April 23, 2015

Minecraft and The Future of Transmedia Learning

Category: Edtech
minecraft game characters screenshot

EPIC HEADSHOP: The Evolution of Minecraft

When my 8-year-old son typed “epic headshop at 31;65” into the command prompt, I realized the Minecraft I knew was dead. In its place something new had emerged. If I wanted to keep using it as a vehicle for advancing learning goals, it was high time for a serious reevaluation.

BEYOND GAME: The Rise of Transmedia Learning

“Minecraft is not a game.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that since first learning of the worldwide phenomenon in Spring of 2011 at the Games For Change Festival… well, I’d have enough to run my own Minecraft server. My wife asked me, when she saw me writing this, “Isn’t it just like Legos?” I see her point. Legos are not a game. They are a toy. Minecraft offers little in the way of points to earn or levels to beat. You can’t really lose. It can look to an outsider like a giant digital sandbox. So yes, I get how understanding Minecraft as a toy can be of value, even accurate. It’s just less useful.

Calling Minecraft a “game,” however, seems to be a useful way to conceptualize the experience, not just for me but for the world at large. For those who monetize it, it’s a game; it’s listed as the No. 5 top-selling video gameof 2014 by Forbes. For those who report on it, it’s a game; when Microsoft bought it in September for $2.5 billion in cash, the New York Times described Minecraft as “the world-building computer game.” For those who use it for teaching, it’s a game; the educator’s version of Minecraft, called MinecraftEdu, is the primary product of a company called TeacherGaming. In using Minecraft to teach everything in recent years from the power of poison to global injustice, in both libraries and museums, I’ve always understood it as a form of games-based learning. It’s not just that it was created by a game designer (Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson), or sold through a video game company, Mojang; understanding MInecraft as a game has been the most effective way for me to conceptualize what Minecraft affords within my informal learning communities.

Not any more. When the history of the 21st century is written, 2014 won’t be remembered as the year Microsoft bought Minecraft. Instead, it will be understood as the beginning of the wider understanding that Minecraft is more than just a game. Yes, it CAN be played like a game, it relies on technical components similar to games, it supports a user community around it in a manner similar to other games… but, the metaphor of “game” is no longer useful. It misses the bigger picture. It distracts us from the broader disruptions it is causing in the social fabric. So now I, too, will join the quiet chorus saying Minecraft is not just a game.

What then will I say?

This: Minecraft is our first look at the future of transmedia learning.

But what is transmedia learning? A 2013 report by the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, “T is for Transmedia: Learning Through Transmedia Play,” sheds a needed light on this emergent practice. “Transmedia,” the report notes, “by itself, means “across media” and describes any combination of relationships that might exist between the various texts (analog or digital) that constitute a contemporary

entertainment media experience.”

Henry Jenkins’ seminal 2006 White paper explored how transmedia navigation is a crucial digital literacy required by youth to understand life in the 21st century, in which a narrative is generated through combining elements expressed across multiple media. Pokemon is often offered as an example, which is a video game, animated series, and comic book, all at the same time, each piece reinforcing the others.

“T is for Transmedia” builds on that concept but takes it one step further, from transmedia storytelling to transmedia play. Transmedia play “involves experimentation with and participation in a transmedia experience, but also applies to media that has no storyline, such as open-ended video games.”

Open-ended games like Minecraft.

MINECRAFT CAMP: What My Son Learned During His Summer Vacation

The shift for me began last summer, when my 8-year old son attended what my wife and I considered a week-long Minecraft camp. The course was called “Adventures in Minecraft Game Design.” The program was run by iD Tech, which offers computer summer camps in universities and colleges around the country. I calculated that amongst their seven locations within and around my home in New York City, there were 80 different week-long sessions focused on Minecraft (and most were sold out).

My son entered the program already in love with Minecraft. He loved constructing his own buildings and structures, creating his own design challenges and solving them, imagining creative ideas and bringing them to life. Over the course of the program, however, his understanding of what Minecraft was, and what he could do with it, changed. He was not experiencing it just as a game but as a transmedia experience.

This went over my head for months until, one day, he asked me to join him in typing “epic headshop at 31;65” into his Minecraft command prompt. To understand what this meant, and the virtuous cycle that drove it, I first had to understand two major aspects of Minecraft that came to prominence in 2014: Minecraft Server Owner Communities and Minecraft Youtube Celebrities.


One of the first thing my son learned during camp was how to log into Mineplex. Most people understand that Minecraft, like all games, can be played in a solitary or on a multiplayer mode, the latter with friends through a local network connection (imagine students in a classroom or friends at a sleepover) or amongst strangers across the Internet (imagine, if you can, 1980s Bulletin Board systems, dialing into someone’s computer). Across those options, creativity has flourished, as a custom map created once can be infinitely distributed; MinecraftMaps.com, to choose just one website, offers more than 500 maps for free download, with categories ranging from Adventure and Puzzle to Creation and Parkour. But, something new had developed that was off my radar until my son brought it to my attention: Minecraft server owner communities.

For-profit server owner communities (and there are many nonprofit ones as well) make a business out of designing original and interesting Minecraft-based experiences then, charging players for premium access. No need to download custom maps — just log in (through Minecraft) and the server owner will take care of everything for you. And, each server — while still using Minecraft — offers different experiences, using software that allows them to technically mod (“modify”) the standard code.

