June 16, 2011
Last weekend my library hosted a Minecraft competition that has been my most successful program to date. I don’t think there are a lot of other public libraries out there who have done much Minecraft-related programming, so I thought I’d write about what we did, how we did it, and how it worked.
For the uninitiated: Minecraft is a “sandbox game,” which means it’s an open-ended environment in which the player comes up with his or her own objectives and then sets out to achieve them. In Minecraft, the world is made up of cubes of different materials and the player can harvest those materials and combine them in different configuration to build tools, other building materials, furniture, food, and different kinds of mechanisms. The focus of the game is exploration and creativity and people have done some really awesome stuff with it.
Getting the idea
Because my library is within walking distance of the local public middle and high schools, we have a lot of kids in the teen area during after school hours who are just hanging out, waiting for their parents to get home. For the last few months, I’d been noticing that there were a lot of kids who’d bring laptops with them and would spend the afternoon playing Minecraft, either on a server together or just on their own, and I started thinking about how I might build a library program around that.
The most obvious choice seemed to be a building competition, but I was a little unsure of something so open-ended (and potentially open to sabotage), so I was also considering challenge worlds, which are pre-built maps with some sort of objective in mind. Then Erin Daly asked on yalsa-bk if anyone was doing anything Minecraft-related at their library and there weren’t a ton of responses, so I decided to ask my TAB members if they’d be interested in a Minecraft program and if so, what they’d want to do.
First of all, the idea of doing anything Minecrafty at the library was met with a very positive response–a good way to get things started! After talking about it for a while, they were in favor of a building competition and liked the idea of coming to the library to do it rather than having it be a contest than would be run virtually for a set amount of time. I liked the idea of a program physically at the library rather than hosted online, too, because it’d level the playing field (everyone has the same amount of time to build) and let me supervise so that sabotage wouldn’t be a problem. But more than that, I was psyched about having kids come to the library to play Minecraft together because it’d be a chance to build community around a shared interest.
Planning and implementing
Three TAB members in particular–high schoolers who play Minecraft–were really excited about the idea, so we worked out the general plan and picked a date. I spent the next couple of weeks working out the details and doing the legwork, but because they’re also some of my after-school regulars, I was able to consult with them throughout the planning and implementation process. This was very much their idea that I was just figuring out how to do and then trying to find ways to make even more awesome.
We’d picked a date and we knew we wanted to do a building challenge. I wanted there to be prizes to win, so I looked around on Etsy and found some cool things (plush creepers! But they were all so expensive.)–but then I discovered the Minecraft foam pickaxe and the Minecraft magnets on ThinkGeek, so I sent them an email telling them how the library is a fundamentally geeky place and that my TAB members and I were planning this competition and would really appreciate it if they’d donate prizes or at give us a discount. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask–and then they actually said yes! I have to say, throughout this whole process, ThinkGeek has been really enthusiastic and supportive, and I am totally in love with them.
The other big component to making this program successful was advertising. I did my usual things–posting about it on our website and Facebook, writing a press release [docx] (which was a bizarre mix of formality and weird Internet culture and wasn’t run in the papers anyway), creating posters [pdf] to put in those stand-up acrylic displays in our teen area, putting out flyers [pdf] and giving them to kids whom I knew were Minecraft players–but this time I knew I’d be relying on word of mouth. I asked my TAB members to tell their friends. One of them shared a link on Facebook, inspiring a lot of, “wait what really?” sorts of comments, including one from one of her non-library-going friends who wrote, “thats actually like way too cool for a library to be doing.”
That comment alone totally made my week–I was getting kids who didn’t use the library talking about the library! I was changing their perceptions of what a library could be and do!
With the broad strokes of the program in place, it was time to start hashing out the details of how this competition would work. I knew we’d need server space. I wanted our participants to automatically have tools when they started so they wouldn’t have to waste competition time just trying to get started–I wanted the crafting and building to be the focus, not the basic beginnings of playing. I knew we’d need space in the library and enough computers for kids who didn’t have laptops to bring. And I knew I’d need help with all of this because while I know what Minecraft is and am aware of some of the culture that had grown around the game, I don’t play it and I don’t have technical skills that deep.
