Teaching Digital Anthropology Through Minecraft

By David Davies


Meeting online presents a challenge because we are synchronized in time, but not in place. While it might seem we are “together apart” like the advertisements proclaim, we aren’t together at all. Platforms like Zoom or Google Meets offer a stream of visual and audio information about what is going on in different places—making our synchronous exchanges more communicative, but the platform isn’t really anywhere. It just transfers incomplete flows of information about us across digital space that are partially translated by our nervous systems to approximate another’s humanity. We know the process is partial because it sucks, but we ignore it to continue getting things done. We are still here and they are there. It could be Earth and the Moon or Mars. We know it because we continue to lack the thing that we have together in the same place at the same time—presence. It makes sense that pandemic rebellion would be sited at bars—a ludic place of sensory revelry crammed with people breathing each other’s air and sharing space while altering their consciousnesses.

For the same reason, it also makes sense that the pandemic has driven us to digital games with their rich responsiveness and constant demands for interactive feedback. We watch others on Zoom and struggle with its incompleteness, but we play games. I don’t know what the talking heads on my Google Meet are thinking, but make-do with the information being provided. A thumbs up? Was that a smile or a grimace? They’re frozen. Glitch. Why won’t anyone turn on their cameras? Pieces of people. Bits of meaning.

Working across the lack is fatiguing and leads to some suspicion of interpretation. Did they get that? Did we accomplish what I think we did? No wonder one of the most popular games of this past year is Among Us. At least there I am free to roam around my claustrophobic space ship, interact with various items, and can alert others when someone is sus[picious], maybe resulting in an ejection from the airlock.

As we have discovered this past year, virtual spaces—especially gameworlds—have offered us the things lacking from our pandemic lives. Games are our revenge for the uncertainty and missing humanity of the pandemic. They give us virtual-world fixed rules when in our actual-world we know so little. They let us take chances in-world when we can’t adequately asses risk in real life. Games promise free movement when the pandemic has robbed us of so many everyday activities. They offer stimulation, novelty, and opportunities to safely satisfy our primate curiosities. But, most importantly, I think the best games have offered us a place to go either alone or with others. There are comforts in connecting our hands to a keyboard and mouse, suturing our consciousness to the eyes of an avatar, and heading elsewhere.

Minecraft Portal. Photo by the author.

Teaching in a Different Place

Last fall, when I considered relevant classes to offer this spring, I decided to dust off my old digital anthropology syllabus, freshly update it, and have students work on studying culture in our digitally connected, pandemic reality. Of course, when I got to thinking about teaching the class, I was not satisfied with the idea of just Zooming every class period. Certainly, there must be a more immersive place we could go to have class—a digital world where we could be present together in a virtual place. At first I thought about Second Life, but it hasn’t been updated in years and the interface is too clunky. I still have a fondness for World of Warcraft, but its only free for a short time and it’s also quite old. What about Red Dead Redemption?!

In the end, most options were too outdated, too expensive, had impractical hardware demands, or existed mostly as backdrops for player-on-player simulated violence. It’s sad that just when we all need a robust, safe, persistent and accessible massive multiplayer online world there aren’t very many from which we can choose. I even toyed with gather.town and Topia but these sites aren’t really places as much as they are roguelike worlds with proximity-based video. There isn’t really a there. I wanted an other place where my class could be together—a world where we could be virtually present together.

This brings me to Minecraft

If you haven’t ever played it, Minecraft is a beautiful and comfortable and cute immersive open-world, virtual environment. It’s rendered in blocky low-resolution and offers a low bar to entry. It isn’t threatening and is not only accessible but inviting. Kids love it for all of these reasons. My seven year-old can run around playing it for hours!

But seriously, Minecraft? A game for children? When I first considered it I wasn’t sure I could take myself seriously as a college professor to even consider it. What would that look like as a place for a college class to meet? How would it function? Could it be useful for making online class more interesting? One of my old graduate school classmates complemented me on being fearless to take on a “distracting non-learning environment.” My response was that the pandemic is the ultimate distracting non-learning environment. There is nothing to lose. To address all the issues raised above, Minecraft seemed to fit the bill. It also had the advantage of being free for everyone in my class. (Apparently my university has a site license for Minecraft Education Edition that is bundled with Microsoft products. Free is always good.)

According to our university semester schedule, our digital anthropology class is a hybrid class—meaning a mix of online and in-person work. Could we experiment with also spending time inworld?  Could we use Minecraft for some of our in-class meetings, all of them? Could it be an aid for making us all more present? Or, would we all just want to play around? Could we collectively learn how to learn in a distracting environment?

At the very least the class, Digital Anthropology, explores different questions and issues related to being human—practicing culture and interacting with machines and codes that function digitally. It seemed to me that digital anthropology during a pandemic, when so much of our day-to-day lives are spent interacting with these machines, is a great opportunity for experimenting. So: Minecraft!

First day “in class.” Photo taken by the author.

Our First Day

The first day is typically the day we review the syllabus and get ready for the semester. I figured it would be the easiest day to experiment with Minecraft. I mean, how much can go wrong reviewing a syllabus?

