Playing in the Virtual Sandbox: Students' Collaborative Practices in Minecraft

Playing in the Virtual Sandbox: Students' Collaborative Practices in Minecraft

Katie Davis (University of Washington, Seattle, USA), Julian A. Boss (University of Washington, Seattle, USA) and Perry Meas (University of Washington, Seattle, USA)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/IJGBL.2018070104

Abstract

Researchers, teachers, and the news media have touted Minecraft as an effective, engaging way to promote students' 21st century skills, including collaboration. However, little is known about what collaboration looks like in Minecraft, including what factors support and undermine high quality collaboration. The current exploratory study investigated this question through an analysis of middle school students' collaborative processes while playing Minecraft in small groups of 2-4 players. Analyses of the discourse functions used by players during gameplay revealed a number of factors affecting the success of their collaboration, such as prior social ties, gaming experience, and responsiveness to other players. The findings contribute new insight into the nature of more and less effective collaborations in multiplayer video games. These insights will be useful to educators who are interested in using Minecraft and other multiplayer games to promote collaboration among their students.
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Introduction

Minecraft is one of the most popular video games ever, having sold over 100 million copies since its release in 2009 (Huddleston, 2016). This sandbox game, in which players explore, build, and find ways to survive in virtual landscapes, is particularly popular among young people (Thompson, 2016). Educators are taking note, and many are exploring ways to incorporate Minecraft into their teaching (Timoner, 2014). In the classroom, Minecraft is being used to teach subjects and skills such as physics, math, computational thinking, creativity, art, history, digital citizenship, and collaboration (e.g., Cipollone, Schifter, & Moffat, 2014; Craft, 2016; Hill, 2015; Overby & Jones, 2015; Short, 2012). There is even a Minecraft: Education Edition that is geared toward helping teachers use Minecraft with their students. Outside the classroom, Minecraft camps and workshops have become popular in informal learning environments such as libraries (e.g., Cilauro, 2015; Gauquier & Schneider, 2013). Educators’ interest in Minecraft is part of a broader trend in game-based learning (Gee, 2007, 2008; Plass, Homer, & Kinzer, 2015; Squire, 2006, 2008). These efforts are based on a constructivist approach to education in which learners actively construct knowledge by engaging in open-ended activities that involve problem solving, decision-making, and following one’s interests (Plass et al., 2015).

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for using Minecraft to support learning, there is scant research investigating its effectiveness. We lack empirical evidence documenting the learning benefits, if any, associated with using Minecraft to teach specific skills, as well as the conditions under which such benefits arise. Until such evidence is available, efforts to incorporate Minecraft and other multiplayer games into teaching and learning will be based on hunches and best guesses instead of empirically supported best practices.

The current study seeks to address this gap in knowledge through an exploratory investigation of middle school students’ collaborative interactions while playing Minecraft in small groups of 2-4 players. We chose to focus on collaboration due to its centrality in learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Rogoff, 1998; Roschelle, 1992), and because multiplayer games are particularly suited to collaboration (Gee, 2007, 2008; Plass et al., 2015; Squire, 2006, 2008; Steinkuehler, 2004). Although we acknowledge that collaboration is typically used in conjunction with other pedagogical aims, this study intentionally isolates collaboration as a focus of investigation. Prior research shows that students often struggle to collaborate effectively with each other, with negative consequences for the learning outcomes associated with their collaborative tasks (e.g., Barron, 2003). Thus, collaboration is itself a skill that students must develop in order to experience the benefits of collaborative learning, and therefore warrants specific investigation.

We focused our analysis on the types of discourse functions that participants employed while playing the game, such as Questioning, Responding, Instructing, and Encouraging (Bluemink, Hamalainen, Manninen, & Jarvela, 2010). The findings provide new insight into factors that support and undermine high quality collaboration in Minecraft. These insights will be useful to educators who are interested in using Minecraft and other multiplayer games to promote collaboration among their students.

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