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Can Playing Minecraft Teach Kids To Code?


Now we'd like to talk about a popular form of entertainment - video games. And you may fall into one of two camps here - love them or at least you understand why people can spend hours playing them, or hate them and you associate them with mindless violence, sexism and or just a waste of time. Well, if you're in the hate or don't-understand-them category, you might not be familiar with Minecraft. But it's one of the most popular games out there right now. It has more than 100 million registered users.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's go to a place where everything is made of blocks, where the only limit is your imagination. Let's go wherever you want to go, climb the tallest mountains, venture down to the darkest caves, build anything you want.

MARTIN: Well, as you just heard, Minecraft is a game of strategy in which players build, create and go on adventures in the virtual world. A lot of people who play the game are children and teens. And while they are playing, our next guest says they might actually be absorbing some important lessons about technology and coding. Rey Junco is our guest. He's an associate professor of Library Science at Purdue University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. And he visits us from time to time to talk about technology and learning. And he's here with us in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

REY JUNCO: Thanks, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about Minecraft for people who've never seen it?

JUNCO: OK, well, it's an interesting game. If you're familiar with typical videogames, the graphics aren't as pretty. They are pretty retro and lower grade. But the game is an open world environment where players can just build a world. There are two different modes. And one is creative that allows for just building and having, you know - having fun, you know, building a home or spaces or landscapes. And then there's a survival mode that's more like a typical game where users have to watch out for their health and their enemies that might attack them, and they have to eat and stay alive. And like many other games now, there are multiplayer modes. People can join a server and play with other people online.

MARTIN: So you can play by yourself. You can play with other people. What's good about it, particularly speaking to people who generally feel that these kinds of experiences are a waste of time?

JUNCO: Minecraft I think is a little different than other games because when I think about Minecraft, I don't just think of it as a videogame. I think of it as, perhaps, a videogame slash building toy. So not only are youth learning visuospatial reasoning skills and, you know, construction and being creative, but they're also learning things like being able to have some control over their environment and not being rule-based so they can explore. I like to talk about with our kids that we like to let them get bored so they can be more creative. And they can do that on Minecraft because there aren't the, you know, limits on their space or time that are out there in the real world.

MARTIN: So you can say do whatever you want. I mean, it does - and it has some kind of connection to reality. But you're not actually coding?

JUNCO: Well, actually, there is a coding element to Minecraft for those youth who do mods. So you can change the game around to your liking, and you can share those mods with other people. One of my colleagues just this past week said, it's the only way that I can get my young daughter interested in coding. And so here she is on Minecraft doing all of this coding. And I think in that sense, it's a really interesting equalizer.

In my experience, there seems to be more of a gender balance in Minecraft players than other video games, certainly other games like Halo or Lego Star Wars or things like that. And so, in that sense, it can get women - young girls and then women interested in coding and then, perhaps, also in STEM fields.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things we've talked to you about before is security online and the concern that many parents, caregivers, guardians, educators have about people, kids in particular, interacting with adults online who may be masquerading as kids, right? So is there any concern about that since, as we've noticed, that the game has evolved to the point where you could either be by yourself or you could play with other players? You can connect with other players. You don't know who they are.

JUNCO: Sure.

MARTIN: Any concern there?

JUNCO: I think that it's important to not just talk with your kids about what they're doing online, but not make it a shameful activity, you know. Encourage them to talk about it. Set limits on it. You're the parent, so you need to set limits on your kids. And if you're upset that they're playing too much, then you need to do something about it.

MARTIN: But can you keep people out of the game whose behavior disturbs you? For example, somebody who seems to just show up wherever you are or follow you around the game...

JUNCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Even if you find their attention and participation unwelcome?

JUNCO: Yeah. There are moderators on servers that can help protect that.

MARTIN: I'm interested in something you just said, which is that that's why it's important not to shame people...

JUNCO: That's right.

MARTIN: ...In participating in these kinds of experiences.

JUNCO: Right.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that?

JUNCO: Sure. I think if children feel like they're doing an activity that is bad or shameful, they're going to be less likely to talk with their parents about it. So if we don't create an environment where they're feeling that way about it, then they're more likely to share it with us.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about what you can learn from a game like Minecraft. It's not your, perhaps, typical videogame or at least it's not the kind of game that many people think it is. I'm speaking with Rey Junco, and we're talking about the fact that maybe there are some things that you can learn from Minecraft that are actually useful and not just fun. And you're saying that Minecraft is a little different from other video games...

JUNCO: Sure.

MARTIN: ...And that is because why? Because hurting somebody's not the object or...

JUNCO: Right.

MARTIN: ...Following people, blowing things up is not the object? You can blow things up if you want.

JUNCO: You can.

MARTIN: You can.

JUNCO: Yeah, TNT seems to be, you know, like an interesting thing. Like, you know, kids are like, oh, you can get TNT in this mode, or, you know, you can get TNT in the computer version. But that's not the object of the game. The object of the game is seeing how to build things and how cool your building or objects are. As a matter of fact, there are YouTube videos. Stampy Longnose is one of the real famous ones where he will post videos of him creating things. And those videos are really popular with game players. And so it used to be that - you and I grew up, you know, watching cartoons before and after school. Now kids get home and they say, hey, you know, can I watch YouTube? Can I watch Stampy? And so, in addition to playing...

MARTIN: And he gives them ideas. They're ideas that

JUNCO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...You can do things that you might not have thought that you could do. And then you can do it.

JUNCO: Right. And it sets an expectation for the game culture, too that, oh, look, we're building things. That's what the game is about. It's not about tearing down. It's about these neat things that we could do.

MARTIN: And you share.

JUNCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: You share knowledge.

JUNCO: Right, you collaborate.

MARTIN: ...Which I think a lot of people think is an important value. Well, finally, Rey, screen time. How much screen time? It's this ongoing preoccupation...

JUNCO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of parents, caregivers and educators everywhere.

JUNCO: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: How would you - how would you want us to think about this issue given that what you're telling us is that not all screen time is the same?

JUNCO: Well, I think about screen time in this way - the younger the child, the less time they should be in front of the screen, right. So...

MARTIN: Period.

JUNCO: Period, right. I mean, I would think before, at least, you know, the age of 2 or 3, a child should never be around a screen. And then I think it depends on the child, and it depends on the activity. Screen time is still screen time. So when they're doing Minecraft, which I think is a fantastic game for these informal learning objectives that we've discussed, it's still screen time. And so I think it's important for kids to be connected with others.

But then if you look at teenagers, right, they're spending screen time on connecting with their friends. And so it's important for them to do that. They've just spent a whole day at school and, perhaps, extracurricular activities, you know, doing things that other people are telling them to do, and now they want to socialize. And they do that online. So I think it really depends on the child's age, and it depends on your child. And it depends on your goals for raising your child.

MARTIN: Rey Junco is an associate professor of Library Science at Purdue University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. And we caught up with him in Washington, D.C. Rey Junco, thanks so much for joining us.

JUNCO: Thanks so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.