11/26/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Using Minecraft for Food System Education

Creative geniuses in the education department of the American Museum of Natural History have been experimenting with the video game Minecraft to promote learning museum content. Their first experiment is a carefully constructed world within the Minecraft universe called FoodCraft. This program is meant to provide a hands on interactive tool to illuminate and explore concepts from the museum's recent exhibit Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture. As a content specialist for the exhibit, I acted as exhibit expert in FoodCraft's most recent program.

AMNH is all about learning outside a classroom, so, naturally, this concept of video game education had to be explored. In my opinion, Minecraft seems to be quite a productive way to spend one's computer time. Of course, I'm sure it's also a fantastic way to waste one's time. But the creators of FoodCraft are seeking to link into the game's unique template for user creativity and innovation. In this digital world, each player isn't told what to do, but is instead encouraged to build and create. They wanted to portray the game as a simple microcosm of the global food system, focusing on agriculture, trade and transportation. The Minecraft program is a "system" unto itself -- the world has its own physical laws and rules, is self-perpetuating and functions through the activity and innovation of interested parties; it is only natural that this may translate as a tool to learn the basics of the global food system.

The session I attended had about 15 high school students (two girls). All were already literate in Minecraft, though that was not a prerequisite. We assembled in a room with tables, chairs and laptops for everyone. A large screen at the front of the room projected the entire FoodCraft world and showed everyone scurrying around, planting seeds, watering plants, digging irrigation ditches and collecting food from the forest. This section of the game was lightly modeled on a pre-Columbian Aztec food system that was featured prominently in the Trade and Transportation section of the Our Global Kitchen exhibit. For the second half of the game, after I summarized and brought up relevant questions from the exhibit (which closed in August), players had to transport their food product on an elevated rail to trade on a global market. They learned about food spoilage, waste and infrastructure problems along the way. Upon arriving at a trading dock, they proceeded to barter for more dynamic food options.

Co-creator of Foodcraft and "Minecraft Teacher" Joel Levin, sat at the back of the room and acted as "game master." The concept here is to have an entity -- almost god-like, that watches progress from above, and essentially makes up rules as the game progresses, in order to make it more exciting and educational. For example, after the first 20 minutes, Joel thought the game was becoming too easy. Students were growing enough melons and grain to reach the point goal. He pushed a button on his laptop and spoke. "Oh no," he announced, "it looks like there was an early frost and you lost most of your crops!" Everyone looked as white pixels took over the main screen. "Why did you do that to us?" someone moaned. "Well, these things can happen in the real world," the game master answered. After this, one student forgot about growing crops and instead kept attempting to assassinate the game master's avatar. But most players remedied their situation -- with much more skill and speed than the first time around. As the game master continuously challenged the players, they were pushed to see that it is better to work as a team than as a solitary farmer and food gatherer. It is better to rest at night, although some players created torches so they could work 24 hours a day, choosing to ignore their health for the sake of gaining points.

Players were also rewarded for creativity. One student remembered that in the world of Minecraft, digging in the ground yields mushrooms that can be made into soup. He saw this as a way around any other natural disasters. The game master had to comply -- one point per bowl of mushroom soup.

Without having to memorize vocabulary words or phrases on an index card, these high school students learned elaborate concepts that pertain to real life. They learned by being tested, and they benefited from being innovative.

Myself, a non-gaming feeb of 30 years, found it a smidge alarming that students chose to chat on the game's message board rather than speak aloud to their fellow gamers. Yet, I admit that the phrase: "I ran into a cactus. Owowowowoowowo!" is more effective written. And I was heartened by everyone's genuine enthusiasm and understanding that they were involved in something quite special.