Welcome to Minecraft University!

Image

It is my pleasure to welcome you to Minecraft University, a place of playful learning. Minecraft University is a labor of love. This is the multimodal component to the dissertation project completed in April 2020 by my wife (Aleesa Millet), a team of students, and myself. The objective was to design and build a university to showcase the research of the dissertation. There are three primary buildings: GBL (game-based learning), Literacy, and Failure. In addition to the university, there is a large welcome center and common build area where the students created their own structures around the procedurally generated Minecraft village.

This companion website acts as a supplement to the last chapter of the dissertation, "Minecraft University: A Collaborative Building Experiment," by exploring more of my personal history leading up to the project and a detailed account of building process. Here you will find progress screenshots, a development diary with interviews with some of the student builders, a walkthrough of the university, and a link to download the file so you can explore the world yourself! Feel free to read this in any order you see fit and, remember, enjoy!


This is a teaser showing the final build (~2min)

Minecraft University: A Labor of Love and Learning

My Character Backstory

Minecraft came out on the Xbox 360 in May 2012. I'd seen my younger brother play it several times on his laptop with our neighbor and thought it was just a floating grass block in an oddly pixelated world. He told me that I would like it, but I didn't think it was something I would be into. Honestly, I didn’t understand the appeal of a floating grass block that can break other blocks. When it released on the Xbox 360 it came with a free trial, so I downloaded it and tried it out. Within twenty minutes I paid the full $19.99 and played it with my brother until early in the morning. I quickly realized I had no idea what the game really was. It was surprisingly in-depth and open.

I remember our spawn being relatively close to a large grass and stone hill and a very large flat area of grass and dirt. It took me a moment to figure out the controls, but my brother was already digging out a small square area in the ground with some blocks to jump out. Once he his stone, he ran off to the nearest try and punched the hell out of it until it gave him a block of wood to refine to planks. I remember being slightly confused as to why he was moving so quickly instead of helping me figure things out. I ran over to the hills and practices jumping and punching dirt. It quickly became dark (something I didn't expect) and these red eyes started to appear in the distance. I also heard a hissing sound followed by an explosion and my brother laughing in triumph. There were moans and guttural sounds. What kind of hell scape were we in? I quickly died after tying to punch a zombie because a creeper blew up behind me. I spawned right next to a small dirt hut with a door where my brother was waiting out the night. I was hooked! 

I felt like I was playing Call of Duty on hard where I would try to do the same action over and over with a slight variation in an attempt to progress further. I would spawn, try to find my dropped inventory, fight off what was still in the area, and hope to get back to our "base" to store the mined materials. We did this on repeat, slowly progressing outwards with different materials and tools. While my brother turned to the mines to get ores to make better tools, weapons, and armor, I started to cut down trees and experimented with building. When he finally emerged with iron ore, coal, and stone, I created a multi-room building for us to store everything. He couldn’t believe how quickly I learned the game. Within a week, we moved from the infamous dirt hut to a stone, wood, and wool castle with multiple floors and intricate (far too confusing) hallways. Within weeks, the castle became more refined, the tunnels became sprawling mines, and defensive hills became towers. I learned how to effectively mine materials, what order to craft things in, and how to make structures look less square. I engaged in the community forums asking for advice and eventually giving advice as the game exploded in popularity. Minecraft became my new favorite digital experience.

I don't remember exactly when, but I introduced Minecraft to my then girlfriend (now wife). She wasn't much of a gamer outside of Nintendo games or the occasional (at the time) ios game. I want to say it was Spring 2012 when I finally got her to actually sit down and play it. It took her a while to get used to the controls, but once she got it, she couldn't be stopped. I loved to build and she loved to mine so we worked really well together. We had many different worlds in both survival and creative mode, but our first serious survival world started with the release of Minecraft on the Xbox One in Spring 2015. Six years later, we still play in this world on occasion.

tunnels in Minecraft

Our underground organization system.

