Amy Absher has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. She is a SAGES Fellow and Lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. The University of Michigan Press published her first book, The Black Musician and the White City, in 2014.
I had an idea. What if instead of just studying 1939 and the march to war, my undergraduates and I built the 1939 World’s Fair as a way of understanding what it was like to live in 1939? My reasoning behind the class was based on a pragmatic concern. I had to figure out how to teach a “symbolic world” seminar, which is a course that examines how humans construct competing realities—for example, via language and art. Several of my former students needed the course credit to graduate and they had asked if I could create a class for them. My teaching assistant Steven Cramer at first said I had gone mad. Then he said it might be possible if we used Minecraft, a computer game enjoyed by youngsters everywhere because they can build their own world inside of the game. We soon realized this endeavor would require the careful integration of Minecraft into a writing- and research-intensive undergraduate course.
If you have never played Minecraft, it is a “sandbox program” that allows the user to build a limitless world. The game world consists of 3D objects arranged on a fixed grid pattern. Players move freely across the world (for example, the players can fly). Meanwhile, objects and items stay in fixed and relative locations. In my class, students gathered material blocks and placed them to build the structures they had researched, which allowed each player to take their research and translate it into a visual representation using the game as a platform. In addition, players can “chat” with one another and work in a collaborative manner.
Though it was not the original intention of the game, there are many educational uses for Minecraft, such as helping students and communities members to imagine different ways of managing resources. Educators have found it is useful for teaching coding to elementary age students and teaching them about the concept of community.
We wanted to use Minecraft in a different way. We wanted the students to research and then build a historic site. We wanted to encourage a certain kind of analytical thinking that would take the students away from simply knowing what happened and move them toward understanding why people made certain choices and how all the parts of human interaction and imagination (from architecture to sports to politics to slang to sexism to racism to movies to the hemline) fit together to compose a culture.
Sure, I had never played the game before. Sure, I knew no one who had used Minecraft in this specific way before. However, I firmly believed that the unknown, the feeling that I had no idea if it would work, is what would make the class an adventure. This is my favorite kind of teaching because I have the chance to be a student and learn a new way of seeing.
Developing the Course
The class was an undergraduate “symbolic world” seminar focusing on the year 1939. The mandated educational objectives of this type of class include teaching students to recognize that the words and images we use construct and reinforce the world in which we live.
At the end of the day, how does one teach about “symbolic” worlds? By their very nature, they are a little hard to pin down and cannot be visited on a school trip. For these reasons, many of my colleagues teach symbolic courses focused on literature or film. For me, the solution to the teaching problems presented by the “symbolic world” was to have the students recreate the imagined worlds of 1939 (think The Fair, debutante balls, architectural styles, and music).
I realized Minecraft could not be the focus of the class. Rather, I had to integrate Minecraft into the class. The solution was to view Minecraft as a role playing game governed by the same principles as any other teaching tool of this interactive type.
To make the class work meant that we would need to combine the tried and true playful assignments of the “scrapbook” and “newsreel” with new technology. Both the scrapbook and newsreel are research assignments disguised as creative role-playing. In the scrapbook, the students developed a persona for themselves. They all pretended to be a person in 1939 who eventually went to the Fair. For example, some used the census to pick a name, age, and address. Others decided who they were based on their dream occupation. One student picked her persona because she always wanted to attend Barnard College and now she had her chance. She read the college’s student newspaper, Life, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan for the latest on the debutante scene. She selected images, movies, songs, and news events that were important to her persona and placed them in notebook. She then, in the voice of her persona, provided captions in the notebook. She eventually turned in the notebook, a bibliography, and a short essay. For the newsreel assignment, I taught the students to capture and edit film. With the bits of film they acquired from the internet, their goal was to create an original newsreel that reflected the style of 1939’s newsreels. Again, they turned in their project with a bibliography and a short essay. Basically, these assignments took the place of annotated bibliographies and film/book review papers. In my opinion, these types of assignments are superior to the review and bibliographies because the students have fun doing them, which means the students do a better a job and learn more. By the end of the class, the students had amassed a significant amount of primary source research to write their final papers.
For the structure of the class, I decided the students would work in two different assignment groups: “The Lived Experience” and “Minecraft.” The first group researched what it was like to live in 1939. They made newsreels and created personas for themselves via the scrapbooks. The second group adopted the persona of “builders.” They were the politicians, designers, and engineers who built The World’s Fair. For this group, we adapted Minecraft, which frees the player by allowing the players to create the world in which they play, so that students could research and then build The Fair and the other group of students could visit The Fair.
I teach in a humanities program dedicated to the small approach to undergraduate learning. Our class size is capped at seventeen students, who come from every major and age group on campus.
Of the seventeen students, seven chose the new technology. This suggests that not all students jump at the chance to do 21st-century active learning. Though one might feel like celebrating the discovery that there are still students who want to spend hours reading popular periodicals in the library, the result of our experiment in symbolic history suggests that neither assignment group would have provided a complete learning experience for the students. Rather, we had to work together to integrate the different perspectives, via the different types of assignments if we had any chance at success.
