We partnered with Connected Camps and Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative (BBK) last summer to run a four-week affiliate camp for underprivileged kids in the city of Richmond, California. Richmond’s residents are predominantly low-income Black or Latino families, and a recent study by the Richmond Public Library and BBK found that computer and Internet access in this community was far below the national average.
With the generous assistance of the City of Richmond’s IT staff, we hosted the camp in Richmond’s City Hall IT Training Room, a basement room with 28 workstations. These computers were connected to the Internet via Richmond’s fiber backbone, providing substantially faster Internet connections than even quite expensive home broadband service. From this IT training room, we guided 28 children — 11 girls and 17 boys — through the world of multiplayer Minecraft. Our campers played Minecraft for two hours each weekday day over four weeks. We offered many activities but campers’ play was ultimately open-ended, following the Connected Learning model of engaging children on their terms. Here we reflect on our experiences and lessons learned.
Because Connected Camps provided the servers and remote moderation, all we had to do locally to prepare was install Minecraft on the 28 computers, activate 28 educational Minecraft accounts for our campers’ use, and recruit campers. We provided lunch to campers each day before camp started through the school district’s summer lunch program, coordinated by BBK.
Our campers logged into the Connected Camps “Emerald” server. Connected Camps is run out of Southern California using the educational framework of connected learning. The benefit of this server is that they had full-time moderators in the virtual world to help campers, mediate conflicts, and provide educational “challenges” that campers could opt in to if they wished. The server had other campers who had paid a fee of over $100 to connect from home. We negotiated with Connected Camps to waive these fees for our affiliates camp because we were reaching out to an underserved population.
On this server, campers could play in one of three “modes”: creative, survival, and PvP (player versus player). In creative mode, they could build and experiment with unlimited amounts of the virtual materials available in Minecraft. In survival mode, materials were limited and had to be mined, and various monsters, or creepers, could kill the campers online, leading them to lose all of the materials they were carrying when they “respawned.” PvP mode was like survival mode except that players could also attack and kill one another online. There were interesting aspects of all three of these modes, as we will describe below, and Connected Camps provided challenges in all of them.
We initially enrolled 28 campers, ages 8-12, then a few more as the camp progressed and a few campers dropped out, and finished with 23 campers. We had many more children who were interested in attending but we could not accommodate due to space constraints.
Campers were split between public and charter schools in the greater Richmond area. The campers who attended were almost all Latino or Latina. Nearly all the campers, even those who attended charter schools, were socioeconomically disadvantaged. We started with five African American campers and ended with three, and we had one white camper.
Very few of the campers connected to a multiplayer Minecraft server from home, and most had limited or no access to computers or the Internet. In this sense, we attracted the right campers to this camp, kids who didn’t have the resources to participate in the online camp without our material and financial support.
On a very basic level, campers learned basic technical literacy. Many campers who joined the camp had trouble with some basic keyboard skills, such as using the shift key, but quickly picked up the skills they needed. Campers who had not played Minecraft before picked up the use of keyboard and mouse (left clicking vs. right clicking) to navigate and accomplish tasks very quickly.
We believe this camp helped to engender a love of computers as powerful tools of creativity and play for our campers. Campers would rush to the computers at the beginning of each day and it was often hard to tear them away from them at the end of the two hours, which clearly demonstrated a passion for the camp’s activities. In contrast, many campers reported that computers were primarily devices for test-taking at school or for more narrowly educational purposes, and few had regular access to a computer with an Internet connection at home. Under these conditions, we suspect kids may not develop the same kind of positive association with the computer that kids with better home access may develop. We hope this might plant a seed that could lead to consideration of STEM careers that involve the heavy use of computers. It may also plant the seed among parents that computers aren’t as scary for children as is often portrayed in media, though this could be something we address more directly in future versions of this camp.
While most campers had played Minecraft (on console game systems, tablet devices, or smartphones), only a few had played it on a computer. Minecraft is richer and more fully featured and, in many ways, more challenging when played on the computer. By participating in a multi-player server, campers interacted with other campers, both in person and virtually. They could see others’ creations, collaborate on projects, and read and respond to the often fast-scrolling chat window that connected them with the moderators and campers who were not in the room. This was one draw of the camp for campers. Our intention was to help campers transfer the enthusiasm and devoted interest many already had for video games to the computer.
Campers learned teamwork and communication skills. Working on group build projects required expressing their intentions. Only a few of our campers did this through the chat mechanism (which required good typing skills and ability to read quickly) but we saw more of it in frequent verbal discussion between campers. Campers who played in competitive modes (survival or PvP) joined forces to mine resources and quickly found that when they teamed up and stayed focused, they quickly amassed quite a fortune. With time, we found campers also started to know, befriend, and work with some of the other campers who were playing from home (and not part of our affiliates camp).
