If you’ve read any of my posts over at Play the Past, then you probably know that I’m quite interested in science communication and its relationship to videogames. Science communication is a very broad field, dealing with any communication between scientists and non-scientists (and occasionally even scientists communicating with each other). One of the most visible forms of science communication in relationship to mass media is the idea of “debunking” science myths. This can range from rather lighthearted treatments like an episode of Mythbusters to a peer-reviewed article in a major academic journal like Nature1. While most people are media savvy enough not to take television and movies at face value, media depictions of science can influence us in subtle ways, such as the alleged “CSI effect,” in which jurors who watch crime dramas have unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence or unwarranted confidence in unproven (or even fictional) forensic procedures2. As such, scientists are often quite passionate about debunking misleading depictions of science in the media…except maybe when it comes to videogames.
While television and movies are often subject to quite detailed scrutiny by scientists, I rarely see the same kind of fervor related to videogames. In fact, I’m giving a presentation at FDG 2015 in a few weeks about this very subject. Imagine, then, how excited I was to discover yesterday that Geoscience Australia had recently created an educational poster3 to teach kids about some of the inaccuracies in Minecraft geology. Not surprisingly, most of the responses I’ve seen to the poster have ranged from sarcastic and dismissive to irritated and defensive. Many are along the lines of “oh dear, we must stop the children from running outside and punching trees!” There are, of course, many fantastic elements in Minecraft, none of which seem likely to have deleterious effects in the vein of the CSI effect. Nevertheless, there are a lot of reasons that I think Geoscience Australia is making a very wise move in engaging with Minecraft, though there is certainly room for improvement.
This past January, I was on a panel about videogames at the Salt Lake ComicCon. One of the last questions from the audience was about what game you would suggest for someone who had never played a videogame before. I suggested Minecraft, but unfortunately had no time to elaborate on the reasoning behind my choice. The reason I consider Minecraft to be a good game for someone with little experience is the fact that the game structure lends itself to learning. As Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir have noted, the kind of play that Minecraft enables is similar in many ways to the kinds of progressive play-based pedagogies advocated by 19th educators like Friedrich Fröbel and Maria Montessori. Whereas their methods called for supervising adults to guide and direct children’s play to meet educational goals, Fanning and Mir argue that the structure and constraints of the game, as well as the abundance of wikis and other external materials, allow Minecraft to achieve similar goals both inside and outside the classroom4.
In keeping with Fanning and Mir (and not coincidentally in the same book), I have argued that Minecraft is structured in such a way as to encourage players (including adult players) to engage more deeply with the game. While any well-designed game is educational in the sense that it at least teaches new players how to play, deeper forms of engagement such as modding are usually far beyond the average player’s skill set. Minecraft, on the other hand, offers different forms of engagement in a graduated series of steps. The most basic task in the game, gathering resources like wood and food, is fairly straightforward and not dissimilar to mechanics found in other games. The crafting system adds much more complexity to the game, often requiring the player to familiarize herself with crafting recipes through the use of wikis or forums. Tools created through crafting can then be used to shape the game environment, allowing the player to construct vast structures and mechanisms. The most complicated mechanisms require an understanding of redstone, which can be used to create incredibly intricate systems of virtual circuits, giving the player a huge amount of control over what happens in the game world. From there, making the jump to actual modding is almost trivial (some redstone devices are far more complicated than the average mod). Thus, Minecraft doesn’t just create a path to guide the player through to the last level, but to guide the player toward a deep technical understanding of the game itself5.
Since Minecraft is a game that naturally lends itself toward educational purposes, it makes a lot of sense for Geoscience Australia to focus their efforts there instead of on other games like Skyrim (although other people have looked at geology in Skyrim, and it’s fascinating). From what I can tell, their poster is actually based on a physical Minecraft exhibit on display at their Education Centre in Canberra, complete with actual chunks of obsidian, diamond ore, and such. While you can schedule field trips to tour their Education Centre in person, teachers are also able to download educational materials, including their Minecraft poster, which is a condensed version of their physical exhibit. Those who read this poster carefully will notice an asterisk leading them to a very important line: “For the purposes of this poster, some of the statements have been generalized.”
Judging by the placement of the asterisks, this statement is probably meant to refer to specific portions of the text that had to be shortened from the full exhibit descriptions, however, they inadvertently get at a much more significant issue. The information on the poster had to be generalized to fit the medium – a poster has different constraints than a physical exhibit. This doesn’t just mean less space, but also the transition from three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional images. This leads to the rather ironic fact that while the poster emphasizes that obsidian is not purple, the photograph of obsidian that appears on the poster is actually a brighter shade of purple than the version from Minecraft. A photograph taken with flat lighting might have been able to get rid of the purple highlights, but wouldn’t be able to communicate the glassy sheen that distinguishes obsidian from other black stones. A picture can’t fully capture the experience of seeing an actual piece of obsidian, so we must settle for a representation.
Like all media, videogames have their own affordances and constraints. In order to effectively critique a media artifact, you need to understand and adapt to them. The lighting system used by Minecraft can’t generate the specular highlights that identify a glass-like material, so the texture and luster of obsidian is represented by jagged purple marks on the surface of the block that suggest sharp edges reflecting the surrounding light (not unlike the photo on the poster). The block doesn’t look exactly like real obsidian, but a solid black cube wouldn’t really look like obsidian, either. Arguing the point would be almost as pedantic as pointing out that rocks do not naturally form in perfect one meter cubes.
While the Geoscience Australia poster makes some significant and interesting points, there is definitely a strong vein of debunking zeal that runs through it. The words “no” and “not” are sprinkled liberally throughout the layout, written in bold just in case you didn’t notice them. In general, it makes for a much less interesting and less engaging poster. Of course it is true that “diamonds are not used for armor,” but merely stating that fact doesn’t really teach kids anything interesting or useful about diamonds. A more useful approach than simply smacking the game a few times with the debunking hammer is to compare and contrast real-world geology with the virtual-world geology of Minecraft, as in this infographic from the Mining Examiner. Once again, the whole point is that the portrayal of diamonds in Minecraft is different from the way diamonds work in the real world, but it demonstrates this by comparing information from both sources, creating a much better starting point for discussion than simply saying “no.”
Although there are a number of points that I would have done differently, I think Geoscience Australia made a smart move in looking at the portrayal of geology in Minecraft. While most people won’t have the opportunity to take an actual geology class until high school or college, kids playing Minecraft are being exposed to concepts like metal ores, magma flows, and erosion, and they’re being exposed to them in an intriguing, interactive setting. Although there is certainly a potential for misinformation, the potential for inspiring curiosity and excitement is far greater.
1. Wacky, weird and scientifically illiterate. John Durant. Nature.
2. The CSI Effect on Real Crime Labs. Sheila L. Stephens. The New England Law Review.
3. The Geology of Minecraft. L. I. Davis. Geoscience Australia.
4. Progressive Pedagogy. Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir. Understanding Minecraft.
5. Players, Modders, and Hackers. Peter Christiansen. Understanding Minecraft.