Performing Literacies: A Minecraft Summer Reading Program

One of the libraries where this project took place continues to use Minecraft in their programming after participating in the Minecraft Summer Reading Program. You can read a short news article about their ongoing work in the Janesville Gazette.


I'm currently an instructor of record for a UW–Madison course called Drama in Education, cross-listed between the theatre department and curriculum and instruction. In this course, I teach students how to utilize creative drama in education lesson for children K-5, and how to foster learning through imaginative, hands on experiences. We use many methods, but among them is Dorothy Heathcote's Mantle of the Expert, an exploratory, student driven learning technique.

Our survival island.

I'm also intensely interested in intermedial performance that utilizes, either partially or wholly, virtual environments. Whether by treating games as performance, or adding a layer to live theatre, technology and games have made this kind of mixed experience much easier to accomplish, and very engaging.

By combining these two interests, and trying to provide a service to a few Wisconsin public libraries, I believe I have the makings of a very exciting use for video games as an engaged learning tool. This past summer, thanks to some great tools and support, I got to try it out. This was accomplished by utilizing the game Minecraft as part of the summer reading program. What follows is a proposal for further methods, and a description of my approach and goals.


To engage children, primarily those ages 9 to 14, in library programming based around their reading activities using the medium of video games.


Children play video games, and today most public libraries allow children to play games on their computers. Often the unstated goal is to keep pre-teen kids in the building occupied. The most optimistic assumption is that if they are already in the library, kids will also utilize other services offered.

What Minecraft looks like – a world of blocks.

However, most librarians know that this is far from certain, and feel that at best these games serve to distract noisy or disruptive youth patrons, or at worst occupy a tool needed by adults. Frequently, libraries see a gap in attendance between children under 10 and adults, and finding programming for teens and pre-teens is often difficult.

What is missing is the connection between the games these kids are playing, and the other opportunities offered in the library.


“Skate to where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.” The answer is to turn games into programming directly related to library activities like the Summer Reading Program, Youth Services, and Computer Literacy classes. I offer an exciting first step: utilize the video game Minecraft to recreate elements, activities and stories from the Summer Reading Program. This can be accomplished without major changes in the philosophical goals, financial expenditure, or programming already taking place, utilizing the existing structure of the Summer Reading Program.

Tools, Subjects and Expansion - MinecraftEDU, Thematic Literature and Fan Fiction

Minecraft is a simplistic looking, open-ended multiplayer game based around building, mining and exploring. MinecraftEDU is a specially modified version of the game for teachers, which allows extensive control over player activities, and even the creation of in game objectives and lesson plans. Utilizing this program as part of the summer reading program takes three components:

A computer lab ready for gamers and readers.

Tools: Purchase licenses for as many computers as needed. At $18 a license, this can be anywhere from approximately $80 for four to $335 for a large lab full of computers. Licenses are per computer, not user.

Subjects: Past uses of Minecraft are numerous: recreating ancient civilizations, being trapped on a desert island, or even a simple architecture competition based on favorite books. The game itself is easy to learn and hard to master, but open ended enough to be applied to many subjects. As one of the most popular games for all ages that’s out there today, getting kids and teens excited will not be difficult. 

Expansion: Many books the kids read today are part of a larger intermedial culture - Harry Potter has books, movies, games, theme parks and more - and fans continue to expand the boundaries of the fictional worlds they enjoy. In the process they develop a vast corpus of literacies and skills. By pairing gameplay based on books they read with written reflections, drawing activities, and discussion of themes, we expand the relevancy of youth lit, and encourage creative growth for young library patrons, which will lead to their continued use of a variety of library services.

Video Game Literacy and Library Culture

However, games cannot be treated simply as the carrot to get kids towards the “real” useful activities and resources the library offers. Games are the fastest growing medium of entertainment and art, and offer vast and untapped forms of expression. While librarians may not know how to play the games the kids in the libraries like, they should familiarize themselves with their themes and subjects. This will allow them to recommend others, and help parents determine appropriateness for different age groups. As part of developing Minecraft Summer Reading, I will give librarians a short overview of gaming and gaming culture, which will help them interact with kids, teens and young adults.

The kid's avatars set out on their journey.

This will also provide more opportunities to impart on young patrons the expectations and culture of participating in a library in a respectful and useful manner. Utilizing the proposed activities as a privilege, not a right, will help this process immensely.

