You’re chilling in an undergrad class, learning about the consequences of industrialization, when the zombies come for you. Probably not that big of a surprise to anyone who’s lived through the past two years.
Except the monsters are part of the class.
Darren Wershler calls the concept preposterous and terrifying. He also calls it the best experience of his teaching career.
The associate professor of English at Concordia University had two weeks during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 to rethink how he taught.
“I thought about Minecraft because I’d used it before,” he said. Minecraft is a “sandbox” video game in which players use three-dimensional blocks to build homes, farms and just about anything else on a map. Wershler had used the game on and off in his class Video Games and/as Theory since 2014. “I had the terrifying idea that I should do literally everything in Minecraft.”
He teamed up with colleague Bart Simon, associate professor of sociology and director of Concordia’s Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology, and the university’s Lab for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. Members of other departments — engineering, anthropology, literature and others — wanted to be involved.
It wasn’t going to be a class about video games. It was just going to be held inside a video game.
In Minecraft’s Creative mode, players build without risk. Wershler and Simon chose to set up the virtual class in Survival mode, where players have to eat, build homes, collect resources, plant farms and are at risk of attack from mobs and monsters, so “failure is real,” Wershler said. They used a “mod” that added mining and processing machines, to align with his class on the history and culture of modernity. They built software to link the game with the chat app Discord so students could easily communicate in and out of the game. Wershler recorded his lectures as podcasts.
“Good students always do well,” Wershler said, “and some drop off the bottom.” Then there are the students in the middle, who don’t think of themselves as leaders but do their work and get through class. Many of those students had expertise in Minecraft and became leaders as they taught others how to navigate the game and had something to barter with in exchange for help with such things as getting a paper written. “They were always brainstorming.”
On the first day of class, one of the students figured out how to get on to the server ahead of time and built an amphitheatre for Wershler to teach from. He appreciated it, but “I was usually in another part of the map.” Another student set up plots of land with “materials for a farm and a house for everyone.”
“I wanted students to realize they aren’t just consumers. They became researchers, they produced knowledge. They became better citizens.”
The class was an exercise in generosity and critical thinking as well as an experiment that worked. While Wershler said he generally has 36 hours of face time with students, the class teams logged 300 hours in Minecraft.
The game is used in some elementary and high schools to teach concepts related to math and geometry, according to the paper Minecraft and Allegorical Play in Undergraduate Teaching, which Simon and Wershler recently published in the journal gamevironments.
They want those ideas expanded. “Put a little bit of work and imagination into it. Think: ‘I could use this to teach philosophy, humanities, STEM.’ It takes way more time and effort than other forms of online work, but we’re intensely interested in the idea that this could be better,” Wershler said.
He plans to make available all his documentation for Minecraft learning, including files and mods. He and Simon are writing a book on their experience and expect to publish further papers.
“It came out of desperation, but it was transformative for me,” Wershler said. “It can’t be business as usual anymore.”
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