All video games are not created equal.
I wouldn’t recommend we encourage youth to play just any game. I doubt transferable skills are learned by repeatedly flapping a bird into a drainage tube. The best educational interventions are those that meet youth where they are and use the energy associated with that space to encourage learning.
So where are the youth? Minecraft.
Minecraft is one of the most popular games in the United States with over 100 million registered users. It’s not as flashy as typical video games—the graphics are lo-fi and 8-bit. At first glance, the game play seems incredibly simple: In creative mode, the goal is to build structures in an open 3D environment.
In this way, Minecraft is different than other video games because the object is to construct, not to tear down. It’s a video game, but it can also be classified as a building toy.
Parents are faced with difficult choices about technology. The prevailing wisdom is that “screen time” is bad for children. But can Minecraft be lumped in with the rest of the things that kids might do on a computer or phone?
Minecraft offers youth the opportunity to explore an environment that is not rule-based like the rest of their lives. “On Minecraft, you can do whatever you want,” a 9-year old Minecraft player told me.
Not only does the open-world nature of Minecraft give children the opportunity to be more creative, it allows them to feel like they have a sense of control over themselves and their environment.
It’s an implicit way for them to develop self-regulation skills that then transfer to offline spaces—through having this freedom to create on Minecraft, they learn how to identify and work towards offline goals like finishing class assignments or graduating from college later in life.
Playing Minecraft teaches kids useful skills. The most clearly visible are visuospatial reasoning skills—learning how to manipulate objects in space in a way that helps them create dynamic structures. Visuospatial reasoning is the basis for more abstract forms of knowledge like the ability to evaluate whether a conclusion logically follows from its premises.
Minecraft also helps youth learn how to collaborate to solve problems, and collaborative learning improves critical thinking skills that support motivation for learning.