GameStart: Minecraft Class Is Now In Session

Connor Shaughnessy says video games are art just like books or plays, yet no one would ever question a parent for letting his or her child read.
"People definitely do ask, 'Why do you let your child play so many video games?'" Shaughnessy says. "I think part of that stigma is people don't understand how educational a video game can be. Anything that has a plot, character, themes, identifiable choices -- there's as much to be learned there as from any piece of art."
Shaugnessy is an educator at GameStart, an Ann Arbor program offering classes in video game design for kids in 3rd-8th grades. Programmer and GameStart cofounder Nate Aschenbach originally hatched the idea last year and brought friend David Arditti, a former teacher, on board. The two pitched the idea to some of their friends and coworkers at software company Menlo Innovations, recruiting Shaughnessy and marketing specialist Sarah Turner to form a core team. 
Organizers purchased ten inexpensive mini-computers called Raspberry Pis last spring to begin offering GameStart's first classes at the Ann Arbor Learning Community. Aschenbach says the group planned a comprehensive curriculum with courses in animation, game design and programming. But a class on the world-building game of Minecraft took on a life of its own at last summer's Maker Faire. Working out of a Menlo-sponsored booth at the Faire, the GameStart team offered 30-minute Minecraft mini-classes to wildly enthusiastic response.
"People were emailing us after Maker Faire and asking, 'When's your first class?'" Turner says. "And we're like, 'We don't know! We just got started.'"
GameStart began offering beginning and advanced Minecraft classes out of Menlo's offices last September. Each class is presented in a series of six 90-minute Saturday-morning sessions. Interest has remained strong for the latest series, which began in January and attracts a group of about 30 kids per week, some coming from as far away as Mount Pleasant. The class atmosphere is focused and fun. Instructors guide the lesson, but kids are given the freedom to experiment.
"They're very nice and flexible," says 10-year-old GameStart student Jeremi Forman-Duranona. "They'll be serious when they need to, but they'll also be nice and give us some free time."
Forman-Duranona was a big fan of Minecraft long before his first GameStart session. But his father, David Forman, says the class has taught his son how to restructure the game himself, applying practical concepts along the way.
"One day he came home, he was showing me a Minecraft world, and he said, 'You know, Dad, a Minecraft block is equivalent to a meter in the real world,'" Forman says. "The whole unit-conversion thing was just part of the fun he was having."
Shaughnessy says Minecraft gameplay is "innate" to most students, which makes it an ideal way to teach programming concepts. The beginning class covers topics including Python programming, conditional statements, loops and functions. Arditti says GameStart based its curriculum on the Michigan Department of Education's Common Core Standards for algebraic thinking, geometry and measurement.
"The value is stated from the get-go," he says. "But the more important part is that it's something that [kids] are interested in, so it's kind of a trick. Any teacher will tell you [kids] need to be engaged if they're going to be learning."
The Minecraft classes have been successful enough to fund the purchase of more Raspberry Pis and traditional computers, and to start paying GameStart staffers. Having gotten off to a successful start, the GameStart team is making a number of ambitious plans for the future. Aschenbach says the overarching goal is to refocus on a broad-ranging curriculum, where Minecraft would be just one of several class options. 
"Our hope for this is once you've taken each of the classes, you've touched a piece of everything you need to know to make a video game," he says.
Aschenbach says the program could eventually adopt a format similar to rock band schools, where kids take turns learning different parts of the process -- programming, storytelling, design -- and then come together to collaborate on an original game of their own.
"Today they come in, set up in a little environment and then they go home," Aschenbach says. "Hopefully that'll turn into something that looks like an open lab of computers where we're helping to mentor them as they pursue their own ideas, instead of the more confined sandbox we have today."
GameStart will debut classes in computer animation and video editing in March at Menlo.  Organizers will also host a series of classes on storytelling through computer animation at the Ann Arbor District Library starting in March. Turner says the storytelling-focused class is part of an effort to get more female students involved at GameStart. The current crop of students is only 12 percent girls.
"The boys are like, 'I want to build the biggest cube that I can out of lava,'" she says. "We've observed when we do get girls in the Minecraft class, they really want to tell a story about their house."
In another major expansion of the program's efforts, GameStart will begin offering classes at the Washtenaw County Youth Center's juvenile detention program this week through a partnership with Youth Arts Alliance. Organizers say that plays into a much longer-term dream for the program: offering technology labs and training for disadvantaged kids in communities like Detroit or Flint. 
"I think one of the most vital things that this organization has the potential to do is enfranchise children who wouldn't have the opportunity to be exposed to these technologies and these ways of learning," Shaughnessy says. "I can't think of anything more fun or more noble to be doing than teaching kids who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity through video games."
After the progress GameStart has made in less than a year, it's not too difficult to imagine the program continuing to take off -- especially given the enthusiastic team behind it.
"For me, a lot of it is just having fun," Aschenbach says. "We're all good friends and would hang out anyways. This is just a really good cause and a good reason to do that."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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