For years, John Miller, a 7th-grade history teacher in King City, struggled to engage his students in world history lessons. Most of his students were English learners, had very low literacy rates and had rarely left the Salinas Valley. The Roman Empire and feudal Japan seemed about as distant and abstract as Mars.
But then he tried a new approach: video games.
With help from his students, Miller created a Minecraft adventure game featuring a medieval Viking invasion of an English seaside town, complete with an attack on a monastery, a missing monk, a kidnapped girl, a hunt for an ancient relic and Norse mythology.
Miller is among thousands of teachers around the world using video games to teach not just computer science or coding, but academic subjects like history and social studies. As more schools have brought computers into the classroom, educational video games have become an easy way to engage students — especially those who might be bored by class lectures, educators said.
The Minecraft education edition, which Miller uses, has more than 4 million licensed users in 115 countries, and more teachers are enrolling every month, according to Microsoft, which owns Minecraft. A 2016 study by Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit, found that 68 percent of K-12 teachers used video games in the classroom in 2015, up from 47 percent in 2012.
“Games can be a great educational tool,” said Michael John, program director of the Games and Playable Media Master’s Program at UC Santa Cruz who formerly worked on video games for Sony, Electronic Arts and other companies. “A well-created game can be like a well-written textbook. There’s not a lot of constraints as to how it can be used — it’s up to the creativity of the teacher and the game developer.”
Children have played educational computer games — such as arithmetic and spelling games — for decades, but the latest game incarnations are used for higher-level academic learning. In Minecraft, for example, players build their own fantasy worlds using 3-D blocks to create cities, farms or other environments, and fend off monsters, find food for survival or face other challenges. The game has a flexible format that can be adapted to many different subjects.
Minecraft’s education version comes with more than 250 free lessons in all subjects and grade levels, and free training for teachers is available online. Schools, museums and libraries can purchase one-year licenses for $5 per user per year.
“It’s a powerful tool in the classroom,” said Meenoo Rami, manager for Minecraft: Education Edition. “It can be a really open and immersive experience. … The creative aspect is the No. 1 thing that attracts teachers and students.”
For example, she cited a 4th-grade teacher who uses Minecraft to teach about the Jamestown settlement. After learning the history from textbooks and a lecture from the teacher, students log on to Minecraft to build their own early American colonial settlements.
Another history-centric game is called Civilization. In Civilization, players try to create successful pre-Bronze Age civilizations, as well as build the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China and other wonders of the world.
In another game, Dragon Box, players learn abstract math concepts by solving math puzzles of increasing difficulty. In Argubot Academy, players craft logic arguments about how best to colonize Mars. Native Alaskan folklore and mythology is the subject of Never Alone, in which players guide a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox on a journey to save their people from an eternal blizzard.
But while the games are fun to play and can capture students’ imagination about a particular subject, they can’t actually teach a subject, John said. Games should be used as a complement to classroom curriculum, not as a replacement, he said.
“If you let kids determine what happens in the game, that’s really fun but not historically accurate,” he said.
Guidance from a teacher is key, said Santeri Koivisto, co-creator of MinecraftEdu and co-founder of TeacherGaming, which develops educational computer games.
“Games are great at teaching skills like problem solving, collaboration and creativity, but when you’d like to integrate topics and concepts from the curriculum, facilitation is needed,” he said. “I’m a big fan of using entertainment games due to their guaranteed engagement, but with these, facilitation is even more important.”
As an example, he pointed to the game Democracy 3, in which the player is prime minister of a country and has to navigate voting blocs, political parties and interest groups to solve national crises. In a classroom, Koivisto said, a teacher would use the textbook to teach a lesson on civics, then assign the students to a game task such as: Solve a pollution problem, record your actions and then present a press conference to the class. Students work in small groups with some oversight from the teacher.
“The game kind of acts as a platform to tie in different topics,” he said. “I think that with more complex concepts, a multi-dimensional approach is useful and games can be one of the core media to deliver a challenging learning objective.”
At Chalone Peaks Middle School in King City, teacher Miller said he aims for one Minecraft exercise per unit, or about 10 a year. He invites students to help him create the games and tries to keep it fun. If students sense a game is strictly educational, their enthusiasm wanes, he said, calling it the “chocolate-covered broccoli” effect.
In the Viking lesson, students played the game and then wrote stories about their adventures, weaving the curriculum into their virtual journey through Viking lore. Students who previously struggled with simple paragraphs were churning out 20-page stories, he said.
“I don’t think many middle school teachers would say they enjoy grading papers. But I do. I’m not getting 120 boring papers, I’m getting 120 really unique, interesting papers,” said Miller, who’s been teaching 25 years. “It’s a beautiful thing to see 7th-graders enjoy writing so much. We write for three straight days.”
“Games can be completely engaging. Kids really look forward to them,” said Miller, a former Monterey County Teacher of the Year. “Over the year, I see them get better and better with writing and communication, working with others. It’s been a great success.”