Last June something I never expected happened. I found myself speaking before a crowded room of European Union members, think tanks, NGOs, industry representatives, policymakers and their kids about my books and the incredibly influential game Minecraft. Why were they interested? I was talking about how my Minecrafter books and the game that inspired them can be useful in teaching kids about such far-flung topics as literacy, fact-checking and friendships.
I’m someone who talks a lot about Minecraft and literacy. I’m the author of 12 books aimed for ages 7-12 that take place as if Minecraft is real, and my second six-book boxset is dropping November 20. I’ve written a lesson plan for Microsoft’s official Minecraft: Education Edition site about how my first book, Escape from the Overworld, can be used by elementary and middle school classrooms to get kids writing and exploring their creativity with writing prompts I’ve created. I’m working on another lesson plan about my next book. My website includes advice for kids on how to write, and I offer a sample of Escape from the Overword’s first page as a rough draft and first page as a printed book, to show how the editing process works.
When I gave my speech, I wanted to stress that the most important thing for me is to do is make my books entertaining. Stevie, the 11-year-old main characters, is from Minecraft but knows of a portal to Earth, and he and his friends have adventures in the different worlds with many a chapter cliffhanger. Kids all around the world love Minecraft, and if they’re reluctant about reading, it might be that they just haven’t found the books that speak to them. Kids who love Minecraft might start their love of reading through Minecraft-related books.
But, I said in my speech, while keeping the books entertaining, I like to slip in issues real kids deal with. So the books discuss friendship, going to a new school, what to do if you’re cyberbullied, what to do if you are a cyberbully. In a time of rampant non-fact-checking, where the loudest voice sometimes gets the most kudos no matter what it says, I shared these lines from my book Last of the Ender Crystal:
“I think we just need to watch and learn,” Maison said. “My mom always said you can’t jump to conclusions and you have to learn all about something before you have an opinion on it.”
Yancy snorted. “Not in the days of the Internet. The more knee-jerk your reaction, the more the Internet seems to reward you for it.”
It can be a loud, angry, toxic would out there, and a loud, angry, toxic Internet. My readers are either starting out on the Internet or about to, and that’s why I want to slip little messages like the one above into my books, between all the sword fights and monsters attacks.
But all of this is certainly not the only way you can use Minecraft to help and educate kids who love the game. Minecraft: Education Edition has many, many more lessons than mine, and is available in more than 115 countries. Deirdre Quarnstrom, GM of Minecraft: Education Edition, spoke to me about what else is going on.
“On November 1 we released our fourth Minecraft: Hour of Code tutorial, Voyage Aquatic,” she said. “That’s a free tutorial available on Code.org. We’re actually very close to 100 million Minecraft: Hour of Code sessions and we’re expecting to cross over that in the next couple of weeks. Players use blocks of code to navigate through different ocean environments in Minecraft, collect items and solve puzzles. We provide a set of resources for the teachers and then we also provide a really engaging environment in Minecraft. Coding doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t have to be unapproachable. It can be really fun for students and really accessible for teachers.”
This comes not long after Minecraft’s aquatic update. That was especially exciting to me, and it came around the same time my book Clash in the Underwater World was released, which had Stevie’s first trip to the ocean. In the midst of battling guardians, Stevie also learns a little about Earth’s oceans, including why sharks ought to be respected and not feared.
Learning with Minecraft can have real-world benefits, and I’m not just talking about grades. Minecraft teamed up with the Nature Conservancy for a campaign called Coral Crafters that really empowered kids. “Coral Crafters is installing structures in the ocean to help rebuild coral reefs,” Quarnstrom explained. “We had students in Mexico design an underwater structure in Minecraft and then it was selected and students helped install that in a coral reef near their school. This way students are learning about conservation, about the oceans and the environment, and then they were building something in Minecraft that was produced in their physical world.”
M:EE is also very much involved in helping kids with math. “Concepts become much more real to students when educators use Minecraft to introduce a concept from algebra or geometry,” she said. “Players are moving around in a 3D space, which can help for the more visual learners.”
Visiting schools, Quarnstrom has many anecdotes of teachers and students finding success with learning through Minecraft. “I just was in New Zealand. One of the schools I visited had an after school program and they were working with augmented reality and Minecraft environments. One of the girls I spoke to said for the first time she was pursuing education in technology. She always thought she wanted to be a lawyer. But after going through this program, she realized the world of technology was also really interesting to her.”
Quarnstrom also had a story from her recent trip that was right up my alley. “There were three young boys who were very reluctant writers. Then they were told someone from the Minecraft team was visiting and they had these books they created. I had them each read their book to me and they were so excited. This was the first time these boys were really embracing writing.”
During my speech to members of the EU, I had talked about my desire to be a writer since I was very young, and the importance of teaching kids to follow their passions and the importance of working for what you want. And, in fact, sometimes Minecraft can help you get there.
This guest blog post is written by Danica Davidson, author of the unofficial Minecraft Overworld adventure books, and originally appeared on MMORPG on November 18, 2018. Follow Danica on Twitter at @danicadavidson.