If you have or know any kids between the ages of 9 and 15, odds are you’re aware of Minecraft. The PC game from independent Swedish developer Mojang has attracted more than 75 million registered users since launching in December 2010, according to video game analyst firm Newzoo.
And that number doesn’t include the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and mobile versions of the game that have expanded the audience while generating approximately $1 billion for creator Markus “Notch” Persson and his company.
“Minecraft is often referred to as ‘what LEGO should have done online,’” said Peter Warman, video game analyst at research firm Newzoo. “Now Minecraft has become a LEGO set itself, drawing so much time from kids and youngsters that it is seriously competing with the physical LEGO bricks. And it’s not just kids and young teens that play the game. Of the millions of Minecraft Pocket Edition players, 60% is older than 20 and one-third is female.”
“The game’s success can be attributed to the freedom of expression and the ability to build anything you can imagine,” said Carl Manneh, CEO of Mojang. “It gives people a way to visualize anything they can imagine. When you have a creative software like that, people tend to want to share it with friends. That’s really helped us in spreading the word about the game.”
When New York City teacher Joel Levin saw this explosion of popularity among his students, he decided to blog about the game. After all, kids weren’t just playing this game across multiple platforms, they were also spending countless hours perusing the 50 million-plus Minecraft videos on YouTube.
The educator had spent the past decade trying to incorporate video games into his classroom curriculum as a way to engage students and make learning more relevant to today’s generation. Levin said he was blown away at the range of possibilities that Minecraft offered, from building challenges, to having kids do research online and report back on what they learned, to exploring digital citizenship by building communities in the game that serves as virtual microcosms to high school.
“Teachers from all over the world started contacting me,” said Levin. Eventually, Levin was put in touch with Mojang. “I was able to open a dialogue with teachers and programmers in Finland, which is at the forefront of the world in education.” Levin partnered with Santeri Koivisto, a teacher in Finland, to formalize a company, TeacherGaming.
“The first thing we did was secure rights to sell Minecraft to schools at half price. Mojang loves the idea of getting its game into schools,” Levin said. “We also created a custom version of MinecraftEdu, which features the original game plus layers of new tools that teachers and students can use for the classroom.”
Today, more than 2,100 schools around the globe on six different continents are using MinecraftEdu at a variety of grade levels—from kindergarten to high school and even at some universities. The game is being used to teach almost every subject from history to art to science. Levin said this array of subjects and grade levels speaks to how open and flexible it is.
“We kept MinecraftEdu very open-ended to be a platform that teachers could create their own content on top of,” said Levin. “The secret sauce has been early-adopter teachers coming up with ingenious lessons and then sharing their lesson plans and curriculums with other teachers. Educators can find, discover and download this content and get them running in their own classrooms.”
In the U.S., history teachers are recreating ancient worlds in the game and then having students go on virtual adventures, talking to historical characters, or having students create historical landmarks based on what they learned in class. In Australia, a science teacher created giant 3D models of cells and neurotransmitters and let the class explore them. Other teachers have used the simulation aspect of the game, having kids do experiments with MinecraftEdu gravity and then comparing that to the real world and coming up with a hypothesis and proving it.
In Denmark, ESL teacher André Chercka used MinecraftEdu to help educate troubled teens. Kids can play the game in the classroom, but they have to speak only English. Because the game is so engaging, teachers find students pushing themselves and learning English.
“Book learning can only go so far,” said Levin. “You need to communicate to another person to solve problems and ultimately to succeed.”
Even at younger grade levels, the game has been successfully integrated into education. In kindergarten classrooms, the game is used for play like LEGOs. Around the second-grade level, instructors are using the game to teach children about how communities work and the different roles in society. The game is good at modeling things like asking a group of kids to build a town and assigning different tasks like chopping wood and making tools. That concept was taken to another level at one high school, where a government teacher let kids form their own society. They wrote a town charter and had a great debate about how to govern and how to divide labor.
“At the meta level if you have some programming skills you can change the game to add whatever you want to it,” said Levin, who noted that the game is also being used to teach programming at some schools. “I’ve seen videos from a calculus class where students were making shapes using MinecraftEdu blocks that conformed to the formulas they were studying. Other students built the Globe Theater and then stood on stage reciting Shakespeare.”
MinecraftEdu is helping debunk the stigma attached to video games—generally that they’re a waste of time or lead to addictive or negative behavior. Levin said there’s enough research out there that disproves this idea, including a recent study in the United Kingdom that tracked 13,000 kids over 10 years and was unable to show any negative effects from kids who played games when compared to those who did not.
“It’s about whether the school is willing to embrace new teaching methods and education in the classroom,” said Levin. “By and large, schools all over the world schools are really looking for teaching methods they can apply to 21st-century learning.”
The cost of entry for educators is low at $391, which includes the software plus 25 licenses of the game. MinecraftEdu is only available for the PC, Mac and Linux, which fits in nicely with the classroom setting.
An earlier version of this story said that Mojang was a Finnish company, the cost of entry for educators was $376 and that Mojang initially contacted Joel Levin. The post has been updated.