Not everything in the class was role-playing, but their role-playing shaped the course. The students had a written assignment due with each “turn in” of their Minecraft building, their newsreel, or their scrapbook. With these short papers, they also turned in copies of their primary source research. Their research and short written assignments culminated in a longer research paper at the end of the semester. Assignments complemented each other because the overall class objective was to generate an immersive environment. In other words, the students needed to think like a person in 1939 and they could only do so if they built it and lived it.
Successes and Hurdles
I became aware of the errors I made in planning the course the day one of the freshmen students in the “Lived Experience” group arrived at my office hours and announced he wanted to be African American. I had spent so much time planning and worrying about the Minecraft group (and building my own buildings in our Minecraft world) that I had not provided adequate guidance to the other group of students. Before creating their scrapbooks, the students had to select a persona. Many students, to their credit, opted to be the opposite of themselves. This was the case with my freshman. He had decided to be “Amari,” a fictional African American dancer whom he imagined would be part of the real Cleveland performance troupe, the Karamu Dancers. Luckily, the troupe did perform at the World’s Fair. This persona was perfect for the assignment because it allowed the student to expand upon the imagined individual’s experience in 1939 and 1940 broadly while ending up with the individual visiting The Fair. However, he felt that the assignment needed a conclusion. His persona had developed into a politically active and articulate individual with a lot to say.
Since I had neglected to provide a well-thought-out framework for the other assignments, “Amari” found his own framework. Without being required to write one, he composed a letter to his imaginary grandchildren explaining his experience. In so doing, the student improved on the original assignment and demonstrated that imagination is only one component of analysis. His work also suggested that although we are limited in our ability to understand the past, this does not mean that we should not try to create a rigorous inquiry.
The surprises continued with the Minecraft group. I learned that instructors must consider a few ground rules and parameter limitations of a “sandbox” assignment. The list below represents what I learned through teaching with Minecraft.
- You will need a server to house your game world. There are firms that rent server space or instructors might find that their institutions have servers available. You and the students will also need Minecraft licenses. If your students do not already have one, then there are reduced rate educational licenses. The license allows them to access the world you are creating.
- Unless your assignment requires violence and destruction, set up the game to be in “creative mode.”
- If the students are to build a specific place, then the instructor may find it easiest to import a map for the students to build on rather than turning the students loose. The students may need to study the actual sizes of the buildings they are attempting to render and then mathematically create a scale that corresponds with what surrounds their building. The building tools are rectangular. So, if you want the students to build round or curved structures, then you will want to learn about “world edit.”
- Avoid updating the game during the semester. Typically, Minecraft releases updates before the bugs are all out. For example, new updates do not always allow for the same building supplies. Therefore, work can vanish because the game no longer recognizes the building materials. This will make your students freak out.
- Servers can suffer any number of accidents. Trust me, back up the game off server. You can save it to your laptop.
- Finally, the instructor will need to become an avid reader of wikis. There are no good books on how to use Minecraft, and you won’t need one. I learned to play in less than 20 minutes. So can you. However, troubleshooting and problem solving will require that you join the Minecraft community and learn from other players’ experiences.
As they worked on their projects and discussed them, I began to notice that learning had happened. For example, they had become so entrenched in 1939 they could not see how they would ever manage to defeat Hitler, which was a common perspective in 1939. This level of investment, which came from playing in history and building their world, extended to their papers. I had not anticipated that the act of creating and imagining would impact the quality of their writing. However, it did. As one student put it,
“When comparing my papers from the beginning of the semester to my final paper, it is obvious how much my writing has developed. From my improvements in providing evidence to support my claims to just basic paper structure, it is clear how dramatic the change is. In the future, I just need to get interested in the topic and develop a proper pre-writing plan to produce similar quality papers…”
This student had built two buildings in the Minecraft world, which was the required number, and then kept building. Keep in mind that each building he made required that he spend time researching the originals. He was voluntarily doing more library research, which was the first time this had ever happened for this student. His devotion to the work inspired his classmates. Soon I found all the students were doing more work than was required. The quality of the thinking reflected in the papers demonstrated the importance of the student experience. By building 1939, they had also built the course.
“We were not just learning about history in this class,” one student wrote. “We looked deeper into the intentions of the actors in 1939.” A student in the “Lived Experience” remarked that being able to see and visit 1939 helped her to imagine better. In summing up the class, one wrote, “the class in general made me realize how important the year 1939 was for all the changes that occurred that shaped America forever.” The course taught me that technology is a tool but analytical thinking is still the goal. As history teachers consider incorporating new technology into their classrooms, it is important to not give up on the traditional objectives of studying history.
The course existed because of a grant from the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the encouragement of the SAGES program. My teaching assistant, Steven Cramer, provided essential technical support. I could not have done the class without his backing. Also, the course’s success hinged on the willingness of students. At the end of the semester, they were proud of what they had achieved. To view their work, including “Amari’s” letter to his grandchildren and the Minecraft Fair, please visit our course’s online exhibit.