MET:Collaborative Play in 3D Virtual Learning Environments

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Stop Motion Artifact by Dominic Maggiolo

This page was originally authored by Chelsea Woods (2013).

Friends that play together, stay together. Our Minecraft club posed here for a group photo. Skins are designed by students.

3D Virtual Learning Environments are an Opportunity for Play

3D Virtual Learning Environments provide a virtual playground in which students can unleash their creativity, problem solve, and embark on collaborative projects with their peers, unrestrained by time or space. Our challenge lies in finding a method to utilise these environments to support learning with intelligence, and free from the biases of our own educational experience, or at least, without recreating outdated modes of providing education. de Castell and Jenson urge: “In consideration of the argument (supported by overwhelming evidence) that the impact of new media in education has been severely dampened by the tendency of schools to reproduce old practices in new learning environments, it is of the utmost importance that all those with an interest in education listen to these conversations with an open mind, and participate with a fresh perspective.” (de Castell and Jenson, 2003). 3D virtual learning environments are rich with educational opportunities, as long as we don't destroy those opportunities by clinging to outcome and assessment driven frameworks of education. Minecraft has many qualities that inspire Lifelong Learning.

Role of Play in Learning

Downplayed by Drive for Assessment and Data

Play is integral to learning, yet educational institutions struggle to place play at the core of curriculum because of our focus on data gathering, the challenges that ensue in 'grading' collaborative work, and the need for predictable learning outcomes. In Serious Play, deCastell and Jenson (2003) suggest that the focus in education on tracking students and gathering data against established learning outcomes detracts from focussing on the act of learning itself (p 662). Games integrated into learning tend to be add-ons in the form of learning activities not meant for establishing evidence of learning, and therefore not central to curricula. In addition, acceptable evidence of learning tends to be focussed on what students can do independently, which excludes group achievements and collaboration. The independence paradigm is so integral that O'Connor, in his 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, states in fix number 6 "Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence." While this does not preclude collaborative projects, it does create ambiguity in the role of collaborative achievements for evidence of student learning. A further detriment to education of the data gathering mindset is the reductionist approaches that result. In order to clearly state and measure learning outcomes, acceptable evidence of student learning must be predicted. The result is an oversimplification of reality into measurable pieces that educators pre-determine, leaving little room for student discovery and social construction of culture. Doll (2012) discusses the importance of complexity in curriculum, and the manners in which schools lose opportunities for complexity in the effort to make learning manageable.

Play Allows Social Construction of Culture and Knowledge

See also Digital Game-Based Learning. Learning should necessitate the inclusion of complexity, problem solving, and collaboration. In a rapidly changing world where choices grow exponentially and lifestyles no longer need be prescribed, learning should allow students the opportunity to make decisions in an immersed environment (de Castell, 2003) and experience the outcomes of their actions. Just as reality is socially constructed in the adult world with laws and social norms, so students should have the experience of collaboratively constructing, (or negotiating) realities. This is precisely what happens on the playground in early elementary, where students are given the relative freedom to choose their games and make their rules. They may begin a simple game of tag by selecting who is 'it' by racing to a pole, but once the game is on, negotiations will be made: if the same person is continually 'it,' children will negotiate alterations to the rules such as determining that someone can only be 'it' for a certain period of time. 'Base' will be established to accommodate the need for a rest, and rules for inclusion of new players will be made. These alterations are negotiated based on the actions and attitudes of the players. Sometimes players will be inflexible, and a player will quit the game. Sometimes there will be a player with empathy for the 'it' person, who will volunteer to be 'it,' thereby negating the need to make changes to the rules.

Virtual Play Allows Increased Connections and Experiences

3D virtual learning environments add to the complexity of the playground with new variables and opportunities, and provide students with an environment in which they can explore different roles, interactions, and goals. There is the added benefit of the virtual world that users can 'play' with students from around the world who are living in different social constructs, which opens the playing field to new ways of understanding and negotiating reality. de Castell and Jenson observe that as we try to integrate gaming with education, we frequently bring the stagnating precepts of current education frameworks and thereby lose the educational opportunities that games could offer. Some of the disincentives of educational games they describe are that they are linear assessment based, so that players can’t move on until they complete assigned tasks/skills; the games are assigned (not selected by consensus); there is limited room for luck and intuitive decisions; there is limited learning through collaboration and imitation; there is no reason to dwell in/explore the game environment; and, there is limited instant feedback/gratification (p 656). While we are educationally in a transition from a skills-based framework to a learning-based framework, 3D virtual learning environments provide a platform for exploring how learning can be fostered and ultimately measured without the constraints of our current purview of acceptable evidence. As we struggle to understand how we can measure learning when we cannot predict what will be learned, we may watch the learning that takes place in these new environments that take us beyond Pac Man and Pong and create learning experiences that we do not yet understand.