A house and castle built in Minecraft

Our world spawn area. Now a mansion with a castle in the distance.

This new world was called "Fire and BLOOD," inspired by our love of Game of Thrones. Aleesa started the game under her name, making her Player One. The day we started the world, we invited my brother to play remotely (we moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan for graduate school) and we started the way we always started: I made a dirt hut. We started in a dense forest with a single large mushroom. I cut down trees while Aleesa and my brother started to mine. I used the trees to make chests, fences, and an open covering next to the dirt hut so we could store everything. We were playing on peaceful (no enemies) so we were a bit more cavalier about our starting, but it worked for the three of us. We only played two sessions with my brother, but Aleesa and I really made the place our own. I cleared a large area of trees to discover we were close to a large body of water. I built a larger underground area to organize and store our blocks. Aleesa created long and elaborate mines and found diamonds early on. We quickly outgrew our place and I started to build a large structure above ground. Eventually, we created towers that had staircases to our underground mines; pens for animals; and a large wall surrounding our creations. By the end of the next summer, we had a large mansion, intricate underground facilities, minecart tracks to distant structures, and hundreds of hours into our world. Although things have slowed down with us playing due to the PhD, we have kept a healthy relationships in and around Minecraft. It has become an identifying aspect of our relationship, leading us to get tattoos in 2018 and a Minecraft inspired baby announcement.

pixel artwork of a male and female with an ultrasound photo.

Baby announcement

Player One and Player Two tattoos

Tattoos from Just Another Hole in the Wall tattoo shop in Anderson, SC.

Bringing Minecraft into the Classroom

I always wanted to bring Minecraft into the classroom, but I was far too worried about accessibility and equity concerns. I couldn't justify telling my students they needed to pay $20 for a game in a first-year writing class when they likely could not run the software easily on their computers. When I entered the Rhetorics, Composition, and Information Design (RCID) doctoral program at Clemson University, things were a little different. Clemson has a mandatory laptop policy so I knew my students would have personal devices. I was also able to get Clemson Computer and Information Technology (CCIT) to install the program on 100 computers in a computer lab. Finally, Minecraft: Education Edition was released in November 2016 with a long enough free trial for my students to use it without paying the $5 a year (it is now free for the university). I started to play around in the software between November and January and decided to implement it in the classroom for Spring 2017.

Minecraft: Education Edition logo

Minecraft: Education Edition logo

I decided to go all  in with Minecraft: Education Edition (MEE) for the semester and nickname the course "CompCraft." We used MEE in the classroom for several projects and assignments, but these were the main features:

  • Multimodal Presentation: Students chose a cultural or historical site and recreated it in MEE. Process pictures and video were required to make a process video. They then presented it to the class via a website.
  • Visual Rhetorical Analysis: Students researched a villain from fiction, myth, or history and wrote a research paper. They then created their "villain's sanctuary" in MEE. Once finished, they sent the file to a classmate who would then do a visual rhetorical analysis of the build. This would then be accompanied by a reflection.
  • Minecraft Technical Manual: The class was split into two large groups and they created a MEE technical manual for future students. Both manuals were created as websites with key blocks, building tips, and important mechanics they learned throughout the semester.

All three of these projects went exceedingly well once we got over many of the technical issues we ran into. As all instructors know, when you introduce technology into the classroom, there are always going to be issues because everyone is starting with different experiences, affordances, and limitations. Hodgson (2013) discusses the circumstantial footing players have in games, much like students in a classroom: “many players begin on unequal terms because of their backgrounds, gaming experiences, skill sets, and so on” and even though players may start with the same in-game resources, “skills, available time, and access to gaming resources (all particular gaming affordances)—radically skew not only how [students] start but also their playing conditions more generally” (p. 47). This is a hard lesson I learned first-hand in this class. I am tech savvy and because of the commercial success of Minecraft, I thought everyone would be on board and be able to engage with the software equally. I spent more time in office ours and over email trying to resolve problems than any other semester. I quickly realized that I needed to make instructional videos on how to install and play MEE as well as a robust tutorial for everyone to play through.

