Mastering [Minecraft] requires rigorously logical thinking, as well as a great deal of debugging: When your device isn’t working, you have to carefully go over its circuitry to figure out what’s wrong. One fifth grader I visited, Natalie, was assembling a redstone door on her iPad while I watched. But nothing happened when she flicked the “on” lever. “I did that wrong,” she said with a frown, and began tracing her way through the circuit. Eventually the problem emerged: A piece of redstone was angled incorrectly, sending the current in the wrong direction.
This is what computer scientists call computational thinking, and it turns out to be one of Minecraft’s powerful, if subtle, effects. The game encourages kids to regard logic and if-then statements as fun things to mess around with. It teaches them what computer coders know and wrestle with every day, which is that programs rarely function at first: The work isn’t so much in writing a piece of software but in debugging it, figuring out what you did wrong and coming up with a fix.
“Minecraft is thus an almost perfect game for our current educational moment, in which policy makers are eager to increase kids’ interest in the “STEM” disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. Schools and governments have spent millions on “let’s get kids coding” initiatives, yet it may well be that Minecraft’s impact will be greater. This is particularly striking given that the game was not designed with any educational purpose in mind.