Minecraft and STEM

Microsoft recently bought Mojang AB, the Swedish company that makes Minecraft, for a reported $2.5 billion. It was not Microsoft’s first attempt to woo Mojang, and many thought they would never be able to close the deal.

In 2009, Markus Persson (‘Notch’), an unknown independent Swedish game developer, released the first version of his creation, Minecraft. It was not a normal ‘game’. It had no defined sequence, no milestones or levels of achievement, and most curiously, no end goal. What it did have was a charming, simplistic world in which a player could ‘mine’ and ‘craft’ for hours (or days) (or weeks) according to their own desires. In fact, the game could be played without any other mobile agents (‘mobs’) at all, leaving an entire world to explore and terraform with no limits. In 2010, maps became truly infinite, growing automatically as the player’s avatar (‘Steve’) approached an edge. The fact that no one else ever has or ever will live in, or even see, your privately created world gives one a compelling, almost haunting feeling.

It reminds me of the 1967 Star Trek episode “Arena”. Captain Kirk is locked in mortal combat with a frightening alien creature on a deserted and barren world. He must find or craft weapons from whatever materials he can find. He finally succeeds by assembling the raw materials for a crude cannon. We have all imagined ourselves cast back to a more primitive environment, where our own imagination and gumption are nearly all we have at our disposal. Interestingly, the goal of many advanced Minecraft players is to populate their world with coffee shops, restaurants, and villages.

Over time, Minecraft has expanded to include many characters, tools, and landscape features, but it has always maintained its minimalist look and feel. That’s the secret to its success – this is a world that is understandable to everyone, from children right through to seniors who grew up before the computer age. While the richness and physics of this world have evolved, the quaint, blocky look of it hasn’t.

The game has since sold many millions of copies, inspired LEGO sets, books, films, and has a huge and active fan base on YouTube. Conventions are held regularly, and Notch achieved rock star status years ago. Minecraft is the very definition of viral Internet success, massively disrupting traditional corporate and marketing models. Without shrink wrap or advertisements, it took over the gaming world.

So, many folks were left scratching their heads over this Microsoft acquisition. On the surface (pardon the pun), it seems like an unlikely fit. However, I don’t think that at all. I see it as the happy marriage announcement of two dear old friends.

Around the turn of the millennium, I was a corporate trainer, with MCT & MCSD certifications (the ‘M’ is for Microsoft). I often found myself sticking up for Microsoft amidst the disdain of my colleagues. I would use Bill Gates’ early years as an example of out-of-the-box thinking, like the Tandy Model 100, the first true notebook, and the last machine that he programmed personally. The best Christmas present I ever got was DOS 3.0, and QuickBASIC was one of the best languages I ever used (and I’ve used 50 or more). Maybe Apple and others were more stylish, but it was Microsoft that really put the excitement into personal computing.

Microsoft hopes to gain leverage in the mobile and youth markets. I cannot think of any better vehicle than Minecraft. Far from seeing it as the death knell for Minecraft, I see Microsoft’s acquisition as a renaissance and a real chance for positive, imaginative, and compelling games to get the much larger piece of the pie that they deserve.

“If you talk about STEM education, the best way to introduce anyone to STEM or get their curiosity going on, it’s Minecraft”
– Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Also, there’s Microsoft’s augmented reality headset – HoloLens. There appears to be a plan coming together:
Minecraft + HoloLens + ElementaryProgrammingSkills = Syntonic Learning

If this is what Microsoft has in mind, it could be the most disruptive technology yet. Well done Redmond, and best wishes to Notch in all his future endeavors.

Morse Code Therapy

Some years ago I had speech therapy for dysarthria. The therapy consisted mainly of breathing and vocal exercises, aimed at strengthening and enhancing the many components of physiology involved in speech. It was very successful and the professionals who helped me have my eternal gratitude. Along the way, I noticed that I was having some small trouble with initiating speech. Although a thought would form quickly and lucidly in my mind, actually triggering the vocal machinery to convert it into spoken words was sometimes problematic. It was like using a computer with a slow, damaged printer as the output device. Having been a computer designer and programmer for many years, it seemed to me that what was needed was a second output device, perhaps even a full two-way communications channel.

It’s certainly nothing new for people to compensate for one shortcoming by drawing upon one or more other senses or faculties. For example, there is Braille for the visually impaired and sign language for the hearing impaired. Even for someone without any such disability, learning a new language has profound benefits.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”
– Charlemagne

If I could open such a second communications channel, I could link my mind to the outside world while bypassing speaking altogether. This would allow me to work on both problems, the dysarthria and the imperfect speech initiation, as two processes in parallel (my inner geek again). However, another spoken language would not help here, and sign language required another person for learning and practice. Additionally, I wanted to keep it in the audio realm because working on neural audiology would reinforce my other therapy. I needed something that was audio-based, flexible enough for real communication, and simple enough to learn quickly, perhaps even with automated help.

Back in high school, I had belonged to the amateur radio club, mainly due to my interest in electronics. We built circuits, from oscillators to amplifiers to modest radio transmitters and receivers. The really keen members of the club (which did not include me) went so far as to obtain their amateur radio license. One of the requirements for this was proficiency in Morse code, that dih-dah-dih beeping from a bygone era sometimes featured in movie plots from the Old West to air and sea.
Aha – I had found the answer.

I assembled a few resources – a Morse code chart, an inexpensive key, an audio oscillator and speaker, and even a few text snippets encoded as Morse audio files from the Internet. Surprisingly, a bit of my old familiarity with Morse had stayed with me across the years. I keyed a few short phrases and found to my great joy that there was no delay or difficulty in initiating them. It also provided good fine motor control exercise for my right hand – another therapy which I needed but had not taken up as yet. I quickly improved at both writing and reading Morse, and soon began tapping out thoughts even if a pencil or fork was all I had available.

After a few weeks, I noticed a marked improvement in my speech initiation too, although I cannot say for sure whether this was the result of Morse practice or normal therapy and recovery. I like to think it was a combination of both. It could also be that any kind of learning*, even just passive reading, is beneficial during this type of recovery.

The biggest surprise is the one that comes with any new comprehension of previously unknown words or language. Now, whenever I hear some innocuous Morse in the background of a film, I read it without even trying; usually it’s meaningful, but occasionally, it’s just gibberish !


“I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity”
– Samuel Morse

We sometimes give ourselves too much credit for all that’s new and shiny. Staying with telegraphy, here’s a prediction of cell phones (in regards to Marconi’s “Syntonic Wireless Telegraphy”) from 1901!

  • I found a few other tools helpful in the course of my rehabilitation. The concept of ‘syntonicity’ was important, that is, the idea that learning is a subjective, experiential process. I revived my old interest in the Forth programming language, as well as playing ‘management’ games like Minecraft, SimCity, and Civilization. I’ve loved this genre ever since playing a version of Hammurabi written in line-numbered BASIC back in the early 1980s. Exploring, balancing resources, making strategic decisions, and planning for the near and far future are tremendous therapeutic tools.