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?
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