Our friend Dave Bolman over at the University of Advancing Technology turned us on to this great piece in the New York Times Magazine. Thanks Dave!
How a clunky Swedish computer game is teaching
millions of children to master the digital world.
Jordan wanted to build an unpredictable trap.
An 11-year-old in dark horn-rimmed glasses, Jordan is a devotee of Minecraft, the computer game in which you make things out of virtual blocks, from dizzying towers to entire cities. He recently read “The Maze Runner,” a sci-fi thriller in which teenagers live inside a booby-trapped labyrinth, and was inspired to concoct his own version — something he then would challenge his friends to navigate.
Jordan built a variety of obstacles, including a deluge of water and walls that collapsed inward, Indiana Jones-style. But what he really wanted was a trap that behaved unpredictably. That would really throw his friends off guard. How to do it, though? He obsessed over the problem.
Then it hit him: the animals! Minecraft contains a menagerie of virtual creatures, some of which players can kill and eat (or tame, if they want pets). One, a red-and-white cowlike critter called a mooshroom, is known for moseying about aimlessly. Jordan realized he could harness the animal’s movement to produce randomness. He built a pen out of gray stones and installed “pressure plates” on the floor that triggered a trap inside the maze. He stuck the mooshroom inside, where it would totter on and off the plates in an irregular pattern.
Presto: Jordan had used the cow’s weird behavior to create, in effect, a random-number generator inside Minecraft. It was an ingenious bit of problem-solving, something most computer engineers I know would regard as a great hack — a way of coaxing a computer system to do something new and clever.
When I visited Jordan at his home in New Jersey, he sat in his family’s living room at dusk, lit by a glowing iMac screen, and mused on Minecraft’s appeal. “It’s like the earth, the world, and you’re the creator of it,” he said. On-screen, he steered us over to the entrance to the maze, and I peered in at the contraptions chugging away. “My art teacher always says, ‘No games are creative, except for the people who create them.’ But she said, ‘The only exception that I have for that is Minecraft.’ ” He floated over to the maze’s exit, where he had posted a sign for the survivors: The journey matters more than what you get in the end.