The Cubist Revolution: Minecraft For All

13 hours ago
Originally published on August 8, 2017 7:27 am

The cubist revolution, now in its eighth year, is thriving.

That's Minecraft cubes, of course.

The game where you build virtual Lego-like worlds and populate them with people, animals and just about everything in between is one of the most popular games ever made; it's second only to Tetris as the best-selling video game of all time. There's gold in them thar cubes: More than 120 million copies have sold since Minecraft launched in 2009.*

So what's behind the game's enduring appeal?

For Isiah Hammonds, 9, it's all about the creative potential every time you fire up your computer.

"You can build anything – anything that you put your mind to! You can work with other people. It's social. It's just super fun!" he says while focusing intensely on finishing his virtual ice arena with his multi-player team of fellow Minecraft campers in Richmond, Calif. "It's for our ice boat racing."

Hammonds, a third-grader, is in a basement room in Richmond's City Hall, next to the cafeteria and a janitor's closet. There are long, narrow white tables with black computer monitors on top.

A lot of tech summer camps like this can cost upwards of $1,000 a week — but these 20 children are in a city hall basement because the space is free.

So is the program, which is run by the non-profit Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative with help from a group called Connected Camps.

It serves predominantly low-income African-American and Hispanic children, many of whom face basic barriers to catching the tech and gaming bug — like access to the internet and access to devices.

A lot of the children here are playing Minecraft for the first time, explains the camp's digital literacy director, Teresa Jenkins. That's because a lot of the families who come here don't have computers at home. Or if they do, she says, they can't afford high-speed internet or it's simply not a priority.

"Rent. Food. Gas. 'How am I doing to get the kids back and forth to school? How am I going to get back and forth to work? ' " says Jenkins, "that's the priority."

Richmond is gentrifying amid the Bay Area's tech-driven economic boom. But the city remains one of the area's poorest, with a poverty rate of nearly 18 percent.

Children here can see San Francisco from their city and hear all about nearby Silicon Valley and its bevy of industry-disrupting companies, "but they don't imagine they can be a part of that industry," says Jennifer Lyle, the executive director of Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative.

This Minecraft camp, Lyle says, is trying to change that 'we're not welcome in tech' feeling some low-income families in Richmond have. "To get people to come here and say, 'No, our child deserves to have access to this,' " she says.

It starts by introducing young people and their parents "to the kinds of things wealthier folks get access to because they have the means," she explains, getting "grounding in computers they're not getting in school."

Minecraft gets high marks from diverse quarters for its education potential. The game can help teach the basics of computer literacy and the key foundations of coding, animation, circuitry and more.

Children can absorb the broccoli of computer knowledge while reveling in the popcorn of building elaborate worlds out of cubes. And in camps like this, they can learn to work together as a team, says Morgan Ames, a postdoctoral scholar at U.C. Berkeley who helped create this camp and has studied its impact.

Campers here, she says, get to work through "the steps of designing something technological that somebody else will play." Using aMinecraft tool called redstone circuits, kids can "think through the basics of circuits."

But to really get that full experience, kids need the PC or Mac version of the game. A version not all have access to, Ames says. Ames also co-authored a study of Minecraft, this camp, and equity and access gaps by race, class and gender.

"Generally we found that middle- and upper middle-income kids play the PC version more. Boys tend to play it more than girls. And in general, white kids tend to play it more than children of color," Ames says.

And that's troubling, she says, because the PC version is simply a richer version of the game. "It has more options. It has more opportunities to learn to code. And we wanted to make it more accessible," she says.

More accessible for children such as Jaiden Newton, 9. On this day I find her eagerly conspiring with her brother in a multi-player game at the camp.

"So he's trying to build an underground tunnel to the other person's arena so he can steal the flag," she tells me.

She makes her way past a dazzling cube inside one of her elaborate cube structures.

"Those are Ender Pearls. It's like a teleportation," she says.

How long have you been playing Minecraft? I ask.

