Two chemists, a materials scientist and a game developer (all professors), have created a Minecraft expansion designed to sneakily teach chemistry and engineering concepts. They used the mod as part of a college course and found preliminary results that suggest it works reasonably well.

The goal, the group writes in Nature Chemistry, was to create an educational game that didn’t feel like work, but rather would “excite [students] so much that they would consume it without needing to be assigned it.” The Polycraft World expansion had two central guiding principles: “the science we add must be accurate, and it must add something fun to the game.”

Much like vanilla Minecraft, Polycraft World requires players to combine materials to generate items, but it adds in accurate chemical processes to get there. “If you combine the right reactants (in a chemically balanced way) you will get a new material such as Kevlar,” the researchers explain. They wanted to create a strong natural incentive to learn the practical concepts by allowing players to generate items like jetpacks and flamethrowers. Polycraft World uses an online wiki to teach users how to play, as in vanilla Minecraft.

Chemist Christina Thompson took the mod for a test drive with a group of 26 students. As a non-graded part of a class called “Video Games and Learning,” students were asked to play Polycraft World up to a certain point. At no point were they taught anything scientific, and they were never asked to learn anything from the game.

After 11 weeks, the students were given a pop quiz on polymer science. Around half of the students were able to draw a substantial part of the crude oil distillation process, and the majority were able to identify easy-to-make polymers used in the game. A small group of students was even able to identify more advanced polymers.

As the researchers note, the sample size here is small enough that it’s not much more than anecdotal evidence, but it’s still encouraging. These students, they point out, “learned the real-world processes required to get benzene from crude oil because they wanted to make jetpacks in a video game.” One thing not clear from this exercise is whether the students would have enjoyed the game enough to get to their assigned stage without being asked to.

The researchers think that gaming holds huge promise as an educational tool, especially as remote education becomes more popular. The medium of games itself is particularly well-designed for education, they argue. Not only do games allow people to progress at their own pace and fail in a constructive way, but they are pretty much the definition of intense focus and motivation: “Humans have collectively spent more than 1.75 billion hours of their time playing … Minecraft, which if measured linearly would predate the birth of Homo Sapiens.”

Still, although there have been successful educational games—think Oregon Trail and Kerbal Space ProgramPolycraft World was the first real stab at using games to replace a traditional educational course. And it relies on software that’s useful for teaching. Minecraft has the advantage of logging data that would allow a hypothetical teacher to keep track of how people are doing, recording how many attempts a student needs to create a particular polymer or how fast they’re progressing through the game.

Right now, digital tools that resemble games in some way are quite widely used in education, but most of these tools aren’t intended to be fun in their own right (or they try, but don’t cut it). Educational games that genuinely create motivation to progress could be a powerful and valuable tool. Even though that’s a far-off possibility, there’s a more immediate opportunity, the researchers suggest: partnerships between academia and game developers could enrich existing games, like Civilization, to be more robustly accurate and educational.

Minecraft expansion successfully tricks students into learning