With schools closed and many a parent thrust into the difficult role of managing a job, a household and a child's education, here's one unexpected bit of positive news to emerge from the coronavirus outbreak: Video games are good for your brain. Well, some games, at least.
"Minecraft," the Microsoft-owned game known for its user-driven content, creative use of blocks and monsters that come out at night, has been at the forefront of mainstream games that utilize educational content. The studio's "Minecraft: Education Edition" has for the last few years played host to virtual curricula that have allowed students to visit and learn about global monuments, sharpen math skills, understand coding or take puzzle-filled explorations to places as varied as the human body or a NASA-approved jaunt into the International Space Station.
Much of this content, which was at first fueled by educators in the "Minecraft" community before Microsoft brought it in-house in 2016, had previously been available only to schools and teachers and worked in tandem with Microsoft educational accounts. In March, however, Microsoft made an assortment of "Minecraft's" popular educational tools available for free, with easier access for all players via the "Minecraft Marketplace."
And players have flocked to it.
Microsoft reports that there have been more than 50 million downloads globally of educational content since it was made available for free March 24. It's further evidence that virtual worlds are not just places to play or escape but vessels to learning, connecting or even taking part in digital events. Just this weekend, for instance, "Minecraft" was home to a mock commencement ceremony for UC Berkeley, which featured remarks from Chancellor Carol T. Christ alongside musical performances. It was one of many "Minecraft" graduation ceremonies happening around the globe.
The UC Berkeley event, said Helen Chiang, the studio head at "Minecraft" developer Mojang Studios, happened organically. When viewed alongside more commercially minded endeavors, such as rapper Travis Scott unleashing a single in "Fortnite" via an interactive experience that attracted more than 27 million participants, this pandemic moment is arguably accelerating an entertainment and cultural landscape in which persistent and evolving virtual worlds don't just live alongside content crafted by traditional media gatekeepers but become equally as vital.
How it all evolves is something of an unknown, as evidenced by the fact that "Minecraft's" own educational suite was birthed via the game-playing community rather than with the company behind it.
"The example right now of universities and college campuses," says Chiang, discussing "Minecraft" graduations at schools around the globe, "it actually would have been really difficult for us to re-create all these colleges. The fact that we have a tool that passionate Berkeley students can go build their campus, and passionate MIT students can build their campus, that's where the magic happens. It is not that we do all of these things."
While no one knows yet how the gaming audience will shift when the world begins to emerge from the grips of COVID-19, it's become clear that interactive entertainment is uniquely positioned for this moment. Almost daily we discover inventive tactics that users are wielding – not just via "Minecraft" or "Fortnite" but also "Animal Crossing," Nintendo's friendly, task-filled game that has become a coronavirus-era phenomena.
"Minecraft," which is turning 11 and is considered by many to be the top-selling game of all time, has now sold more than 200 million copies, says Chiang, and boasts 126 million active monthly players. In April alone, the game saw a 25% increase in new users over the previous month. People are also playing together – "Minecraft's" multiplayer sessions surged 40% in April.
While "Minecraft's" popularity has never been in doubt, as Mojang Studios gets deeper into the game's second decade, the company has been looking to expand the "Minecraft" brand. Mojang recently released the augmented-reality mobile game "Minecraft Earth" and on May 26 will issue the hack-and-slash game "Minecraft Dungeons" across multiple platforms. For high-end PC users, the studio is also tinkering with graphical enhancements for "Minecraft."
But the studio is also having to adjust to a work-from-home lifestyle. While complications related to the current health crisis caused a brief delay in the release of "Minecraft Dungeons," Chiang is optimistic that there are lessons to be learned from the remote-work environment that can translate to the office.
For instance, Chiang says, while office life may provide many efficiencies for large companies, remote work has also allowed for some democratization. Online tools can provide participatory options for those who may not feel comfortable raising their hand in a meeting room.
"One of the things I love seeing is how much more inclusive a lot of the conversations can be. I think when you're in the office and you try to fit into a conference room there are different configurations of teams that come in for the conversation," Chiang says. "But one of our big teams did a planning exercise where they took the entire team virtually off site to plan for the next year. That's something that would have actually been pretty difficult to do in person because it's hard to hear 100 different voices when you're in the room together. But them doing that planning exercise together online in a remote situation was actually more productive. You can hear more voices in that situation."
Looking ahead, "Minecraft" has pledged to keep its educational assets free and available to non-educators at least through June 30. Chiang also sees the company continuing to experiment with bringing "Minecraft" to players outside of the core game, as witnessed by "Minecraft Earth" and "Minecraft Dungeons."
"That is definitely something we're very deliberate and focused on," Chiang says. "Our players have been telling us for years that they want more versions of 'Minecraft.' The most popular question is, 'Where is "Minecraft 2"?' There really isn't a 'Minecraft 2,' but options like 'Minecraft Earth' and 'Minecraft Dungeons' are ways we can continue to build out the 'Minecraft' franchise."