"About three weeks," she says.

Lots of studies (and books and reports) show African-Americans and Latinos continue to be underrepresented in engineering and technical fields, alongside women. Silicon Valley continues to have a serious gender gap problem.

Ames says she's collecting more data but her preliminary look shows that the tools out there to learn more about Minecraft — online forums, videos and the like — are dominated by boys.

Camps like this are vital, Ames says, to help change that equation.

Or as program director Jennifer Lyle puts it, this camp helps send a message to our parents, schools and Silicon Valley "we belong here."

*[Note: Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft Corp. from developers Mojang in 2014. The foundation created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a financial supporter of NPR and NPR Ed.]


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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Google has fired a software engineer who wrote a controversial internal memo that leaked over the weekend. James Damore's memo, called "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," criticized the company's effort to diversify its workforce. And in doing so, the memo relied on gender stereotypes about women in tech. And let's talk more about this with NPR's Laura Sydell. Hi, Laura.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us exactly what this memo said.

SYDELL: Well, among the things that the memo said was that Google was an echo chamber of opinion. And if you criticize the company's efforts at diversity, then you were a bad person. And most specifically, though, the memo questioned whether or not women were biologically suited to be engineers. And I think that's what really set off the firestorm within Google.

GREENE: I can imagine. I mean - and we should this is one person's opinion that he sent around to colleagues. That's what leaked.

SYDELL: Exactly. So he sent it around to colleagues. And essentially it got out companywide. And then once it got out companywide, it got out on the Internet. And it was not in any way an official memo. It was - people actually jokingly called it a manifesto (laughter).

GREENE: So it sounds like I mean he was making several arguments - one, the gender stereotypes that you mentioned but also suggesting that there is no freedom to express views about diversity within the company. And the fact that he was then fired seems to back up his argument again. So I guess I wonder, what exactly did the company say is the reason for his dismissal?

SYDELL: Well, the company - in a memo, Sundar Pichai, who is the CEO of Google, said specifically that people are allowed to express different views. But in this case, this memo violated the company's code of conduct and that it actually led to creating a work environment for others that was hostile. So you know, Google has to create a workplace culture that's free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination. So that's the reason that Google gave.

I should add here, David, that Google is under investigation right now by the U.S. labor department. And the U.S. labor department is looking into salaries and saying that Google is paying women less than men. Google has repeatedly refused to actually release those numbers. But Google is in an interesting position here where they're being investigated. And then this, you know, leaked manifesto comes out.

GREENE: A manifesto the company suggest was just discriminatory and crossed a line, which is why they're firing him.

SYDELL: Exactly, exactly.

GREENE: Well, has he responded? Has James Damore, this software engineer who wrote it, responded?

SYDELL: He has. And essentially he has said he is going to sue the company. So - and he obviously feels it is proof of exactly what he says. And he has - I should say that far-right websites are supporting him and saying the fact that Google fired him is proof of exactly what he said - that there's a, you know, a left-wing echo chamber at Google and that, you know, if you violate that code of conduct or that left-wing viewpoint, you end up getting shut down.

GREENE: Diversity was already such a big issue around Silicon Valley. I imagine this story is (laughter) causing some more waves.

SYDELL: (Laughter) It certainly is causing a lot more waves around Silicon Valley right now. And you know, I think right now James Damore's name is trending on Twitter. So I think this has become a huge thing. I do want to add one more thing here, David...

GREENE: Yeah.

SYDELL: ...That I think is important to remember. Google actually is in a more complicated position than other companies legally because Google has peer review. So essentially James Damore would be able to review his peers, and people are promoted given salaries based on what their peers say about them. And I think that's one of the reasons that Google was in a very difficult position here about whether to keep him.

GREENE: He can affect other people's lives even though he's not a manager. Speaking to...

SYDELL: Exactly.

GREENE: NPR's Laura Sydell updating us on that story at Google. Thanks so much.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.