Max Brooks on Minecraft and Why Computer Games are Good for Children's Learning
"Way back in the 90s when I switched on my first edition of Sid Meier’s Civilization I realised that I was learning more about global history than I was in any of my college classes. And it was fun!"
Known for his apocalyptic zombie horror novel World War Z, bestselling author Max Brooks is also a pasionate advocate for computer games not just as a pastime but also as a tool to help us learn and develop in a variety of different ways. Already a huge fan of Minecraft, Brooks jumped at the chance to write the series’ first official novel. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he discusses his own vision of the Minecraft world, Minecraft: The Island and explains why he thinks we need to open our eyes to the real potential of computer games.
Video games are time wasters. That’s what my generation was taught. From arcade games to Atari, we were told that these electronic sirens would literally suck the life out of us. What parents, teachers and all the other Luddites of my time didn’t understand was that video games could be a potent tool for education. I got that. Way back in the 90s when I switched on my first edition of Sid Meier’s Civilization I realised that I was learning more about global history than I was in any of my college classes. And it was fun! Since that time, I’ve always been on the lookout for educational video games and while there are more than enough purpose-built programs out there, the greatest teaching tool ever created has been right under our collective nose. That tool is called Minecraft.
If you’ve never played the game, think of it as an online version of our world, but everything is square. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy, just blocks of dirt, trees, minerals and animals. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about. But did you realize that this simple little simulation is nothing short of a guide to life?
I didn’t understand this at first when my son started playing it, but as I began to play with him and deal with the basic challenges of ‘survival mode’, the similarities to our world blew my mind.
As I strove to find food, build a house and protect myself from the ‘mob’ monsters that come out after dark, I realised that these challenges were drenched in the real world skills I’d been working all my life to learn: planning, preparation and patience. As I punched down a tree to make a crafting table, to craft wooden tools, to farm the soil, to fill my belly, I marvelled at the embedded life lessons. As I watched my beautiful house, which took literally hours to craft, burn down from carelessness with fire, I realised “This game teaches you to recover from failure! What greater skill can you have in the 21st century!?”
Unlike most video games that have a strict, yes or no, right or wrong template, Minecraft allows you to solve problems creatively. You can farm, hunt, fish and forage. You can build any kind of house you want. You can keep the monsters away with high walls, booby traps or even mechanical golems (that take a lot of iron mining and crafting, but are well worth it in the end). The game literally teaches kids what all the grey-bearded, head-scratching scholars are trying to wrestle with today: how to craft your own path in the ever changing, multi-challenge world.
That’s why I love Minecraft so much. That’s why I jumped at the chance to write the first officially sanctioned Minecraft novel. My story, The Island, revolves around a character waking up in the world of Minecraft. They don’t know who they are but they know they’re not from this world. Swimming to an island, the castaway must survive, Robinson Crusoe style, on this strange square land. With each challenge, our hero learns invaluable lessons for their own world, coming to realize that of all the amazing things you can craft in Minecraft, the most important thing is you.
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