Along with general teamwork and communication, campers gained online citizenship skills. Some learned this the hard way, by breaking the rules and getting in trouble or by having the things they had built destroyed by others. Our presence in moderating this aspect of the camp was crucial, as we encouraged the campers to stand up for themselves or explain their concerns directly to the moderators. We also corresponded with the moderators on the campers’ behalf throughout the camp, even prompting some changes to the rules of the server to make it more fair for everyone.
Minecraft and the Connected Camps servers promoted systematic or mathematical thinking. Through competitive activities in survival or PvP mode, campers had to practice the management of scarce resources, strategy, and problem solving. To create things to build with, eat, or defend themselves, they had to memorize recipes, use a crafting table, a stove, and an enchantment table. Sometimes crafting involved many steps, which they had to keep track of. We also created treasure hunts to give campers some exposure to the use of coordinates for plotting. This was an example of math skills taught very directly through Minecraft. This is a fifth-grade skill in the Common Core curriculum. A small number of campers were very enthusiastic about this activity and completed our treasure hunts, as well as designed their own.
While this camp did not directly teach campers how to write code, some of what they were exposed to entailed pre-coding skills. For example, typing commands (such as /tpa to teleport to another player or /w to whisper or /report to report a problem) required careful and precise typing of commands with correct spelling. This exposed campers to entering and using commands and command-line entry interfaces which give a sense of how computer code works at a line-by-line level. Using a Minecraft substance called redstone gave campers some exposure to circuitry and how to build functioning mechanisms in the game environment.
In the first week and without our prompting, campers quickly discovered and taught each other how to change their player “skin” to give themselves a distinctive identity in the game. On the whole, campers picked skins that reflected their real-world identity. Girls wanted to look like girls. Latino and African-American campers wanted a more realistic skin color (not the white, male default Steve character) – which proved to be a challenge, as nobody could find existing Black or Latino skins and campers had to learn to modify the skins themselves. Many campers were more creative, picking animals, movie or video game characters, YouTube celebrities, and even foods such as a taco or bacon to represent themselves.
Room for Improvement
While campers improved their computer literacy, there was only limited exposure to computational concepts in our camp. We offered a couple of activities that made use of Redstone, a Minecraft substance that is used in a way that is much like circuit design, but there was only a little interest in this. The most successful Redstone challenge was to build a timed fireworks display. An especially challenging Redstone activity to build a clock attracted only three campers, and none saw it through to completion. Redstone and other more computationally-complex activities might be more accessible and interesting to an older demographic than we targeted in our camp (ages 8-12), and possibly a group with more existing familiarity and comfort with computers.
We found that campers’ attention spans and the sheer number of activities in the camp led them to do what they found easiest or most aligned to their interests, which often did not include the more challenging projects that required long-term focus and dedication. At the same time, the confidence that campers exhibited in approaching the game through the computer could lay the foundation for more long-term exploration.
We also found that a few campers were very interested in exploring the limits of the server’s rules, which in the game world is often called “griefing.” While their actions struck us as more experimental than malicious, they nonetheless did kill other campers’ virtual characters and destroy their creations, both unintentionally and intentionally. When this was directed at another camper in the room, that camper would often negotiate in-person with the “griefer” to get his or her creations repaired or the equipment back that they had lost upon dying. But, when it was directed at a camper not part of our affiliates camp, those campers often called on the moderators to punish the griefer. Again, our presence in the room was important for helping our campers understand what was happening, notice and respond to messages from moderators, and stand up for themselves when wrongly accused.
Why Host an Affiliates Camp?
These observations suggest that there was great value for our campers to be part of an in-person affiliates camp. In particular, the affiliates camp provided:
- Access to a computer, very fast Internet connection, and the multiplayer server for a dedicated period of time daily which would have been difficult or impossible for most of our campers to arrange at home. While the IT training room at Richmond City Hall had some downsides — in particular, it was restricted-access, which meant that we had to escort campers down to the room at the beginning, to the bathroom as needed, and back up to the lobby at the end. Its Internet connection and our arrangement to use it for free far outweighed those drawbacks. We imagine there are a number of similarly underutilized computer labs that could be used for camps like this.
- Learning from other campers in-person. Campers were able to show one another how to do things in Minecraft by talking in-person. They knew many things that we (the coordinators and volunteers) did not know and taught them to each other. They made friends with other kids like them from the area who shared an interest in computers and Minecraft. Throughout camp, the room was lively with Minecraft-inspired conversations between campers.