Although I did use a modified MEE tutorial that came with the game, I didn't feel it did a good job explaining how to use the software for the class. I created a place called "Composition Castle" to help students learn the game and what I was asking them to do on their own. All players spawned in a training area with teleporters to open build areas or the castle for quests. The tutorial I made was a basic tutorial to teach the controls of the game but it also had non-playable characters (NPCs) that gave instruction in addition to signage so they saw the efficacy of both. Composition Castle had four quests for students to take on for homework. It worked relatively well and far fewer students needed help (see video below).

student avatars in Minecraft

Class picture in MEE

student avatars in Minecraft

Class picture in MEE

Students responded very well to this new introduction to MEE, but it was not a core component to the course that semester. I wanted to scale it back to rethink how I could use it in the classroom to promote the skills it taught: collaboration, 3D transmediation, communication, inventional process, research, and spacial reasoning. The project I opted to keep was the visual rhetorical analysis because that was the most successful project in the previous course. This project didn't have room for collaborative building, but it did have a feedback loop which students compared to peer review. I decided to use the same model in the next semester while I finished coursework and wrote my prospectus. Again, students responded well and the tech issues were starting to greatly minimize.

pixelated pickaxe from Minecraft

Minecraft Mentor Digital Badge

Around this time I started to attract some attention on Twitter for my posts about my process, pedagogy, and my students. The MEE team reached out to me in November 2017 and asked for me to apply for their Minecraft Global Mentors program to help others bring MEE into their classrooms. Meenoo Rami asked me about doing a spotlight piece on my work in the classroom and further iterated the need for me to apply for the mentor program which she ran. I applied and got accepted for the global mentor program and quickly started to network with educators around the globe. My name started to circulate quickly and I was asked to be interviewed for the podcast Engineering Matters to talk about teaching MEE to STEM students. On November 3, 2018 Aleesa and I attended and spoke at Minefaire in Charleston about our relationship and how I use MEE to teach. The more I talked about MEE and what I did in the classroom, the more it helped me shape my pedagogy and approach to teaching with game software.

Man sanding in front of a Minecraft Banner with a wolf on it

Minefaire November 3, 2018.

In Fall 2018, I made the biggest leap in my instruction with MEE. I decided to open up my Tanked Presentations project (Shark Tank style presentation where student groups pitch games they create) to MEE after they added the CodeBuilder application where students could make alterations or create new actions and behaviors in the game. I asked my students to transmediate a research-guided essay into a MEE game which required the use of some basic coding to represent their cultural issue. To my amazement, students quickly picked up on this and started to work in MEE for over a month. The project required students to divide up into specializations so not everyone was required to code in MEE, but all students needed to build. Even the most apprehensive students jumped into the game and started to collaborate and communicate just as I had hoped from them. I started to see the real power of the program in action.

I started to post the students working and their completed project on this website and tweeting it out on Twitter to show how the projects were evolving and the educational benefits it had across disciplines. I was approached by EdSurge for a Classroom Heroes project spotlight on things that I have done in the classroom and my experience with MEE. I gladly accepted and wrote a small piece about my experience and even shot some classroom footage for it too. It was at this culminating moment that I realized that I needed to demonstrate the power of MEE as an educational tool in my dissertation.


Minecraft University: A Lesson in Collaboration

Preprocess Invention

As I stated in the previous section, I got very involved with the Minecraft: Education Edition (MEE) community and did my best to push my students' potential by having them engage in the software in such a versatile way. As I was pushing my students' creativity, I was also asking them to engage in coding, transmediation, game design, collaboration, technical writing, and more. With every passing semester, I learned more about my students and what they could handle without straying away from the course outcomes. It is this potentiality that I was trying to balance.