So I started our class in Zoom and then when we were ready everyone started firing up Minecraft. I started my classroom Minecraft world and connected a very useful supplementary piece of software Classroom Mode for Minecraft, which has some useful management commands. I instructed the students to connect and, upon successful completion, to turn off their Zoom cameras.

It felt pretty cool to watch the students turn off their Zoom cameras one-by-one knowing that they were heading somewhere else. One by one they blinked off, and one by one I saw their colorful avatars appear in the beautiful landscape of Minecraft. We met, as I instructed, in front of a digital version of my university’s signature building—Old Main—that I had constructed. After all, this is a university class!

Within a short few minutes nearly everyone had made the transfer and, with a modest bit of troubleshooting a remaining few people soon found their way. All twenty-six of us had exchanged the “flat no-place” of video conferencing with a shared world that was ours. We were all together in a virtual place. Students were flying and running around, and there was a palpable energy of novelty. It was wild.

Wanting to stay on task I led the class over to a simple classroom space that I built out of a cave in a mountainside and took a group photo.

It was fun! It was also pretty distracting. As I went through the syllabus students with real Minecraft skills began doing things that summoned all kinds of creatures. Bees started buzzing around. There was some kind of shambling giant. In the back of the class some folks were throwing digital snowballs around. In eighteen years of teaching I can honestly say I’ve never been pelted with digital snowballs in class.

After reviewing the syllabus, I set aside time for students to break into groups and meet others and briefly talk about the semester ahead. My plan was to make breakout groups in Zoom and have students use their audio to talk while moving their avatars around the world. It worked very well. I used Zoom, set some random breakout groups of four, told students to find one another, and then set out into the world to find a place to talk. Before long groups of students really did break out—they were on snowy mountaintops, on the shores of rivers and in forests. Each group took some time to build a structure to use to meet: a platform among tall trees, a glass house, a campground-looking area with lots of flowers, and others.

As the students worked I walked or flew around to each area. When I got close enough, I joined their Zoom breakout group for audio. It worked like a charm. I was able to “visit” each group and say hello. After about ten minutes, I announced that the breakout groups were ending and that everyone should wrap-up in Minecraft and reconvene back in Zoom with their cameras on. We spend some remaining moments talking about our experience, but we were quickly out of time.

Before ending the class everyone agreed that the experiment was interesting and that we should meet in Minecraft instead of in-person for the next class. I shared with them my concerns about distractions and they promised me they would make efforts to focus. We all agreed that it was worth trying to see what we could do. I think we also all agreed that Minecraft beat Zoom for engagement—at least when all we needed to do was review the syllabus and meet one another. We will see what happens next!

POSTSCRIPT: Getting Lost in a Fiery Netherworld

I don’t think this writeup would be complete without recounting what happened after class. I went in-world to clean up some things, rebuild some broken items, and check out the structures that the student groups had built.

Among the most interesting things I came upon was a mysterious purple portal at the top of a snowy peak! Of course being the curious type, I went through the portal to see where it would lead me. I was surprised to find myself transported to a hellish place of fire, lava, and brimstone. Taking a moment to explore, I promptly got lost and couldn’t find my way back to the portal.

To make a long story short, the portal had transported me to The Nether, a different Minecraft dimension, and without the portal it is impossible to get back. I imagined myself sheepishly starting class on Thursday stuck in a different dimension of a virtual world! How embarrassing! After *an hour* of unsuccessfully looking for the portal, I checked a number of YouTube videos and instructional sites to find a way back to the home dimension where my classroom is. In the end, I had to jump in a lake of lava to respawn back in the proper place.

Minecraft is an experimental solution to a real world pandemic. But I learned my lesson that there are pitfalls even in virtual worlds. How happy I was to be back!

This piece was originally published on David’s personal blog, Museum Fatigue.

David J. Davies is a Professor of Anthropology at Hamline University, Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he loves teaching and developing innovative pedagogies to share the insights of anthropology with undergraduates. His academic research has focused on the visual culture of nostalgia, museums and social memory, and the utopian aspects of corporate culture and celebrity entrepreneurship in Contemporary China. He loves gaming, is an avid bicyclist, and likes to read tough books that are over-his-head to remind himself how much more there is to learn. He blogs sundry posts at museumfatigue.org and can be reached at ddavies@hamline.edu.

About emmalouisebackeanthro

I am a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department of George Washington University, with an MA in Medical Anthropology. My research deals with the politics of care for survivors of gender-based violence in the United States and South Africa, and I do consulting work in international development and global health related to gender. I regularly tweet at @EmmaLouiseBacke.

There are 2 comments

  1. Pamela Fuller

    Goodness, thank you for this article. I am doing research for a discussion I am writing for class on pop culture and technology. I was searching for additional information about how Minecraft can be considered part of the digital humanities, and I clicked on your story. This is golden. I love that you took this avenue and I would love to hear more about it! How did it go? I haven’t looked for additional content but will surely do so once I am finished with my discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

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