The example of Minecraft

What is Minecraft

Minecraft is a Java-based game that can be played online and offline. There are many examples of MInecraft being used for education: for a general overview, see

My Background in Minecraft

My school has purchased a class set of Minecraft accounts to which I allow free access to students. Our Middle School Computer Lab is open from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM every school day, whether there is a teacher present, or not. Core virtual playground times are from 7:30-8:25, 12:20-12:35, and 3:30 until 4:30 -or when I kick them out, whichever comes second. In addition we have Minecraft "club" which takes place Mondays and Thursdays from 3:45-5PM. Minecraft interactions are student led, and student created. My role is to provide the accounts, monitor the cultural norms, and provide technical and emotional support as needed (much like a playground supervisor).

Affordances of the game

Norman (1999) discusses the importance of perceived affordances in design. Affordances are possibilities for interactions or actions. For example, a ball has many affordances: it can be thrown, sat on, buried, kicked and more. In creating digital environments, designers create affordances, and hope that their users will perceive them. In Minecraft, partly because of the extensive use by players of Minecraft community (see and partly because of the design of the game itself, there are many affordances that allow players autonomy and choice.

Game modes: creative, survival, hardcore, adventure.

Players can choose the game mode of their worlds, and can even change their game mode within a world. In creative mode, players have access to unlimited supplies, are invincible, have the ability to fly, and are not required to sleep or eat. In survival mode, players must gather food, build shelter, and sleep. In hardcore mode, players have all the challenges of survival, with the addition of more monsters. Players can play or create an adventure world, in which structures are less modifiable and paths are created to be followed, for example a parcour course, or a roller coaster.

Private worlds, LAN worlds, server worlds.

Players can create, download, upload, or join worlds. There is even a plug-in called Multiverse which allows players to have multiple interconnected worlds, each with different parameters (survival, creative, player roles). In a private world, a player generates a world, and plays on their own, choosing their game mode and the type of world they load. Worlds can be generated randomly, and players can set the layers of the world (stone, dirt, grass, and more) and choose worlds generated with or without structures. If structures are allowed, villages are generated that include houses, churches, libraries, farms, and more. Villagers live in generated villages, and players can kill them or trade with them, and there are even children in the villages. Players also choose whether animals and monsters are created. In creative mode, players can 'spawn' animals (pigs, cows, chickens, dogs), and then kill (harvest) or domesticate them.

Players can open their private worlds to LAN (local are network) in which case anyone who is on the same network as the player can join the world. This creates challenges in a shared network environment, because players cannot control who joins their world. I have seen many cases of students arguing over what type of play is appropriate in their LAN worlds, and extreme disappointment when someone joins a creative world and begins destroying the creations of other students. We have 28 student accounts, and it is not uncommon to hear shouts of "Who's student14?! No killing!" LAN worlds provide an interesting opportunity for players to establish norms, be the leader of their 'own' world, negotiate interactions, and share with others. I have students with worlds in which I have been given property and encouraged to build a home, and am often delighted by thoughtful additions and encouraging notes left for me by the owners. A world created through LAN cooperation or independently can be saved and shared with others.

Server worlds are worlds that are hosted on a server. Our school hosts a server world, and together with the students I manage the plug-ins in the world and negotiate the social norms. This is a tremendous challenge, which includes setting player permissions, planning development, and dealing with 'griefing' (theft and unwanted destruction). There are thousands of Minecraft servers to choose from, and server links include descriptions of the kind of world the server provides. In our lab it is popular to join 'Hunger Games' servers and play hunger games as a team. For a list of some of the servers out there, view where there were 17,350 server listed on 23 February 2013.

Roles in server worlds: admin, OP, moderator, builder, player.'

Servers offer great challenges for management. Minecraft has frequent updates, and on a server managers need to add plug-ins to determine the style of play. Some plug-ins do not integrate well with others, causing servers to crash. On a server you can have whitelists (a term that concerns me) of players that are allowed on the server, and you can set the permission levels of specific players. There are even pug-ins that allow you to control permissions by region, so that players have different permissions in different regions. This is crucial if you want to allow players to build, because without this, they can get 'griefed.' In general, servers have moderators, who observe game-play and ban players who behave inappropriately, and players vie for this role. After establishing oneself as a moderator, one can get increased permissions as an operator (op) and from there one can progress to admin. Below these roles are builders, who have permission to build but do not moderate others, and players, who have limited powers. This provides a simple list of roles on servers, but administrators can create unlimited roles with permissions of their choosing.

adaptations: mods, texture packs, skins, plug ins, techit.

