Video games could offer greater engagement than classrooms


Video games may have the potential to offer a more engaging educational experience than that offered in a traditional classroom setting, a new paper from a University of Texas at Dallas reports. Using a modified or “modded” version of the popular building and creation game Minecraft, researchers were able to educate students on chemistry and its principals with no traditional classroom instruction.

The research team consisted of  39 college students from differing majors.The students were asked to  participate in the team’s Minecraft mod, entitled Polycraft World. In its original form, Minecraft allows players to combine raw materials that they collect in the game world to form items.

As an example, players can combine a certain ratio of wooden sticks and iron ingots to form a sword, while combining these materials in different ratios and arrangements can create in different items, such as a pickaxe or a shovel.

Polycraft World builds on this game mechanic, adding the ability to combine chemical ingredients to the mix. Just as a player can combine iron ingots and wooden sticks in Minecraft, Polycraft World allows players to balance chemical reactants and form new materials, such as Kevlar.

With the added instruction of a Wiki website that researchers created, students can combine these new materials to create highly desirable tools to help progress in the game, including flamethrowers, jetpacks, plastic chests and pogo sticks.

The researchers discovered that teaching chemistry entirely through students playing Polycraft World produced positive results.  One of the co-authors of the paper, Dr. Christina Thompson, taught a class entitled “Video Games and Learning” at the University of Texas at Dallas that utilized Polycraft World. She had each student play the game over the course of the semester, with no in-class scientific instruction given.

Students were required to pass certain checkpoints within the game, guaranteeing that they had played the game long enough to test for the researchers’ theories. During the 11th week of the class, students were given a pop quiz on the subject matter taught in Polycraft World.

Results of the quiz showed that in the Fall semester of the class, five out of 13 students could draw a crude oil distillation tree to three levels of distillation—a skill only taught to them within the game. Similar results were found with the Spring semester version of the class, with four out of 13 students being able to draw the tree to its third level with no prior traditional instruction on the subject. Researchers also found that the further students progressed in the game, the more they could correctly identify polymers by their acronyms.

“It’s quite difficult to make a good video game, much less the rare good game that is also educational,” said Dr. Monica Evans, another co-author of the paper, in a press release. “The ingenuity of the Polycraft team is that they’ve harnessed the global popularity of an existing game, Minecraft, and transformed it into something that is explicitly educational with a university-level subject.”

Students were not required to memorize any of the game or its mechanics, nor were they being graded on their skills. Whatever the students learned about chemistry, asserts the research team, was through their own volition and play experience.

Polycraft World is based on the popular video game Minecraft, where players can build items through collecting raw materials. Photo by: Agata  Poniatowski

“There’s a preconception among some that video games are an inherent evil,” said Dr. Ronald Smaldone, another co-author of the paper, in a press release. “Yet in a rudimentary form, we’ve made a group of non-chemistry students mildly proficient in understanding polymer chemistry. I have no doubt that if you scaled that up to more students, it would still work.”

Though the initial results of Polycraft World are promising, the research team explained in the paper that its sample size was small; and more information would be needed before any conclusive results could be drawn.

However, the team still had a positive outlook on the future of video games in the educational sphere. In the concluding paragraphs of the paper, they suggesting that more educational games must be made to fit the learning style of students.

While Polycraft World may be successful with some students, it will not be successful with all, leaving opportunities for a similar niche to be filled by other video games.