In four weeks, the group went from chaos to structure, Levin says, with the students spearheading the change. They held elections, selected leaders, and divided into exploration, research, building, and farming teams. The group works together to ensure their fledgling universe survives through droughts and disasters.
"Minecraftian society itself is very primitive, and without strong leadership or drive, the whole thing falls apart," says Charles Yoshimura, a senior at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School and one of three people elected to lead the group. "Being the leader has been teaching me, and everyone else as well, the importance of societal structure and the way communities work."
While every member has ideas of how his or her Minecraft community should develop, the leaders have a vision for their virtual world and need to encourage everyone to play a role in achieving the group's goals. Keeping everyone on task is the most challenging part of his role, Yoshimura says, but he has learned a lot about himself as a result.
"I've really come into my own as a leader through the club and found that I am more outgoing than I thought I was before," he says.
Levin lets the students work through the games challenges, including structuring their community, but presses them to verbalize the reasons behind the decisions they make. With the high school group and with his second graders, each session starts with a review of what they learned in their last Minecraft activity. Levin chronicles his students' gaming adventures on his blog, and is working with Minecraft's creators to bring the game to more classrooms.
While modern games can have some educational value in the hands of a creative teacher, Sroka says video games take away from the social aspect of the classroom.
"Taking turns to answer questions, raising hands, participating, and being respectful of other students, having discussions and conversations about the topic at hand, and respect to the teacher" are important lessons students don't learn from a computer game, she says.
Katie Salen, professor of design and technology at Parsons the New School for Design and executive director of the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that promotes using game-design principles in learning, argues video games are very social activities. Players talk about the challenges within the game and how to solve them, she says.
"I always find it funny this image that people have around this isolated gamer," Salen says. "Kids can be incredibly isolated around more traditional media like books, but we never devalue books because they're a one-to-one experience."
The Institute of Play founded Quest to Learn, a public school with locations in New York City and Chicago, to put its theories to work. The school uses gaming to teach problem solving, collaboration, and systems design.
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The trick to using gaming in the classroom is not forcing a lesson into the game, but drawing from the natural lessons the game offers, Salen says. This is what Quest to Learn aims to do with its eighth–grade class called "The Way Things Work," she says. Students in the class use SimCity 4 to build and sustain a civilization. They use the virtual city to test theories on how changes effect a society, she says.
It's not all fun and games at Quest to Learn, Salen is quick to point out. Students still read books, write essays, and take standardized tests. The games are just one part of the school's overall mission: to prepare students for the increasingly digital world around them.