According to the YouTuber treestompz (in his informative history “Minecraft Servers: Why They’re So Great”), the server owner community is in the size of thousands, or tens of thousands, but serving millions of users, each utilizing tens of thousands of publicly available plug-ins. The most popular servers, like Mineplex and Hipixel, reach more than a million players, supporting thousands of concurrent users. They offer new creative ways to experience Minecraft and, through competition with one another, set “the stage for a whole new level of innovation,” featuring parkour challenges, amusement park rides, “Hunger Games”-themed battles, scavenger hunts, and more. “People are using Minecraft as a sandbox,” treestompz reports, “almost as an entire game engine to create a whole new experience within Minecraft.”

Many even offer personal plots of land, like in the days of Second Life, where residents create their own economies and social activities. Players can shop in all sorts of stores, like headshops, both mundane and epic.

No, not “headshops,” as in stores that sell drug-related paraphernalia, but “headshops,” stores that literally sell heads. Not costumes an avatar might wear, but really more like busts, sculptures of some of the most famous people within this transmedia community: MineCraft YouTube celebrities.


Some day, a book will be written about the relationship between YouTube and Minecraft (and how one made the other famous). Long story short, surf over to YouTube and do a search for “Minecraft.” This portmanteau is unique enough that you can be confident that the bulk of the 45,500,000 resulting videos are about this game. But, keep in mind, these are not the number of times these videos have been viewed, but simply the number of unique Minecraft videos on YouTube. If we turn to view counts, the numbers are equally astonishing. The official trailer for Minecraft has received more than 114 million views in just over two years.

More importantly, the bulk of the views are not going to “official” Minecraft videos, but posts by users. The most famous user is perhaps Stampy Cat (aka Stampylongnose, aka Stampylonghead, aka Joseph Garrett). Born in 1990, Stampy frequently creates videos of himself and friends playing Minecraft (whether in his own world, custom maps designed by others, or within the server owner community described above), targeting an audience of 6- to 14-year-olds. In 2014, Stampy rose from almost nowhere to become one of the 10 most watched YouTube channels in the world. His most popular video recently surpassed 33 million views.

Stampy might be one of the most popular Minecraft YouTubers, but his approach is common across the community. A typical Minecraft let’s play video (which is just one corner of a vast genre mashing gameplay with video production) involves demonstrating the latest and greatest in Minecraft — a fun new mod to explore, a challenging new map to play, a creative new server to visit. As Minecrafters learn to move seamlessly between these two modes of engagement — video consumer and game player — they take on a third identity, that of creator, as they try out techniques first viewed in the videos. Once players install that mod, or download that map, or visit that new server, the videos transform from entertainment to educational resource, with players often jumping between the two. And, eventually, they might make and post their own let’s play video. The virtuous cycle spins on.

If you visit a Minecraft server, you might be logged in at the same time as a famous Youtube celebrity who has also featured it within one of their videos. For my son, things don’t get better than that. He’ll take a screenshot showing the logged-on status of the celebrity. He’ll visit “shops” run by other “residents” of that server, which offer objects you can acquire. Some of those objects are the heads of Youtube celebrities, sold in headshops, which can then be offered, in turn, within his own shop. Which is located at coordinates “31;65.” But, to advertise it, he needs to type it repeatedly into the public chat space to attract new customers.

But, I type faster than he. So there I am typing into Minecraft, over and over, “epic headshop at 31;65,” to help my son pretend to sell cubes colored to look like the Minecraft characters of famous people who post videos on Youtube of their having visited this very same server. He’s blending gaming with video watching, celebrity culture with entrepreneurial activity, 3D construction with advertising. And, coming to terms with all this is what makes me realize, this is NO longer his dad’s Minecraft that I introduced to him only four years earlier.

This is the future of transmedia learning.


This virtuous cycle between consumption and production has been, in many ways, the holy grail of the emerging digital media and learning (aka connected learning) community. It perhaps should come as little surprise, then, that one of its most important movers and shakers, Mimi Ito, recently announced a new educational initiative, Connected Camps and their Summer of Minecraft. Unlike with iD Tech, however, these camps are virtual, with counselors and campers meeting on shared Minecraft servers.

They are one of the first to explore the scale and potential of Minecraft at the center of a transmedia learning ecosystem.

But, let’s step back a moment and recall what most educational programs look like using Minecraft. Let’s use my world, for example, that of museum education, where we’re all about buildings. Well, buildings and objects, which makes sense: we are destinations and our buildings display objects. A quick survey of Minecraft in museum education highlights that the majority of these programs are focused on asking youth to reflect back our institutions in a mirror made of Minecraft. We ask, Rebuild our museum in a Minecraft map. Or: Use Minecraft to make museum-style exhibits to teach others. I’m no different. The first project we led at the American Museum of Natural History, FoodCraft, recreated the ideas from a new exhibit on food within a Minecraft map.

This is all fine and good, a perfect place to start exploring the educational potential of this popular and powerful new medium. But, now, that I have this new perspective on Minecraft I wonder what it will look like when we realize it is so much more than a game, that it is just the central point within a vast interconnected transmedia experience. What will happen when we start tapping into not just its game engine but all of its components — like its server communities and Youtube fandom — and start building our own virtuous cycles? What will happen when the current “Minecraft generation” grows up expecting engagement to carry them across multiple platforms, support their seamless transitioning amongst roles of consumers, players and creators, and require self-directed learning in order to pursue their passions?

Whatever it might be, if we do it right, expect it to be no less than epic.

Banner image credit: Barry Joseph