Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Minecraft Survival Mode Competition: Using Gamification & Game-based Learning to Teach Societal Needs

Welcome to GBL Airlines… My name is Jon Spike, and I’ll be your pilot for the flight. We are expecting clear skies and smooth flying to our final destination. In case of emergency, your desks can be used as a flotation device. Please be sure to stow your backpacks under your seat and keep your seats in their full upright positions.”

I spoke the words in a darkened classroom, with two rows of desks arranged in lines of three extending to the back of the room. From a distance, the congested students appeared to be aboard a commercial aircraft, and most definitely in “Coach.” I stood at the front, giving my best impression of a seasoned commercial jet pilot. Behind me, a video playing on the projector revealed the inside of an airplane from a first-person view.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re currently approaching 30,000… oh, oh no. What? Where did he… Ummm, ladies and gentlemen, we appear to have lost our copilot. We should be fine if… what? No! How is that...? Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we have lost both pilots. Please prepare yourself for impact. Tuck your head between your knees and cover the back of your neck. We’re going to make a water landing. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Prepare for impact…

As the students watched the above video and listened to my voice, the situation became clear: they were going down, and the world they would enter was Minecraft: Survival Mode. Once the plane crashed, the view switched to a first-person view of a Minecraft avatar swimming back to the surface, seeing an uninterrupted biome waiting to be colonized.

And here lies the rub - two rival societies have emerged from the wreckage of the plane crash, and they cannot agree upon the rules, regulations, and goals for their new utopia. So what happens? An inevitable competition to determine who can create the greatest society. Let the games begin…

Before we delve into the details of the game, let me clarify a few finer points. I have done the great “Minecraft Survival Competition” for two years now. Both years started with me crashing an imaginary aircraft with my students aboard, yes, but the first year had no built-in competition. Rather, the only goal was to create a functioning society. We designed rules, punishments, chose a government, and tried to survive, but nothing more. To say it did not go very well is an understatement. Students stole from each other mercilessly, destruction of property ran rampant, and students did not band together very much at all, except with their friends.

I stepped back from the grand experiment and asked where I went astray. I had asked students to work together and live in harmony. In addition, I offered suggestions on how they might achieve such a place. What went wrong?

For starters, the students had no definition nor any incentive to create a “great” society. Instead, they ran with their version of a great society - one where they had enough resources for themselves and their “pack,” and where they got to have the fun they wanted. The only incentive, perhaps, was goodwill toward others, and sadly that did not quite have the pull I had hoped. For the next year, I realized I had to fix those two issues. Students must have an incentive, and they must have a definition of what denotes a “great” society.

To define a great society, I first toyed with the idea of letting students submit criteria and go from there. However, I felt like this might take a bit too much of our prep time, so I instead took my main goals for what I wanted students to achieve and what was realistic to achieve in the game, and went from there. Here are the achievements and their “points” below:

Points Awarded/Deducted
Judge Ruling (Yes/No & How)
Person dies
No (unless extreme circumstance)
Observed griefing (being disrespectful to fellow players, stealing, destroying, etc)
Yes - if judge sees griefing or has reason to believe griefing occurred
Best system of food production
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Best housing network (number of houses, number of people with shelter, etc)
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Best SINGLE structure (creativity, design, usefulness, etc)
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Best preservation of resources (trees, animals, space taken up in world, etc)
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Greatest Society Name
yes - winner determined by expanded panel

As shown here, not only do students have a DEFINED understanding of what we have defined as a “great” society, but they also understand what is at stake. Every death, every effort toward conserving resources, and every decision they make comes with associated point values for their team. Unlike the previous year, their actions could help their society climb closer to having the single greatest structure, or cause the senseless death of a classmate. With a small ounce of competitive gamification of Minecraft, students had motivation to create a great society and look out for each other. In previous years, students had asked other students for food, supplies, and help surviving the night, and had been ignored. This year, students realized that they must not only be concerned with their own survival, but also the survival of others. Each death was another point lost, and every wasted moment gave up ground to the other class in terms of the points for creating the greatest food production, building network, and more.

Before my eyes, I saw students creating low-income housing, free-to-use chests of supplies, community gardens, and much more. Neighborhoods popped up, and classroom discussions about how to handle resource shortages and unruly citizens took place. At one point, we held a trial, complete with eyewitnesses for both the prosecution and defense, along with closing statements from the accused and the accuser. The whole class served as jury, and the student found guilty agreed that his sentence was fitting for his actions. All told, three students were put in the jail during the exercise - two by teacher observation of “griefing” (deliberately causing destruction or harm to other players and their creations), and one by the aforementioned trial.

For those interested in running their own Minecraft Survival Competition, I have created a Google Folder with some helpful starter resources. The contents of the folder include:

  • Minecraft Survival Mode Rules
  • Minecraft Survival Mode Template (for students to explain WHY they deserve to win a certain category)
  • Minecraft Survival Mode Student Response Sample (for modeling how previous students have responded)
  • Creating a Society Google Presentation (great visual for aiding in a discussion about what a society may need)
  • Minecraft Plane Crash Video (A neat way to begin the “story” of your Survival Competition)

Although this particular Minecraft Unit went well, I am even more excited for what the future holds in terms of game-based learning and exploring the topic of designing a cohesive society. Recently, a game called “Eco” from Strange Loop Games met its Kickstarter goal of $100,000. The game promises to take the idea of forming a society based on utilizing the land and resources to prevent a horrific catastrophe by working together in a voxel world. The game starts with the same premise as the Minecraft Survival Competition and creates more concrete means of designing a community, including the built-in features of creating laws, monitoring resource usage, and developing a functioning economy based on both currency and labor contracts. The possibilities of such a game are endless and really help students see how their decisions impact others in their community.

Games present us with the unique ability to take a perspective, assume a role, and empathize with one another. Minecraft and Eco are two promising means to help your students see their significance in society - take the leap and try one of them out!