After Minecraft was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, there was a lot of concern over what would happen to the community and creativity of the platform. Microsoft executive Jeff Teper (cited in Landay, 2017) said: "Minecraft is a development tool. People build worlds out of it" (p. 129). Mojang's COO (the publisher of Minecraft) echoed this sentiment: "We don't want any story that we make, whether it's a movie or a book, to create some sort of 'this is the official Minecraft, this is how you play the game' thing. That would discourage all the players who don't play in that way...When coming up with a story, we want to make sure it is just a story within Minecraft, as opposed to the story within Minecraft" (cited in Landay, 2017, p. 129, emphasis in original). This is really important to gamers like me who focus on both the emergent narrative of the game but also the potential the platform offers for making new games and narratives. I truly believe that Minecraft will one day become a full fledge game design engine where you can create mobs, modify behaviors, and create full scale roleplaying experiences without ever leaving the Minecraft interface.

Minecraft is an immensely popular game. To summarize Landay's analysis as to why Minecraft is so popular, and I add powerful, is it's mechanical simplicity that is full of design potential, audiovisuals, agency, the community, and because you learn by doing (pp. 129-130). She nails the "why" I use it in my classroom when she discusses the player agency. My dissertation covers the consuctionist learning theory created by Seymore Papert through the practice of Kafai and Burke (2016) in their book, Connected Gaming, which references Minecraft as a great tool to create and think through. Landay's says this of the agency in the game:

Minecraft offers the player choices of agency, from the ludus of more structured, goal-oriented survival to the open-ended paidia of creative mode, and many possibilities in between as players choose mods, servers, and maps, and create their own games within Minecraft that afford them experiences to interpret, explore, combine, remix, transform, and invent. (p. 130, emphasis in original).

Landay doesn't discuss Minecraft: Education Edition,  but they do highlight the malleability of the world and the true creative potential with their discussion of redstone. Kafai and Burke (2016) also talk about the power of redstone: “These [redstone] tutorials, at times covering content equivalent to that in undergraduate engineering courses, are compelling examples of the metagaming prominent in many gaming communities that Gee and other researchers have written about illustrating how learning moves beyond the confines of the game itself" (p. 96). Although I don't get too involved with redstone in my classes (and there is very little in Minecraft University, how they talk about the potentiality of the platform through collaboration, creative problem solving, logics, and spacial reasoning--and I would add coding through the CodeBuilder application--, is the reason I chose to demonstrate the ludic framework for learning through Minecraft: Education Edition. 

While thinking about these aspects of MEE, I started to think about what I could and could not do in the software for my dissertation. I always had the dream to create an interactive university where students can go on quests and learn about the research of the dissertation. After talking with many different educators, I learned that it was just not possible to do it in MEE yet. I knew I could create a building for each research area with a mixture of signs, NPCs, and books that would show quotes and ideas from the dissertation. I wanted to make sure that everything I did in the project could also be done in the classroom with the same software.

I knew what I didn't want more than what I wanted. I know that I didn't want the process to be just me making some stuff in the world because collaboration is something the game was built on and it is a skill that is important to the learning experience. I also did not want me to be the sole designer. I had this idea of creating a surrounding area that was an open build area for students to make whatever they wanted, but I also didn't want them to feel that they couldn't touch anything in the university proper. I also didn't want the university to feel like a stuffy museum of knowledge. Instead, I wanted players to have interactive challenges, design that represented the research (like opportunities to fail and/or die), and I wanted the experience to be interesting and unique.

I spent countless hours thinking about what the world would look like, if I should pre-build aspects of the world, and if I should create designs for the three buildings before I even recruited help. I talked the idea through with Dr. Holmevik, my dissertation chair, and countless colleagues and students over the course of a year. Finally, it was my wife, Aleesa, to tell me that I needed to just start on it by meeting with students. I was ready, only, I wasn't.

I had one large issue with starting: the dissertation wasn't finished. I didn't know what aspects needed to be represented and it was causing a lot of anxiety. When I finally figured I would just take the leap of faith and gather students together, things became increasingly more difficult to meet because my daughter (born October 14, 2019) was only in daycare twice a week and I was taking care of her the other days. It came to the point that I just needed to make the call and get started.

