At first glance, one wouldn’t think that a video game that includes zombies, skeletons, and dragons would be educational. But then Minecraft is no ordinary video game. It’s actually less focused on being a game and more focused on being a complete, tactile world, like a wide-open sandbox full of Legos. Some of the natural resources you find can be combined into tools, the tools can gather more resources, and you can craft your way up an entire technology chain from primitive cave-dweller to bronze-age tycoon.
And yes, it’s an environment ideal for teaching at least basic programming concepts. One need look no further than the substance known as “Redstone,” a mineral resource in the game which functions as very primitive circuitry components. Various circuitry components can be crafted and laid out with Redstone “wire.” These components include switches, sensors, converters, and lamps which can pass a signal to other components. Assembled together, one can easily replicate the entire set of logic gates that use the same Boolean logic found in circuitry.
For instance, laying out two adjacent switches feeding a signal into one lamp can replicate an AND gate. Putting an inverter on the end of that, naturally, gives an XOR gate. There are diagrams on the Wiki for all the logic gates, switches, and mechanisms.
Not only can one assemble a Turing-complete computer with Redstone contraptions in Minecraft, but there are also several videos on YouTube giving demonstrations of just that. Here’s one great example. These constructions take time and patience, certainly, but it’s possible to replicate just about everything in a computer, including a graphical display and input controls. Here’s an even more lucid example showing a working keyboard, screen display, and several “installed” programs including a tic-tac-toe game using artificial intelligence.
Quite amazing! As if all that technology weren’t enough, there are command blocks as well. These function as direct “command line” interfaces to the game’s virtual world, which require actual input code to function. This actually saves lots of time and effort over laying out lines of Redstone wiring. Command blocks activate the game’s console commands under the hood, allowing direct manipulation of the game’s environment, as well as integrating with Redstone and other components in the game. There’s even “note blocks” which play a note when hit with a Redstone signal, so it’s possible to compose songs in the environment as well.
As one might guess by now, the game environment can be educational in other ways. Machines can be built out of components such as mechanical pistons, railways, blocks which collect or produce items, pipes, and several other parts. So the game world is even a pretty fair engineering environment, perhaps even fit to run up a quick prototype of a gadget before implementing it in the real world. Additionally, there’s a hefty architectural part to this game. Players have built elaborate constructions including scale models of real-world cathedrals, bridges, skyscrapers, ships, and whole cities.
The developers have also been very friendly to the third-party “mods” community. This game is programmed mostly in the Java programming language, so anybody with working knowledge of Java development can freely tinker with the source files and invent their own improvements. The resulting “mod” community is one of the most active of its kind, releasing content to add custom items, skins, and alterations to the game. Taking the game experience beyond the game itself to its codebase is an excellent motivation for students to perfect their Java coding skills.
Minecraft has won numerous awards recognizing it for its significance as a landmark game innovation, as well as for its educational capacities. It’s even been featured in the Smithsonian’s exhibition of video games. The amazing thing about it is that it’s still plain old fun to treat as a regular 3D game. You can play in it and just concern yourself with exploring caves and shooting monsters with a bow and arrow, or farm some wheat, or tame a few pet wolves, all without concerning yourself with the programming aspects.
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