- Mitigating for language and literacy skills. Our campers varied widely in terms of their typing, writing, and spelling skills. While most were bilingual, their English skills were often below their grade level. Their ability to learn teamwork, collaborate, get along, and respond to the moderators through the text-based chat mechanism was limited by these abilities. In many cases, moderators or others were speaking to them through the chat mechanism and they did not notice. As coordinators and volunteers we were able to draw their attention to important information in chat and help them join challenges or activities they would have otherwise missed. This camp, and Minecraft itself, seemed to reward campers who were very fast and fluent with written language. Our presence was able to partially make up for this with the campers who didn’t come in with very strong reading and writing skills but who brought many other skills and abilities to their Minecraft play.
- Mediating between campers and moderators on disciplinary issues. A number of campers violated rules of the camp, rarely on purpose, from our observation. We were better able to communicate the rules and clarify the situation with campers in person. Often, we played the role of communicating to the moderators as well, either in Minecraft’s chat or through email. Many situations of rule breaking were complicated. Some rules of the camp were changed and clarified after our feedback. Connected Camps asks parents to sit down and go over the rules in certain extreme cases (we had one such case). However, the parents of our campers — quite a few non-English speakers and not familiar with computers — were often not in a position to play this role. Instead, we played the role that Connected Camps expected parents to play of moderating behavior, and talked over our experiences with parents during pick-up.
Lessons for Future Camps
- This year’s camp came together after many schools were already out of session for the summer. Most parents heard about the camp from the library. While we did end up with a diverse and dynamic group of children, many of whom had limited access to computers, we found that many benefited from various resources such as parents actively seeking educational opportunities for them, including enrolling them in charter schools. Establishing necessary partnerships earlier and more actively recruiting in the public schools in central Richmond would better reach a population that may not have these benefits (though it would still rely on students opting in).
- Our camp size was limited both by the room in which we hosted it, which had 28 computers, and by our own ability to monitor the children. However, there was substantially more interest in the camp than we could accommodate, even with limited advertising. This suggests that future camps could be significantly scaled up and still have full enrollment.
- We had two excellent volunteers who attended most of the sessions. In the first week the campers had many questions for these Minecraft experts. However, beyond that the campers largely did not utilize this resource and the volunteers spent a lot of time in the back of the room, on Minecraft themselves. In the future, more actively involving these volunteers in managing in-game activities, mitigating conflicts, and leading campers could further enrich the camp.
- Relatedly, that nobody in the room had “mod” (moderator) privileges on the Connected Camps server proved to be awkward at times, as we watched issues unfold in-person and had to appeal to the busy remote moderators in chat to help us with them. We were also limited to monitoring campers by looking over their shoulders, which meant that there were some conflicts that we did not witness first-hand and we did not have many tools to replay or investigate what might have happened in-world. This might be something that Connected Camps would like to consider adding for future affiliates camps.
- Children were very well-behaved on the computers. Their motivation, independence, and good behavior suggests that we did not need the full staff that we had. This could be useful in cases where personnel rather than computers is a limiting factor for scaling up a camp.
In summary, we saw a number of benefits to holding the camp as we did, bringing children together in a computer lab with Minecraft pre-installed on the machines and access to paid accounts.
- High enrollment of girls. Computing programs typically have low enrollment of girls. We actively recruited girls, and though we still ended up with only 40% girls, we found that these campers were just as engaged as the boys.
- Reaching an underserved population. This camp enrolled many students who had little access to or experience with computers, either at home or at school. All but one of our campers were Black or Latino.
- Huge demand. Though our recruiting efforts started relatively late — after school was already out for the summer — we had a long waitlist of many more children who wanted to enroll.
- High retention. We started with 28 campers and finished with 23, which is much higher than other Richmond summer programs that reach a similar population.
- High engagement. Campers rushed to workstations to log into Minecraft and played intently until camp ended each day.
- Teaching technical literacy. Many of our campers had only learned the most basic computer use in order to take standardized tests. During the camp, they became familiar with typing and mouse use, monitoring chat windows, and navigating a virtual world with other players.
- Building positive experiences with computers. Instead of just tools for test-taking, campers experienced computers as a site of play and creativity.
- Access to a rich educational experience. The Minecraft software on the computer, and the Connected Camps server, has great potential as an engaging educational space. The multiplayer environment required campers to quickly develop their skills in a way that the “Pocket Edition” of Minecraft, which all campers had previously played, had not.
- Teaching algorithmic/mathematical thinking. Many aspects of Minecraft on the PC necessitate development of good spatial skills and recipe-following. These are great building blocks for future engagement in math or computer science.
- Teaching teamwork and communication. Interacting with other players in-person and online fostered cooperation, resource-sharing, and good communication. Campers often taught one another valuable in-game skills.
- Teaching good citizenship. Campers learned to respect others and their creations online and how to be gracious winners and losers in competitions. They also gained familiarity with Richmond’s City Hall and met some of the staff that oversaw their city government.