Though he had heard of game-based learning and knew he was "kind of doing it," Levin was unfamiliar with the research emphasizing the educational value of some video games. Studies published over the past two decades support the idea that video games can increase students’ spatial knowledge, improving their aptitude for math and science. And video games can help give students the hard skills they will need to function in a digital world, such as physical dexterity with keyboards and touch screens, an understanding of algorithms and search engines, and even basic programming. "Games are also uniquely suited to fostering the skills necessary for navigating a complex, interconnected, rapidly changing 21st century," Alan Gershenfeld, the president of videogame publisher E-Line Media, told Scientific American.
Levin knew that he had stumbled onto something great by bringing Minecraft into the classroom, so when Finnish educator and gamer Santeri Koivisto found his blog and approached him about founding a company to make a version of Minecraft for educators, he couldn’t say no.
Three years since its inception, TeacherGaming now has nine employees that have worked to create MinecraftEdu, which has been sold to schools in 42 countries and six continents. TeacherGaming licenses Minecraft from Mojang, the small Swedish company that created the game and is now owned by Microsoft, and sells the educational version that incorporates many of Levin’s original modifications. MinecraftEdu also has some new elements based on teacher feedback and beta testing, like the ability to freeze students mid-play.
But Levin and his colleagues knew that, for MinecraftEdu to make its way across the curriculum, they had to lower the technological barriers, replacing complex code with intuitive check boxes or in-game tools designed for teachers to use even if they’re not hardcore programmers. Levin noted that TeacherGaming sells about half its software to technology classrooms, but the other half is evenly distributed across other subjects.
This is where Levin has seen incredible displays of teachers’ own creativity, especially from those who try to use MinecraftEdu to fulfill Common Core standards, the universal math and reading benchmarks for students at each grade level. Though MinecraftEdu is a great tool, Levin admits that the game doesn’t perfectly align with many of these standards, so innovative teachers have developed new ways of using the software to satisfying the requirements. "TeacherGaming does have curriculum, we have Minecraft ‘worlds’ that you can download and use in your own classroom, but teachers didn’t want to download what we were making—they wanted to make their own experiences," Levin said. History teachers make Minecraft dioramas, English teachers have kids act out Shakespeare plays in a model of the Globe Theater, and art teachers let students recreate famous works of art in the game. Now, Levin says that teachers have created 98 percent of the downloadable "worlds" in the MinecraftEdu forum.