For digital summer camp, kid-source a game (or play this one!)

By Anne Collier

One year ago this month, its 3rd-through-6th grader designers launched the fifth and final iteration of Escape to Morrow, an open source digital game they designed in Minecraft for Minecraft players. The five iterations – including writing and rewriting backstories, creating maps, finding mods (Minecraft modifications out on the Web) and producing the trailer – took a year of work in summer camp, an afterschool program, spare time and 5th graders’ class time. Two of their teachers (at the Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, N.J.) wrote the game’s kernel. They were contacted by educators in other countries wanting to collaborate with their students on a project in Minecraft. Since other countries’ daytime can be US nighttime, participation would have to be asynchronous, not the more compelling mode of simultaneous and face-to-face (on screen). That was the first constraint. But – as with any art – constraints bring out creativity. What could be just as compelling as face-to-face interaction for students? Maybe a game?

“We wanted something as engaging as the Hunger Games, socially organized by our students and as compelling as the colonial unit we [had in a previous year] designed for 3rd grade,” the teachers write, referring to a 3rd-grade American history unit for which they had students build a colony from the ground up in a “new world” (in Minecraft). So for this new challenge, “we played with the idea of what might happen if we built a world where resources were allocated only to specific areas…. Inspired by observing John Hunter play the “World Peace Game” [in a master class he gave that one of these teachers, Marianne Malmstrom, attended], our seed began to take root in the idea of creating three nations, each holding one resource needed to construct a spaceship to escape certain doom. We agreed to set some simple parameters that would require each nation to work together. Having created the basic framework, we turned the design process over to students to work out details,” including the rules of the game.

When kids write the rules

But the students are doing so much more even than collaboratively writing the rules of a game, a great exercise all by itself. They’re crafting community norms. They’re being citizens, practicing citizenship. They’re managing their learning process – they have something they need to accomplish so they figure out as they go how to complete the task together; in the process, they’re creating and maintaining community. All three elements of what – according to professor Scott Nicholson at Syracuse University – turns “gamification” into meaningful play (and learning) are involved: agency, competency and relevance (see this), elements also key to student engagement.

This is 3rd-through-6th-graders doing what a lot of adults are doing with the new Peeragogy Handbook (for peer-to-peer learning). This is the whitewater kayaking kind of learning that iterates on tacit knowledge as the new knowledge is coming in, then being replaced with newer knowledge so that adjustments are made and the next action and iteration ensues – and repeat, again and again). These students are being prepared for play, work and life on the fly.

The 5th-graders’ trailer

If you do nothing else, watch the 2 min. trailer for Escape to Morrow produced by 5th graders. The recommended playing time is “5-10 classes.” It is now being played by middle schoolers in Australia. Morrow School students and their teachers are looking forward to seeing what their Australian counterparts will do with it.

I know you got it: This is a kid-sourced, crowd-sourced, open source blend of project-based, experiential learning that doesn’t even have to be done in school. This is connected learning! This can happen all summer in either a local or transcontinental “summer camp” spontaneously set up by friends, relatives, or any combination of those setting up a Minecraft server to play Escape to Morrow and then co-creating their own games. You can crowd-source the server’s rules. Should there be no griefing, creative or survival mode, an 11 p.m. curfew? The hardest one to enforce will probably be the curfew – maybe kid-source it and see what happens. Rules can iterate too. Have fun! I’d welcome reports of what happens (it could be magical) – via anne[at] Of course, going outside and playing in non-digital spaces can be just as magical and a nice change too.

[Sidebar:] ‘Three Nations, Two Worlds, and One Chance to Survive.’

Here’s the brilliant story behind Escape to Morrow, developed collaboratively by students in grades 3, 4, 5 and 6:

“Le Story: You wake up to find yourself in your bed and smell something burning. You look out of your window and see a forest fire approaching you. You quickly turn your T.V. on and watch the news. It’s very grave news. You hear that there is a meteor storm heading to your planet called Snickerdoodle. Just as you are about to turn the T.V. off, there is amazing news! There is a planet that is able to sustain life! The T.V. suddenly goes blank and you realize your house is on fire!

“As you dash out of your house you bump into people whose houses are also on fire. They are heading to Town Hall to see what can be done about this horrible event. The Prime Minister of your nation is having a meeting. He says, ‘The inhabitants of this planet have been divided into three since the beginning. You are Redstone, Coal and Iron. Each nation has a keen amount of one resource. You will mine for these resources, and we must build rocket ships to escape the planet! I entrust all of you with the power to mine wherever you wish in our nation, and gather the needed resources. The other nations will do the same, and we will exchange our resources for theirs. We must keep the resources in balance. We must keep the communities in balance. Before I go to my meeting with the other Prime Ministers, I leave you with this. There are Three Nations, Two Worlds, and One Chance to Survive.’

“The Prime Minister walks off the podium and is hit with a fireball. Some people run to help him. Some people run away. You go to your house, get your armor and your pickaxe. And what do you do next? You mine.”

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