In the section on servers I mentioned plug-ins, which are adaptations that can be installed on servers. There are also many adaptations for private worlds. Mods add commands and objects to games, for example, one can add aliens, flying objects, guns, diamond meters (for easier diamond mining), or seasons. Mods are installed locally, and only affect the worlds of the computer on which the mods are installed. These create some complications for learning players, as they need to be downloaded as zipped files and unpacked in the appropriate folder. Procedures differ on Macs and PCs, which add to the challenge, but there are all form of instructions available through YouTube or a simple Internet search. Players can also install texture packs, which change the appearance of the game. Some texture packs create a military appearance, and a student showed me one that makes a cat face appear in blocks that are being destroyed along with a pinkish soft edge to blocks. Players can create their own skins (appearance), or download skins that others have created. I have one student who plays in white underpants, which caused a group debate in which is was decided that this was acceptable, I suspect largely because the spirit in which they are worn is anything but offensive. I wear a skin that a student made for me which makes me look like a penguin (our school mascot) and has 'AAS' (for Anglo American School) on my back. When playing, players can choose to view the space in front of them, view play over their shoulder (seeing themselves from behind), or play viewing themselves from the front, which requires mentally flipping right and left movement. This allows players to watch their skins. Techit is a realm which I have not yet explored, and my students tell me is complicated. It involves increased technical functionality with redstone (which creates electrical fuses), pistons, and switches.

community, forums, wikis, you tube

Minecraft includes and allows for the creation of community, which is crucial to learning and deep understanding. deCastell and Jenson (2003) highlight the importance of the interaction between culture and learning, that learners may be immersed in a culture or set of established norms through which to perceive and creatively modify reality. Gee (2009) discusses importance of semiotic domains, which are complex and include multiple modalities or forms of signification. There is interaction between the content and the social practices, which allows both active learning, which involves experiencing the world in a new way, access to a new social group, and gaining resources for problem solving in that domain (p 24), and critical learning, which involves being able to "think about the domain on a meta level, as complex, interrelated parts, to generate novel meanings (meanings that are novel to experts in the group)" (p 25).

Students built a set and performed a play.

Role of Community

Minecraft supports social construction of reality through game play and through the various forums, wikis, and You Tube videos that players contribute to. The role of community is integral to the playing of the game.

There is research that finds that gaming is dangerous, addictive, and creates violent tendencies in players. de Castell and Jenson, in review of this research, state: “Of significance, we contend, is how often the ‘subject’ of this research (the game or the players themselves) is researched and written about with little, if any, consideration of context and culture.” (651) Research that includes evaluation of correlations between game violence and other criteria such as exposure to media, support of national military, authoritarian structures lacking respect for individuals, individual experience of punishments and other "consequences" for mistakes, violence in schools, physical playgrounds, sports events, and the family (including parent-child and sibling-child) can provide a clearer picture of the role of games that allow violence (which Minecraft does) in the creation of violent behaviour. Also to consider is contrast between the encouragement and propagation of receptive media (movies, books, cartoons, news) including violent plots involving the murder of terrorists, superheroes, detectives, drug abuse, zombies, vampires, etc.) and creative media (videogames, writing, blogging, You Tubing, Facebooking, etc. Why do we as a society shy from creative opportunities and encourage receptive opportunities? To be reflected upon are the advantages of having authorship or creative license vs. consuming what someone else created for us. Where should our focus in education be, in creation or consumption? 3D Virtual Learning environments, while they do provide opportunities for consumption, are much more about creation and authorship: being the driving force in the chain of complex events that unfolds.

For Further Research

For further research, a note on gender. Much of the literature on gaming finds that males are gaming more than females, and to that I would add that it is a certain kind of male that finds some of the more popular games appealing (World of Warcraft and Halo, for example). The affordances of Minecraft mean that there is an appeal to a broader range of mentalities in the game. In my own Middle School Computer Lab experience, the lunchtime crowds contain almost as many females as males playing Minecraft, with the significant difference being that females tend to play on creative worlds, while males are more likely to make survival, player vs. player, or adventure map worlds.


de Castell, Suzanne, & Jenson, Jennifer. (2003). Serious play. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35(6), 649-665. Doll Jr, W. E. (2012). Complexity and the Culture of Curriculum. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 9(1). Norman, D. (1999). Affordances, Conventions and Design. Interactions, 6 (3), 38-41. O'Connor, Ken. (2010). A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades.