Two chemists, a materials scientist and a game developer (all professors), have a Minecraft extension designed to surreptitiously teach chemistry and engineering concepts. They used the mod as part of a university course and found preliminary results suggesting it works quite well.
The goal, writes the group Nature chemistrywas to create an educational game that didn’t feel like work, but would rather be “exciting.” [students] so much that they would consume it without needing to be allocated. The Polycraft world expansion had two central tenets: “the science we add has to be accurate, and it has to add something fun to the game.”
Just like vanilla Minecraft, Polycraft world requires players to combine materials to generate items, but it adds precise chemical processes to get there. “If you combine the right reactants (in a chemically balanced way) you get a new material like Kevlar,” the researchers explain. They wanted to create a strong natural incentive to learn the practical concepts by having players generate items such as jetpacks and flamethrowers. Polycraft world uses an online wiki to teach users how to play, like in vanilla Minecraft.
Chemist Christina Thompson took the mod for a test drive with a group of 26 students. As an ungraded part of a class called “Video Games and Learning,” students were asked to play Polycraft world up to a certain point. At no point were they taught anything scientific and they were never asked to learn anything from the game.
After 11 weeks, the students were given a pop quiz on polymer science. About half of the students were able to draw a substantial portion of the crude oil distillation process, and the majority were able to identify easy-to-make polymers used in the game. A small group of students was able to identify even more advanced polymers.
As the researchers note, the sample size here is small enough to be little more than anecdotal evidence, but it’s still encouraging. They point out that these students “learned the real processes involved in extracting benzene from crude oil because they wanted to make jet packs in a video game.” One thing that is not clear from this exercise is whether the students would have enjoyed the game enough to go to their assigned podium uninvited.
The researchers believe that gaming holds tremendous promise as an educational tool, especially as distance learning continues to grow in popularity. The medium of games itself is particularly well designed for education, they argue. Not only do games allow people to progress at their own pace and fail constructively, but they’re pretty much the definition of intense focus and motivation: “People collectively have spent more than 1.75 billion hours of their time spent playing… Minecraftwhich, if measured linearly, would predate the birth of homo sapiens.”
Still, although there have been successful educational games, think Oregon trail and Kerbal Space program—Polycraft world was the first real attempt to use games to replace a traditional educational course. And it depends on software useful for teaching. Minecraft has the advantage of recording data that allows a hypothetical teacher to track how people are doing, how many tries it takes a student to make a given polymer, or how fast they progress through the game.
At the moment, digital tools that resemble games in some way are quite widely used in education, but most of these tools are not intended to be fun in themselves (or they try and fail). Educational games that really motivate you to progress can be a powerful and valuable tool. While that’s a distant possibility, there’s a more immediate one, the researchers suggest: Partnerships between academia and game developers could enrich existing games, such as Civilizationto be more robust, accurate and educational.
Nature chemistry2016. DOI: 10.1038/nchem.2694 (About DOIs).