Minecraft is the hot new videogame among teachers and parents. It’s considered genuinely educational: Like an infinite set of programmable Lego blocks, it’s a way to instill spatial reasoning, math, and logic—the skills beloved by science and technology educators. But from what I’ve seen, it also teaches something else: good old-fashioned reading and writing.
How does it do this? The secret lies not inside the game itself but in the players’ activities outside of it. Minecraft is surrounded by a culture of literacy. The game comes with minimal instructions or tutorials, so new players immediately set about hunting for info on how it works. That means watching YouTube videos of experts at play, of course, but it also means poring over how-to texts at Minecraft wikis and “walk-through” sites, written by gamers for gamers. Or digging into printed manuals like The Ultimate Player’s Guide to Minecraft or the official Minecraft Redstone Handbook, some of which are now best sellers.
This is complex, challenging material. I analyzed several chunks of The Ultimate Player’s Guide using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale, and they scored from grade 8 to grade 11. Yet in my neighborhood they’re being devoured by kids in the early phases of elementary school. Games, it seems, can motivate kids to read—and to read way above their level. This is what Constance Steinkuehler, a games researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discovered. She asked middle and high school students who were struggling readers (one 11th-grade student read at a 6th-grade level) to choose a game topic they were interested in, and then she picked texts from game sites for them to read—some as difficult as first-year-college language. The kids devoured them with no help and nearly perfect accuracy.
How could they do this? “Because they’re really, really motivated,” Steinkuehler tells me. It wasn’t just that the students knew the domain well; there were plenty of unfamiliar words. But they persisted more because they cared about the task. “It’s situated knowledge. They see a piece of language, a turn of phrase, and they figure it out.”
Hannah Gerber, a literacy researcher at Sam Houston State University, found much the same thing. She monitored several 10th-grade students at school and at home and saw that they read only 10 minutes a day in English class—but an astonishing 70 minutes at home as they boned up on games. Again, it was challenging stuff. Steinkuehler found that videogame sites devoted to World of Warcraft, for example, are written at nearly 12th-grade level, with a 2 to 6 percent incidence of “academic” jargon.
Passion for games drives writing too. When Steinkuehler informally observes kids contributing to game sites and discussions online, she sees serious craft. “Suddenly, being a writer is sexy and hip and cool. They have an audience that knows their stuff, and they expect you to be knowledgeable,” she says. What about fiction? Oh, games have you covered there too: Behold the teeming seas of Minecraft fan stories at sites like FanFiction.net or Wattpad. My kids are deep into a trilogy of Minecraft novellas—written by a 13-year-old girl in Missouri.
I’m praising Minecraft, but nearly all games have this effect. The lesson here is the same one John Dewey instructed us in a century ago: To get kids reading and writing, give them a real-world task they care about. These days that’s games.