Lessons Learned from Camp Minecraft

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Game designers know a lot about failure and iteration. Getting a play concept right on the first (or 50th!) try happens infrequently and as a result, game designers quickly learn to traffic in the space of possibility—what if we did this? What if we changed that? Feedback from players fuels the iterative design cycle, helping to push a game from alpha through beta and beyond.

Minecraft, the ridiculously popular game about placing and breaking blocks in a 3D world was designed, developed, and released in collaboration with its player community over a period of more than two years between alpha and beta. During that time features were added, tested and iterated upon—sometimes daily—until the dev team and the community deemed a certain level of fun to have been reached. And then the iteration continued.

Camp Minecraft, part of a Connected Learning Alliance project called Pursuitery, was an outgrowth of this design methodology. The camp, which ran from July 14 to August 6, 2014, provided a friendly and open virtual space where 250 kids played Minecraft together. The camp offered both a space to play, as well as experts who helped kids solve various challenges. The camp only required a valid Minecraft account; access to the server was free.

The camp was run as a pilot designed to better explore the ways in which the interests of young people could be supported, how pathways toward mastery and expertise could be made evident, and how the affordances of “in-the-wild” online communities, like those that have grown up around Minecraft, could serve as models for new kinds of learning communities. Three key takeaways emerged from the pilot:
 
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Kids often grief by accident
Camp Minecraft took place on a multiplayer server, an environment that was new to many of the campers, and their inexperience showed. Multiplayer play is social play—kids are building and playing in a virtual social world, one that comes with all the human complexities of a real-world playground. Learning how to communicate, share, respect boundaries, collaborate and negotiate can be challenging for anyone (kids and adults alike). During the camp, as kids learned the social ropes they sometimes made choices that reflected their inexperience—building on someone else’s plot, dismantling someone else’s structure, flooding chat channels with what amounted to spam. Other players experienced these choices as griefing.

Griefing in games can be a big problem as it destroys the experience of fun for players. Reports of griefing are taken seriously, and no less so during Camp Minecraft. Counselors were quick to investigate any report that came in and took action, where necessary, to kick or ban players. But they found that in the vast majority of cases griefing issues were due to a misunderstanding between players and their boundaries, rather than malicious intent. Kids didn’t mean to grief; they just didn’t understand how to communicate. Counselors refined their approach to griefing based on this realization, supporting players in reflecting on the “whys” of their choices and their responses, rather than excluding them from play.

Kids get invested
Camp Minecraft was scheduled to run for three weeks, during which time the cohort of campers did what kids at camp do—they made friends, leveled up their skills, and formed a unique community, defined by their passions and interests. They also built a lot of stuff. A world that had started out as a blank canvas had been filled to the gills, with all manner and form of built creations. It became obvious to the camp organizers that the campers were heavily invested in their creations and communities. Simply shutting down the server at the end of camp would not only destroy the Minecraft world, but also the community of which so many kids had become part. The server survived and many of the campers are still playing on it today, a year after the camp officially ended.
 
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Challenges provide purpose
The sandbox nature of Minecraft appeals to so many because of the freedom it affords players to pursue any idea they might come up with. Players tap into this LEGO-ish quality and let their imaginations run wild. This can lead to a lot of invention but also, within the context of a community-based experience like Camp Minecraft, to chaos and fragmentation. In response, the camp experimented with weekly player spotlights and challenges that provided structure and encouraged players to work together toward a shared purpose. Players could choose to participate in spotlights or challenges and could do so on their own schedule. This flexibility both empowered the campers and gave them a structure to hang on to, one that allowed for solutions as variable as the interests of the campers themselves.

The second iteration of the camp—Summer of Minecraft—is now underway, its design influenced by these three key takeaways, and others like them. Produced by Connected Camps in collaboration with Institute of Play, the camp runs from July 6 to August 2, with specialized one-week blocks of coding camp offered weekly during that same period. Camp activities give kids a chance to level up their design, building, and social skills in a safe, moderated multiplayer environment staffed by expert high-school and college mentors. There is a camp for grown-ups as well, which runs on a separate server, and allows parents to learn about the game and follow what’s going on with their kids. Visit Connected Camps to register and learn more. Use discount code G4C30 for 30% off Online Kid Camp.

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