by Karen Bridson Friday January 18, 2013

My 10-year-old son loves his video games. And I worry that he’s too game-connected too much of the time.

I monitor what he plays, set limits to the time, kick him outside to be physical and insist on ‘playing pretend’ time with his Lego and ‘guys,’ but still, I worry.

I am heartened, however, by what I’ve learned about the content of many of his games. He and I talk a lot about the characters and scenarios involved, and I’ve discovered he’s learning about different countries, times in history, historical figures, political systems and much more. The scenarios he plays in have also sparked many conversations between us about things like the treatment of aboriginal peoples in history, women’s place in society in the past and now, racism, dictatorships and so much more.

But recently he’s started a game that I think has taken the educational value of gaming to a higher level:  Minecraft. To be honest, I hadn’t even realized that he played this game until I learned in a meeting here at work that Minecraft is being researched by educators around the globe for its impressive educational value and potential. I went home, suggested my son play it and he basically said, “Duh, Mom, I already do.”

One school in Sweden has made playing the game mandatory for all 13-year-old students. And a teacher in New York City is conducting an experiment with his class by using Minecraft to teach the curriculum to seven-year-olds, an approach he calls ‘a rousing success.’ He says he’s, ‘never seen students so excited and engaged.’

So, what is this Minecraft all about? Well, the kids are able to use simply 3D digital blocks to build an idyllic world all their own where even the sky doesn’t limit what they can do. They need to collect resources to make things happen, and it’s amazing how quickly they learn about all kinds of rocks, minerals, what they need to build a house and so on.

Every school subject area is covered in Minecraft, from reading, to math, social science, and even basic computer skills. Perhaps what I like best about it is just how social it can be. My son plays online with his friends, but most often has them over to the house to play. They are negotiating and co-operating the entire time, working towards whatever goal they have set. It’s truly kind of beautiful.

And while some of what he’s doing on the game raises my husband’s and my eyebrows, when this happens, we’re able to have wonderful discussions and teach him more about topics that may never have come up otherwise.

For example, he has built a magical world made of diamonds in the sky. While he’s having good fun with it, he’ll readily tell you it has caused a giant shadow on the earth below, causing all of the plants and trees to die. He will then tell you – quite excitedly--  that this is going to cause monsters to flourish.

He knows what he’s doing is ‘wrong,’ but he’s just trying things out. And I think he wants to see the monsters! But this has created an opportunity for us to talk to him about the impact the desires and actions of someone can have on others, the environment and so on. It’s an amazing learning opportunity, as far as I’m concerned.

And when he can’t get the resources he needs to eat or build a bed or whatever he needs, he’ll really feel the impact of his choices. And that’s when real learning happens.

The educational potential here is great. And I’m excited to see what educators and developers manage to do to continue to increase the options within the game, to keep expanding the lessons that can be learned.

Gaming is the new frontier in education. We may not want our kids tied to technology all of or even most of the time (like we are?) but when they are gaming, I’m glad there are educational games available that engage and entertain too.

Meanwhile, all of TVOKids' online games are curriculum-based and subject specific. Check out these charts for ages 2-5 and for ages 6-11 to find games to help your child learn. Also, check out the video below of executive director of the Mozilla Foundation Mark Surman talking about digital literacy being the fourth literacy in 21st century learning.