How Kids Build, Learn, and Resolve Their Fights in a Video Game World

Anarchy, Minecraft, and utopia


Clive Thompson has an engaging piece in The New York Times Magazine called "The Minecraft Generation." Minecraft is a video game, but Thompson writes that

I belong to the Minecraft generation/I can take it or leave it each time

it doesn't really feel like a game. It's more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends. It's a world of trial and error and constant discovery, stuffed with byzantine secrets, obscure text commands and hidden recipes. And it runs completely counter to most modern computing trends. Where companies like Apple and Microsoft and Google want our computers to be easy to manipulate—designing point-and-click interfaces under the assumption that it's best to conceal from the average user how the computer works—Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them….It invites them to tinker.

Thompson points out that Minecraft has been getting a reputation among parents as "the 'good' computer game in a world full of anxiety about too much 'screen time.'" (Aside: If you're able to make distinctions like that, maybe it's time to stop lumping all sorts of different activities together under the "screen time" label?) So it's worth noting, as Thompson does, that this celebrated educational toy was not designed by educators, or even designed for kids. It was originally created for grown-ups, and it still has plenty of adult users, many of whom provide advice to younger players.

Adventure time!

All the same, Minecraft does fit into an educational tradition that encourages boys and girls to learn by playing with their environment. "The Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen urged that areas in cities ruined by World War II be turned into 'junk playgrounds,' where children would be given pickaxes, hammers and saws and allowed to shape the detritus into a new civilization, at child scale," Thompson writes. "Several were in fact created in Europe and were quite popular." The British anarchist Colin Ward once wrote a celebration of such playgrounds, seeing in them not just a place where kids could be creative and have fun, but a lesson in self-organized cooperation. At one point Ward quotes an account of The Yard, a Minneapolis playground where kids were given "their own spot of earth and plenty of tools and materials for digging, building and creating as they see fit." At first, Ward's source notes,

A girl builds a chair at The Yard.

it was every child for himself. The initial stockpile of secondhand lumber disappeared like ice off a hot stove. Children helped themselves to all they could carry, sawed off long boards when short pieces would have done. Some hoarded tools and supplies in secret caches. Everybody wanted to build the biggest shack in the shortest time. The workmanship was shoddy.

Then came the bust. There wasn't a stick of lumber left. Hi-jacking raids were staged on half-finished shacks. Grumbling and bickering broke out. A few children packed up and left.

But on the second day of the great depression most of the youngsters banded together spontaneously for a salvage drive. Tools and nails came out of hiding. For over a week the youngsters made do with what they had. Rugged individualists who had insisted on building alone invited others to join in—and bring their supplies along. New ideas popped up for joint projects. By the time a fresh supply of lumber arrived a community had been born.

With Minecraft, similarly, Thompson argues that

What a pleasant little community.

kids are constantly negotiating what are, at heart, questions of governance. Will their world be a free-for-all, in which everyone can create and destroy everything? What happens if someone breaks the rules? Should they…employ plug-ins to prevent damage, in effect using software to enforce property rights? There are now hundreds of such governance plug-ins.

Seth Frey, a postdoctoral fellow in computational social science at Dartmouth College, has studied the behavior of thousands of youths on Minecraft servers, and he argues that their interactions are, essentially, teaching civic literacy. "You've got these kids, and they're creating these worlds, and they think they're just playing a game, but they have to solve some of the hardest problems facing humanity," Frey says. "They have to solve the tragedy of the commons." What's more, they're often anonymous teenagers who, studies suggest, are almost 90 percent male (online play attracts far fewer girls and women than single-­player mode). That makes them "what I like to think of as possibly the worst human beings around," Frey adds, only half-jokingly. "So this shouldn't work. And the fact that this works is astonishing."

Frey is an admirer of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize-­winning political economist who analyzed the often-­unexpected ways that everyday people govern themselves and manage resources. He sees a reflection of her work in Minecraft: Running a server becomes a crash course in how to compromise, balance one another's demands and resolve conflict.

In a Connecticut library that hosts a Minecraft server, Thompson reports, administrators sometimes "will step in to adjudicate the dispute. But this is increasingly rare." One librarian tells Thompson: "Generally, the self-­governing takes over. I'll log in, and there'll be 10 or 15 messages, and it'll start with, 'So-and-so stole this,' and each message is more of this. And at the end, it'll be: 'It's O.K., we worked it out! Disregard this message!'"

Bonus links: For more on Ostrom, go here. For Reason's special issue on video games, go here. For the tale of a gaming community where self-organization took a rather different turn, go here.