By utilizing games familiar to young audiences, and connecting these activities to their personal reading, libraries can not only engage an under-served population, but expand their own relevancy and utility in the 21st century. This also allows us to participate in a wide community of education practitioners who are working on new ways to do this each day.

Past Examples 

I've tried two different methods of incorporating a game like Minecraft into a libraries programing. Both were successful at engaging young library patrons, but were particular to the needs and capabilities of the respective library. One is very simple and low cost/activity, one is more complex and slightly higher cost. These two examples should provide some useful ideas for further efforts.

Simple - An Architecture Competition

Tools: Assume you have next to no budget. For about $25, you can purchase a single license for the game Minecraft, but install it on as many computers as you like. While users can't play together using this method, you can still allow many patrons, on however many computers, work in their own space. Minecraft has two modes: survival, which i'll discuss below, and creative, which is an open ended mode where you can build whatever you like. Imagine virtual legos, where you have all the pieces you could ever need.

Subjects: For the architecture competition, we asked kids ages 9-14 to build a structure or scene from a book they were reading, such as the Great Hall in Harry Potter, or the Cornucopia in the Hunger Games. They could do this at home on a pc or xbox, or at the library on  computers or through the web based version of Minecraft. Once they had completed their creation, they had to submit three things: A passage from a book they read as part of the summer reading program, 5 screenshots or one video of what they had built based on that passage, and whether they had worked alone or in a group.

I provided several examples, but here's one:

Just one interpretation.

Just one interpretation.

“Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting [...] The hundreds of faces staring at them looked like pale lanterns in the flickering candlelight [..] Harry looked upward and saw a velvety black ceiling dotted with stars. He heard Hermione whisper, "It's bewitched to look like the sky outside. I read about it in Hogwarts, A History" It was hard to believe there was a ceiling there at all, and that the Great Hall didn't simply open on to the heavens." —Description of the Great Hall.

Since Minecraft is already being used to make creations like these, huge numbers of examples are just a google search away. 

Expansion: At the most basic, this allows young patrons at the library to the use computers for a game they like, but also encourages them to utilize them in a context related to library activities. Furthermore, it gives librarians a point of entry to interact with this age group in a substantive way that is interesting to both. With a few more licenses, kids can work together, though this requires setting up a server, and maintaining it. This brings us to a much more involved, but much more engaging, activity...

(Somewhat) Complex - Survival Island

MinecraftEDU's tutorial level.

Tools: Assume you have a budget and some technical support. Utilizing MinecraftEDU, a modified version of the game which allows instructors to administer gameplay and build lesson plans within the game, plays can participate together in  cooperative or competitive gameplay. At $18 a license, this can be anywhere from approximately $80 for four to $335 for a large lab full of computers. Licenses are per computer, not user.

You also need an environment to play in. The game itself will generate random terrain as needed, but if you want a very involved experience, you can turn to the thousands of pre-built maps available online, like the one we used.

Subjects: For the Survival Island, we signed up 20 participants who have been reading one subject: Survival Literature. A broad category, this includes books like Treasure Island, Hatchet, and the Hunger Games. Over two days, we talked with these participants, discussed the books they read, and introduced how to play the game for those who hadn't before (MinecraftEDU includes a very handy tutorial level.) Then, on day two, we released them all on to a pre-built deserted island, and asked them to work together in this environment to survive, explore or escape. 

Here we used Minecraft's survival mode, where players must hunt or grow food, build shelter, and even survive monsters who come out during the night. Thanks to the modified version we used, we could prevent players from harming one another, and introduced these challenges gradually. But by making resources scarce, we allowed the kids to experience cooperation and construction with limited resources. As they played, the kids broke off into little groups, setting out to stake a claim in twos and threes around the island. As they expanded, they starte having to negotiate with one another for materials and space. In turn, I related these experiences to the books they had read, and suggested that if they wanted examples of what to build, they had plenty of reading material to inspire them.

Expansion: The technical requirements for this activity were more extensive. We ran a server, had a computer lab with 20  machines, and it required me to actively administer. This could be shrunk to just a few people at a time, or done with a server that is publicly accessible (with a password) so as to mix local and internet based participants. But the payoff is immense - every kid involved was wildly enthusiastic, and together eked out a living on this island. Below is a few screenshots from the second day.

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Performing Literacies: A Minecraft Summer Reading Program by James T. Burling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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