social skills by facing problems and opportunities of sharing, exclusion, bullying, cooperation, negotiation, and research. That’s what some of us do on the internet, or in business, or even in church. The internet now offers a world of communications and videos on techniques of Minecraft. Some libraries have Minecraft servers. And while all this sounds like it’s just for the kids, Microsoft (who bought Minecraft from its creator) says the average player is about 28 years old. Adults and kids are thus mentoring each other. Minecraft is more than a creative game that develops programming skills. It’s a social phenomenon. Says the New York Times.
So what’s not to applaud?
I sense that youth spending hours on Minecraft is better than wasting hours on programmed amusements of bang-bang violence. I also sense that the lives of today’s urban youth are largely programmed—programmed by school, then scheduled for drama or music or sports, then a weekend field trip, all this interspersed with all-day intermittent texting and Facebook and Twitter. Programmed time and screen time. Nobody’s playing baseball or kick-the-can in the street.
I retain the notion that there’s something to be learned by playing with real blocks, by assembling Legos or Tinkertoy girders with real nuts and bolts, by digging in real earth and by shaping real wood and connecting real wires. If, when you grow up, you must call an expert whenever your expectation collapses, when the roof leaks or the faucet drips or the car gets bent or a drought, when the furnace stops or when the storm wipes out your road and your electric power and your phone—then you will need skills of manipulating the physical world to supply your needs. Kids, I think, need experiences with ropes and tree houses and bushes and grass and dirty faces and even scraped knees, things that don’t happen on the two-dimensional world of a computer screen, even with Minecraft. Real social difficulties can’t be solved by clicking <off>. Wives and husbands aren’t anonymous and aren’t two-dimensional, either. Sure, it’s fine to learn programming. But you’ve got to live sometime, somewhere, in the real world that is a complex program evolving faster than anyone can debug it.
Besides that, real play in the sunshine is fun. Fun, maybe even in the rain.
*Magazine section, April 17, 2016, p.48.