Education

The cubist revolution: Minecraft for all

Minecraft building a brain
Minecraft building a brain
/Martin Gee for NPR

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The cubist revolution, now in its eighth year, is thriving.

That's Minecraft cubes, of course.

The game where you build virtual Lego-like worlds and populate them with people, animals and just about everything in between is one of the most popular games ever made; it's second only to Tetris as the best-selling video game of all time. There's gold in them thar cubes: More than 120 million copies have sold since Minecraft launched in 2009.*

So what's behind the game's enduring appeal?

For Isiah Hammonds, 9, it's all about the creative potential every time you fire up your computer.

"You can build anything – anything that you put your mind to! You can work with other people. It's social. It's just super fun!" he says while focusing intensely on finishing his virtual ice arena with his multi-player team of fellow Minecraft campers in Richmond, Calif. "It's for our ice boat racing."

Hammonds, a third-grader, is in a basement room in Richmond's City Hall, next to the cafeteria and a janitor's closet. There are long, narrow white tables with black computer monitors on top.

A lot of tech summer camps like this can cost upwards of $1,000 a week — but these 20 children are in a city hall basement because the space is free.

So is the program, which is run by the non-profit Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative with help from a group called Connected Camps.

It serves predominantly low-income African-American and Hispanic children, many of whom face basic barriers to catching the tech and gaming bug — like access to the internet and access to devices.

A lot of the children here are playing Minecraft for the first time, explains the camp's digital literacy director, Teresa Jenkins. That's because a lot of the families who come here don't have computers at home. Or if they do, she says, they can't afford high-speed internet or it's simply not a priority.

"Rent. Food. Gas. 'How am I doing to get the kids back and forth to school? How am I going to get back and forth to work? ' " says Jenkins, "that's the priority."

Richmond is gentrifying amid the Bay Area's tech-driven economic boom. But the city remains one of the area's poorest, with a poverty rate of nearly 18 percent.

Children here can see San Francisco from their city and hear all about nearby Silicon Valley and its bevy of industry-disrupting companies, "but they don't imagine they can be a part of that industry," says Jennifer Lyle, the executive director of Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative.

This Minecraft camp, Lyle says, is trying to change that 'we're not welcome in tech' feeling some low-income families in Richmond have. "To get people to come here and say, 'No, our child deserves to have access to this,' " she says.

It starts by introducing young people and their parents "to the kinds of things wealthier folks get access to because they have the means," she explains, getting "grounding in computers they're not getting in school."

Minecraft gets high marks from diverse quarters for its education potential. The game can help teach the basics of computer literacy and the key foundations of coding, animation, circuitry and more.

Children can absorb the broccoli of computer knowledge while reveling in the popcorn of building elaborate worlds out of cubes. And in camps like this, they can learn to work together as a team, says Morgan Ames, a postdoctoral scholar at U.C. Berkeley who helped create this camp and has studied its impact.

Campers here, she says, get to work through "the steps of designing something technological that somebody else will play." Using a Minecraft tool called redstone circuits, kids can "think through the basics of circuits."

But to really get that full experience, kids need the PC or Mac version of the game. A version not all have access to, Ames says. Ames also co-authored a study of Minecraft, this camp, and equity and access gaps by race, class and gender.

"Generally we found that middle- and upper middle-income kids play the PC version more. Boys tend to play it more than girls. And in general, white kids tend to play it more than children of color," Ames says.

And that's troubling, she says, because the PC version is simply a richer version of the game. "It has more options. It has more opportunities to learn to code. And we wanted to make it more accessible," she says.

More accessible for children such as Jaiden Newton, 9. On this day I find her eagerly conspiring with her brother in a multi-player game at the camp.

"So he's trying to build an underground tunnel to the other person's arena so he can steal the flag," she tells me.

She makes her way past a dazzling cube inside one of her elaborate cube structures.

"Those are Ender Pearls. It's like a teleportation," she says.

How long have you been playing Minecraft? I ask.

"About three weeks," she says.

Lots of studies (and books and reports) show African-Americans and Latinos continue to be underrepresented in engineering and technical fields, alongside women. Silicon Valley continues to have a serious gender gap problem.

Ames says she's collecting more data but her preliminary look shows that the tools out there to learn more about Minecraft — online forums, videos and the like — are dominated by boys.

Camps like this are vital, Ames says, to help change that equation.

Or as program director Jennifer Lyle puts it, this camp helps send a message to our parents, schools and Silicon Valley "we belong here."

*[Note: Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft Corp. from developers Mojang in 2014. The foundation created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a financial supporter of NPR and NPR Ed.]

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