At university Jack and I shared a house and even shared a room. It was exactly what we had always waited for. We had made it out of our small country villages and we shared a sense that anything was possible. By this point we had both progressed beyond gaming consoles into PC gaming. We had built lavish civilizations in “Age of Empires” and defeated tyranny in “Command and Conquer”. For me, these were treats that awaited me at home when I returned from University on weekends but for Jack, who had brought his games with him, there was no respite from the call of gaming. Jack and I quickly drifted apart. I was more interested in continuing old arguments about musical taste with new friends, partying and, of course, studying, while Jack grew contentedly isolated with his games. Before long my only contact with Jack was his daily request for me to bring him back a box of Marlboro cigarettes and a bottle of coke, the main constituents of his diet at that time. It became impossible to rouse him for lectures after his all-night gaming binges. The game that officially ended his University hopes was “Championship Manager” – a soccer strategy simulator which I can only describe as crack-cocaine for gamers. The game so entrapped Jack that when I left for University in the morning it was normal to see him in exactly the same seat as though he had not moved a muscle all night. And he hadn’t. Not even to use the bathroom. On these mornings even he often wondered where the time had gone.
Despite the best efforts of myself and our other housemates, we were hopelessly ill equipped to help Jack. In retrospect I am in no doubt that he was addicted to gaming. When we would try to coax him to the University or just out for a walk or for a game of football he would at first jokingly decline but if pushed would quickly snap at us. When he was not playing “Championship Manager” he was telling us all about who the next big talent in soccer was going to be (based on his playing of the game). When we coaxed him to the sitting-room he quickly bored of our conversation, and why wouldn’t he? It was foreign and related to a world he no longer had contact with. At these times he grew anxious and restless. Unsurprisingly, he did not sit a single examination at the end of his first term and did not return to university after that. Before long, we had lost contact.
All of this is increasingly relevant to me now that I see the mainstream use of “Gamification” in education. In particular I have concerns about the feting of Minecraft as the next great way to inspire and engage students. The argument goes that Minecraft is a unique tool for allowing students to understand STEM subjects in a more tangible way. It is a social and collaborative tool and it meets students in their areas of interest and orientates that interest towards academic learning. The company behind Minecraft has even developed an educational branch where you can find free resources to plan classes. You can find more arguments in favour of using Minecraft in your classroom in this video:
- Minecraft was not designed as an educational programme. It is a for-profit game developed to attract and retain the attention of the gamer. It is a game without an end, that is to say players are thrown into an endlessly large world which they can explore and build to infinity. This makes it highly addictive for some.
- Parents have expressed concerns about the addictive nature of the game. Just type “Is Minecraft addictive” into your search engine and you will find countless testimonies about the impact the game has had on the families of the more addicted players. Ann Brenoff recently wrote a particularly thought-provoking piece for the Huffington Post in which she details her attempts to wean her 11 year-old son off the game.
- Using Minecraft in the classroom poses several risks. One of the often stated reasons for using Minecraft in school is that it hooks student interest. For some it is actually just hooking their addiction. By embedding what has become a vice in their out-of-school life into the curriculum we are running the risk of enabling their addiction. For students who are struggling to control the amount of time they invest in the game, this nod from the school that Minecraft is not only a game but a pedagogically sound use of time may provide valuable reinforcement from authority figures to a burgeoning addiction.
- Without a sound policy on the use of Gamification in the classroom and without carefully-planned lessons, there is a real risk that the pedagogy will come a distant second to the technology. Many teachers who are just fans of the game or of technology in general may use it because it is trendy without thought of how it furthers their pedagogical requirements. If you think this is not likely just remember how “Second Life” was touted as the next big step forward in education a decade ago. For educators who think “well, let’s try it and see where it leads”, please do not do so flippantly because while this may be new to the classroom, it is not new to the students, many of whom already have well-formed gaming habits.
- Because Gamification is an exciting but new field in education it is important to track its effectiveness in the classroom. It is said of Minecraft that it is an evolved version of Lego and offers greater creative possibilities. I doubt this claim. I have yet to hear of a single case of Lego addiction. Lego of course is also highly fashionable at the moment in the classroom but the difference is that it does not have the addictive risk of being an online tool. Further, and while there is much research to be done, there are doubts over how creative Minecraft allows our students to be. In this recent article, child psychologist Peter Gray argues that it is not a questions of Lego or Minecraft that benefits a child’s creativity and that neither one guarantees that a child will engage in free play.
- A final concern is that if students have just come from History class where they have built the Acropolis using Minecraft and now have to sit through a comparatively dry procedural lesson on French Verbs it seems likely that the French teacher will appear more boring than ever before. Even if that teacher employs proven-to-work methodologies in her class she stands little chance against Minecraft. This is where we run the risk of introducing the crack-cocaine of Minecraft into the school. If there are students who are hooked on the game and now feel that their addiction is validated by using Minecraft in History they will correctly grow disengaged in classes where it is not used. Is the answer to move to embedding Minecraft in all classrooms? Undoubtedly that will produce engagement but there is nothing at present to suggest that it will produce academic success and there is some evidence to suggest that it will harm those students who cannot manage their impulses.
In summary, Gamification is an interesting trend in education. I would highly recommend that where it is employed it be done so only after thorough research, a clear implementation policy and broad agreement from all school stakeholders. I would most strongly advise educators and teachers to resist the trend towards “meeting students where they are” when we talk about online games as this can pose a significant risk to some of our students. Whenever I see justifications for using Minecraft in the classroom, as are now increasingly common, I can’t help but insert the word “Championship Manager” into the text wherever I see Minecraft. In education we often fall victim to technological fads and I fear that Minecraft is just the latest in a long line of those. Had this happened 15 years ago I could easily see educators making the case for using “Championship Manager” in the classroom to “meet students where they are”. “Championship Manager” could easily have been adopted to suit many Gamification models. It would have ensured that my friend Jack was engaged in class, it would have been easy to write lesson plans that argue that the game introduces students to budgeting, communication, debate, mathematical process, team leadership etc. but the truth is that had our teachers used “Championship Manager” in the classroom Jack would not have had an awakening and suddenly seen his school subjects in a fresh, new and exciting light. Most likely he would have simply taken it as a justification for his addiction and not even made it as far as University. Of course, it could have given Jack a leadership role among his peers, showing them the basics of the game and how to succeed at it, but that would most likely have just resulted in more Jacks.