With schools closed and many a parent thrust into the difficult role of managing a job, a household and a child’s education, here’s one unexpected bit of positive news to emerge from the coronavirus outbreak: Video games are good for your brain. Well, some games, at least.
“Minecraft,” the Microsoft-owned game known for its user-driven content, creative use of blocks and monsters that come out at night, has been at the forefront of mainstream games that utilize educational content. The studio’s “Minecraft: Education Edition” has for the last few years played host to virtual curricula that have allowed students to visit and learn about global monuments, sharpen math skills, understand coding or take puzzle-filled explorations to places as varied as the human body or a NASA-approved jaunt into the International Space Station.
Much of this content, which was at first fueled by educators in the “Minecraft” community before Microsoft brought it in-house in 2016, had previously been available only to schools and teachers and worked in tandem with Microsoft educational accounts. In March, however, Microsoft made an assortment of “Minecraft’s” popular educational tools available for free, with easier access for all players via the “Minecraft Marketplace.”
And players have flocked to it.
Microsoft reports that there have been more than 50 million downloads globally of educational content since it was made available for free March 24. It’s further evidence that virtual worlds are not just places to play or escape but vessels to learning, connecting or even taking part in digital events. Recently, “Minecraft” was home to a mock commencement ceremony for UC Berkeley, which featured remarks from Chancellor Carol T. Christ alongside musical performances. It was one of many “Minecraft” graduation ceremonies happening around the globe.
The UC Berkeley event, said Helen Chiang, the studio head at “Minecraft” developer Mojang Studios, happened organically. When viewed alongside more commercially minded endeavors, such as rapper Travis Scott unleashing a single in “Fortnite” via an interactive experience that attracted more than 27 million participants, this pandemic moment is arguably accelerating an entertainment and cultural landscape in which persistent and evolving virtual worlds don’t just live alongside content crafted by traditional media gatekeepers but become equally as vital.
How it all evolves is something of an unknown, as evidenced by the fact that “Minecraft’s” own educational suite was birthed via the game-playing community rather than with the company behind it.
“The example right now of universities and college campuses,” says Chiang, discussing “Minecraft” graduations at schools around the globe, “it actually would have been really difficult for us to re-create all these colleges. The fact that we have a tool that passionate Berkeley students can go build their campus, and passionate MIT students can build their campus, that’s where the magic happens. It is not that we do all of these things.”
While no one knows yet how the gaming audience will shift when the world begins to emerge from the grips of COVID-19, it’s become clear that interactive entertainment is uniquely positioned for this moment. Almost daily we discover inventive tactics that users are wielding — not just via “Minecraft” or “Fortnite” but also “Animal Crossing,” Nintendo’s friendly, task-filled game that has become a coronavirus-era phenomena.
Looking ahead, “Minecraft” has pledged to keep its educational assets free and available to non-educators at least through June 30.