This walkthrough provides detailed commentary on the entire build with some insight into the rationales (~40 min)

Note: The follow section talks about the process of making Minecraft University. This is a detailed account of the agenda, successes, and failures of the project. If you want to see the completed world, skip to the bottom.

This development diary provides a long (~30 min) time-lapse  of nearly the whole build. The videos from they main face-to-face development days were sped up by 3000%. There are also several short interviews with some of the architects of the project at the end.

A Final Reflection

This multimodal project taught me a lot about collaboration, design, time management, and transmediation. I have taught all of these concepts in class, but working with students on such a large project made truly practice what I preach. I don't get to work so closely with students on a regular basis so this interaction was comforting. We talked as if we were friends and were able to critique and praise each other's work without anyone getting offended. I really let go halfway through and let students pursue what they thought was important to the project. I also learned how to concisely talk about the project to many different audiences.

We failed a lot.

Since this was the multimodal and case study of the dissertation, I wanted the ludic framework to be obvious and give me a new understanding of it so I could write about it in the dissertation. The framework has 8 principles--curiosity, play, flexibility, metacognition, collaboration, invention, persistence, and creativity--which are all used to create this play space, but we also engaged in them constantly ever session. The only building that we did not retool several times was the Failure Tower. I'm not sure why it didn't need revision, but every other building we worked on collaboratively had to go through several changes by the group.

We all thought about the research and played with the ideas through aesthetics, spatial design, and challenges which made for a great experience. We all had to collaborate and be flexible with one another in order to complete anything. There were some students that really wanted to pursue their ideas, but we had to make sure it was in the best interest of the project. We created challenges for ourselves by constantly thinking creatively and critically about the purpose, audience, and authors of the project. Many times we had to take a break to reflect on what we did, what failure occurred, and then come up with a creative solution or other options through invention. Most of us struggled with counting alongside another person or using the fill and clone commands to complete tasks faster. We worked as a team to look at the problems and persisted to make sure we were able to complete it. I am so damn proud of what we accomplished.

Minecraft is one of my favorite things to play and teach. I love taking on challenges and trying to figure them out. I've never worked on a project with so many hands and thoughts at once. It was a great experience and helped me understand when a leader needs to step in to resolve issues or when to ask for help. I believe this project showcases the research of my dissertation in a very repeatable and practical application. I really hope others decide to download the project and add their own research or use it in the classroom as an example. Projects are never finished, they are just due. If I had another couple months to work on this with more students, I could only imagine what else we could accomplish.

Founders of Minecraft University:
  • Christopher Stuart, Lead Architect - 60+ hours
  • Jordan Britenburg, Senior Architect - 30+ hours
  • Matthias Knibbe, Senior Architect - 25+ hours
  • Aleesa Millet, Senior Architect - 20+ hours
  • Drew Chelton, Junior Architect - 11+ hours
  • Noah Johnson, Junior Architect - 10+ hours
  • Matthew Harrington, Junior Architect - 10+ hours
  • Julia Johnson, Architect Intern - 5+ hours
  • Andrew Phillips, Architect Intern - 5+ hours
  • Will Gordon, Architect Intern - 5+ hours
  • Taylor Sieling, Architect Intern/IT - 5+ hours

*based on low estimates of hours in-game (2020)



How to Access Minecraft University:

To access Minecraft University you must first make sure you have access to Minecraft: Education Edition (HERE). Check to see if you have the proper Microsoft Office 360 account. If you do, follow these steps:

  1. Download Minecraft: Education Edition (HERE)
  2. Download Minecraft University file (HERE)
  3. Open Minecraft: Education Edition and Sign In
  4. Click Play
  5. Click on Import World
  6. Fine Minecraft University v1.0 file. Click Open.
  7. Go to View My Worlds
  8. Click on Minecraft University
  9. Make sure settings are on Survival Mode.
  10. Click Play or Host!