"Minecraft" is shaping the way kids interact with computers and learn. Photo by Gabriel Luiz / CCBY

“Minecraft” is shaping the way kids interact with computers and learn. Photo by Gabriel Luiz/CCBY

In September 2014, it was announced the Microsoft bought Mojang, developers of the wildly popular Minecraft game, for $2.5 billion. Most hailed the deal — Microsoft was trying to shed its stodgy reputation, and Minecraft is incredibly popular with young gamers. There’s commercial appeal — Minecraft is the third-best-selling game ever, and consumers buy 10,000 copies a day — but three stories that published this week explain why Minecraft‘s true value to Microsoft is  more intangible:

Minecraft introduces kids to computational thinking: Computer science educators talk about computational thinking like currency. People who can analytically try, fail, diagnose, and correct problems, as they must when coding, not only become great computer scientists, but better architects, engineers, journalists, or social workers. Governments and companies are spending millions to incorporate this type of thinking into kindergarten classes, colleges, and training programs, but Minecraft might be the best teacher of them all.

In a wonderfully researched story for The New York Times Magazine, author Clive Thompson details how the video game has become a transcending sphere for digitally native youth. He writes: “It’s more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends.”

Minecraft, unlike most software, exposes the guts of the application. It uses a command-line interface, doesn’t include instructions, employs minimalist graphics, and fosters incessant tinkering. Thus, to do much of anything in the game, players have to think like a coder. Which is why…

Minecraft could be an educational goldmine: Schools are a big deal for tech companies. Not only do they present a huge opportunity to sell hardware and software alike, but they get these products in the hands of young, impressionable potential customers.

For years, Microsoft owned schools; as recently as 2013, Windows was the operating system in 58 percent of devices shipped to schools. But in just two years, that share has fallen to 43 percent. In response, Microsoft is investing heavily in applications and project management software aimed at assisting teachers and enabling students. When it comes to student engagement, Microsoft already owns one piece of software school-age kids know and love: Minecraft. The company also acquired MinecraftEDU, a version of the game designed for teachers, but the standard game is a method for teaching any lesson that requires — you guessed it — computational thinking.

Minecraft is an AI tool: Every major tech firm is working on some form of artificial intelligence, but teaching a computer all the things is kinda tricky. Thus, developers have come up with a new strategy: Send bare bones AI bots into Minecraft, where all of life’s lessons can be learned.

The game lets algorithms navigate 3D spaces and, eventually, make decisions. A virtual training ground is good: Minecraft is more forgiving to, say, self-driving-car AI than an interstate highway is. So just as we use Minecraft to teach kids how to think analytically, it appears we’ll do the same with the AI algorithms that will someday take over the world and turn everything into cubes so it looks more like home.

The sum of these three parts could be something no single game has ever accomplished: Embedding its parent (Microsoft) into the latest wave of digital culture.


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