Minecraft is not your average video game. It’s phenomenally popular, yes, with more than 40 million people playing it every month. But Minecraft is a crossover hit: it’s the rare game that’s big among four-year-olds and forty-year-olds alike, and it boasts more female players than many other hit games. The second-bestselling game of all time, Minecraft has proven itself to be an enduring cultural phenomenon.
It’s also unique because it’s no longer just a form of entertainment: its endearing world of textured cubes is officially becoming an education product.
Microsoft snapped up the company behind Minecraft, Mojang, in 2014. Since the acquisition, one of Microsoft’s top priorities for Minecraft has been to develop it as a classroom tool. For years educators have been using the original game and its modified versions (mods) to teach subjects as diverse as ancient Roman history and computer programming. This flexibility has led Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a video game designer, to hail Minecraft as the equivalent of Legos or a microcomputer for the younger generation.
“It’s game-changing because of the way it has broken the market and cultural barriers between commercially successful entertainment games and educational games,” says Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine who focuses on learning and new media. “Specific educational features of Minecraft — shared virtual world, construction tools, hackability— are not new, but what’s really new is the fact that it has been put together in a package that is embraced at a massive scale by kids, parents, and educators.”
This fall, Microsoft plans to weaponize Minecraft in the war for classroom mind-share by selling an education edition. It could prove an unexpected advantage in Microsoft’s increasingly fierce battle with rivals Google and, to a lesser degree, Apple over the education market. Microsoft’s Windows operating system still rules the global education market, but Google Chromebooks, which are cheaper laptops designed to run Chrome OS and primarily use online apps, have grown to dominate U.S. classrooms. In 2015, Chromebooks topped 50 percent of personal computer sales in the U.S. K-12 education market for the first time, with Windows PCs trailing at 22 percent, according to a Futuresource Consulting report.
Microsoft has also been dueling with Google over education software, especially for managing and grading assignments. In April, it announced a Microsoft Classroom update to its Office 365 cloud service as a direct challenge to the Google Classroom and Google Apps for Education platforms. But a version of Minecraft tailored to K-12 classrooms could prove the truest arrow yet in Microsoft’s quiver as the tech giant aims to win over educators and students.
By the time Microsoft acquired Minecraft, the game was five years old and had sold more than 50 million copies for PCs, smartphones, and video game consoles.
The game’s popularity grew in part because it was accessible: plenty of four-year-olds could start playing it with almost no instruction. But advanced players stayed engaged by discovering a complex world of hidden in-game mechanics and additional creative possibilities through player-made mods. In the game’s Survival Mode, players must withstand attacks by monsters while figuring out how to mine resources, farm animals, and crops; they also have to craft increasingly complex tools and technologies. In the sandbox-style Creative Mode, a player might build a virtual version of the Eiffel Tower. Or recreate the city of King’s Landing from the HBO show Game of Thrones. Or construct a working 32-bit calculator within the game.
But by 2014, Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson had grown weary of managing the expectations and complaints of Minecraft’s player community. When he posted a half-joking message on Twitter asking if anyone wanted to buy him out, big companies took notice. He entertained offers from video game behemoths Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts before eventually going with Microsoft, according to Forbes Magazine.
On September 15, 2014, Microsoft announced the $2.5 billion deal to purchase Persson’s company, Mojang, and the rights to Minecraft. He and his co-founders gracefully bowed out and handed over the reins to Microsoft.
Most media attention at the time focused on how Microsoft could leverage the game to bolster its mobile presence and prop up the popularity of Windows. The following year, journalists gravitated toward Microsoft’s demonstration of an augmented-reality Minecraft as seen through HoloLens goggles. But a few shrewd observers pointed to education as the place where Microsoft could get a major boost out of Minecraft.
In the two years since Microsoft’s acquisition of Mojang, Minecraft has continued to collect new players by the cartful. Sales have doubled to almost 107 million copies sold as of June 2016. If you were to count each copy sold as representing one person, the resulting population would be the world’s 12th largest country (after Japan). In 2016 alone, Minecraft has sold more than 53,000 copies on average each day.
But Microsoft has bigger plans for the game of cubes and creepers. Earlier this year, the tech giant made another acquisition that led directly to its new Minecraft: Education Edition initiative.
The MinecraftEdu story begins in 2011 with Joel Levin, a computer teacher at a New York City private school. Levin became a leader in Minecraft education by blogging about how he was using the original game in his classroom. He eventually joined two Finnish entrepreneurs in co-founding Teacher Gaming LLC and licensing Minecraft to create MinecraftEdu, a modified version that gives educators the tools to create lessons within the game.
By the time Microsoft approached Teacher Gaming, MinecraftEdu had been deployed in 7,000 classrooms across 40 countries. On January 19 this year, Microsoft announced it had bought MinecraftEdu and planned to build out its own version of Minecraft for classrooms called Minecraft: Education Edition.
Minecraft: Education Edition promises classroom management tools that will allow teachers to more easily coordinate students in a multiplayer environment. New tools will let teachers create their own lessons or use ready-made lesson plans, such as “City Planning for Population Growth,” “Exploring Factors and Multiples,” or “Effects of Deforestation,” according to a Microsoft spokesperson.
In June, Microsoft announced a free early access version of Education Edition. “More than 25,000 students and educators in over 40 countries around the world experienced the early access program and provided feedback to help us fine-tune the product,” says a Microsoft spokesperson. So far, though, not every feature of Education Edition is being met with whoops of joy. For example, Microsoft chose to include in the game virtual chalkboards — a decidedly old-fashioned tool plunked down into a 21st-century game.
“I would like it if what Microsoft had to say is that schools should be more like Minecraft, not that Minecraft should be more like a classroom,” said Chad Sansing, a web literacy curriculum developer at Mozilla and a former teacher, in a Motherboard interview.
UC-Irvine’s Mimi Ito, in her work using Minecraft to educate kids, has found the game better suited to less formal, more kid-native uses. In mixed-age summer camps and after-school programs, for example, she’s seen teenagers mentoring younger kids on shared Minecraft projects. “It’s magical for kids to connect with and learn from experts who are just a little bit older than them and who are passionate about the same things,” Ito says.
By tailoring Minecraft to formal school settings, Microsoft runs the risk of sacrificing some of the game’s inherent strengths. But it’s still a no-brainer for Microsoft to leverage Minecraft in its broader struggle with Google for control of the education market. Google may have Google Classroom to match Microsoft Classroom, but there’s nothing else quite like Minecraft.
Even if Minecraft: Education Edition falls short of conquering classrooms, plenty of schools, libraries, museums and summer camps will continue using the original game to captivate kids in more freewheeling learning environments. All Microsoft has to do is keep supporting it.
“I’ve been studying learning games and edutainment for 20 years,” Ito says, “and I actually never believed there would be a game that would really cross over between the commercial entertainment market and education in a mainstream way.”
Microsoft is right to keep burnishing its unusual jewel. When the kids get out of school, they’ll still be spending hours playing in their generation’s shared virtual sandbox. And wherever Minecraft goes, Microsoft is there.