At New Los Angeles Charter School last year, seventh graders learned the humanities by founding their own civilizations - and living in them.
"That was a project where the kids, in groups, had to work together to survive without starving or running out of a food supply," said teacher Dan Thalkar, "and then slowly build their own society and civilization with all of the aspects that actual civilizations have."
They weren’t dropped off on a deserted island. The students used the popular computer game Minecraft to build those civilizations.
In creative mode, Minecraft users roam through different settings and build freely. Users can choose from a variety of tools in their inventory and use blocks to construct just about anything.
The charter school project culminated in the seventh grade students developing an economy and trading system with the other groups in the class. They even learned about the power structures that maintain societies as one group of students staged a coup against a peer who had taken too much control in the game.
"Minecraft is useful in the classroom because you can use it for pretty much anything you want," Thalkar said. "That’s the beauty of the way the game was designed and how open ended it is. If you want to use it for something for math or for science you can, either just by using the game itself or by modifying it."
Thalkar and other teachers are beginning to use Minecraft to teach concepts in math, science and the humanities. They can use the blocks to teach scale and breed virtual bees to teach genetics. The game can be used to create electrical circuits and complex machines, which can then be used to teach about concepts in electrical engineering. Students can also create and then trade goods, which is one way to teach about concepts in economics.
"Part of what it creates is habits of mind, kind of a sense of how to be a learner, how to be someone who’s successful at learning," said Linda Polin, a professor of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University who researches how students learn through video games.
But Minecraft wasn’t designed for the classroom. It was designed for fun - and it’s a big hit. Minecraft brought in about $240 million in revenue in 2012.
Still, one private school teacher in New York found it so useful, he launched a company that created and sells a classroom version of the game. Joe Levin, co-owner of TeacherGaming, LLC., said about 1,700 schools around the world have purchased his MinecraftEdu.
Teachers who don't use his version can still use the mainstream version of the game. Most will likely stick to the creative mode - not the survival mode, where things blow up and characters fight each other.
Part of Minecraft’s appeal is that it’s flexible in its design, allowing educators to modify it to suit their lessons, Levin said.
"You know, a lot of learning games, you’d as a teacher, have to change your curriculum to fit the game," said Levin. "Minecraft was the first game that came along where I could change the game to fit my curriculum."
Teachers said another benefit is that kids are already hooked on the game.
Large summer camp provider Star Camps said its Minecraft summer programs consistently sell out. At a recent session at Warner Elementary School, two dozen young students built virtual houses and tamed computer-generated wolves in a classroom.
"I like creative mode, because on survival you can’t spawn animals," said Casey, one of the students enrolled in the camp.
Camp teachers walked around, observing the kids type computer code onto their keyboards.
"It really allows them to have a lot of creative expression, so it’s a game where they can do whatever they want. We provide them a lot of context to make it more educational for the camp, but they have the ability and freedom to go run out in the world, build without any restraints, which is really attractive to them because they have that freedom," said Jarrod Wolkowitz, who heads “Game School” for Culver City-based Star, Inc.
Wolkowitz agreed that students can learn how to collaborate, solve interpersonal problems, and manage resources through the game.
Thalkar, of New Los Angeles Charter School, believes that general life skills like these may not be directly academic skills, but are important for children to learn.
"The beauty about games is that they encourage failure. They are predicated on kids trying things and failing and trying something else and trying it again," he said. "That's a skill that we need to impart on our kids. This fearlessness in just doing stuff."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Joe Levin's teaching status. KPCC regrets the error.
Tell us about your experience with Minecraft: Do you think it's an effective teaching tool? What other games work in the classroom? Tell us in comments.