The technical stuff
And that’s where my husband came in. He is a Minecraft player and does have those technical skills (one of his side projects has been writing Lonecraft, a Minecraft game where one person plays at a time and when they die, the world is handed on to the next player; it’s inspired by Chain World). I absolutely could not have done this program in any sort of a timely way without his help.
We checked out pricing for using an Amazon EC2 server for the afternoon of the competition (just 50 cents an hour!) and decided on the High-Memory Extra-Large On-Demand Instance. For the actual server software, he chose Bukkit, an unofficial multiplayer server package that has mod support, and he looked into different mods we might use, finding one called StarterKit that gives players a certain set of items when they first log in and every time they respawn after dying. After consulting with my TAB kids, we decided to turn PvP off, to turn monsters off, and to keep flying off in the server settings. All I had to do was round up all of the library’s laptops I could find and install Minecraft on them in the couple days before the competition.
Our competition ran from 12-5pm on a Saturday, so we got up early that morning and he got everything set up and configured for me before we left for the library. He even came along with me and spent the afternoon answering kids’ questions, helping with occasional connectivity problems, and being the server admin and giving out items and teleporting people around when it was necessary–and he helped me judge, since he’d be better able to recognize especially creative use of certain materials or items.
The actual event
So the day of the competition, Casey and I got the server set up and went to the library and got the conference room ready for the program. I ordered pizza and brought in 2-liter bottles of soda and chips from my stash of junk food I use for most of my teen programs and rounded up all of the laptops and mice and power cables that I could find. We put the rules of the competition up on the projector (which all basically boiled down to “don’t be a jerk”) and after everyone arrived and we got them plugged in and set up, we put the IP address for the multiplayer server up, too, and then I told them that they needed to build the structure they’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse happened.
On the day of the competition, I still had no idea how many kids would be coming. I’d asked them to register and had had about twelve sign up, but I didn’t know if the ones who’d signed up would actually come or if there would be a bunch of unregistered participants who showed up. This was probably the most stressful part of trying to plan and organize this–it’s difficult to order pizza and buy soda and snacks when you’re not sure how many people are coming.
But kids did come–twelve of them! (Ten were competing and two were just hanging out and watching.) What really surprised me was how many upper elementary/lower middle school kids came. I’d been expecting this to be a high school event, since the TAB kids who helped me plan it were in high school and since they were the ones I’d seen playing in the library, but I guess one of them found out about it somehow and then told his friends and they told their parents and those parents told other parents. It was a little difficult to manage the social interactions between the older kids and the younger ones, but it went okay.
The biggest problem with these unexpected attendees was that I’d planned to give the kids four hours to build before I judged their efforts, and that was just too much time for younger kids with shorter attention spans. I tried to break up the afternoon by introducing food at different points and engaging them in conversation and giving them breaks, but I think it would have worked better if I’d either had older kids for that longer period of time or a shorter period of time for the younger participants.
The other major hurdle we had was that our wireless network turned out to be a little too flaky for kids to stay connected to our multiplayer server with any sort of reliability. About half of them just gave up and did their building in single-player mode, where another half played on the server. This made judging a little harder, since the kids playing on single-player mode did have to create their initial tools and weren’t building in the same world with the same resources as the kids on the multi-player server, so when the judging round happened, we considered them separately and picked one winner from each group. I really wish we’d been able to keep everyone on the multiplayer server, because I wanted to be able to make the worldfile available for download afterward since we’d be spinning down the server that evening and that’d be the only way to keep a record of what they’d built.
But despite the wide range of ages and the flaky wireless connection, I think everyone had a really good time. The high school kids especially loved the creeper cakes I made (these are just a box mix cake with green food dye and then green frosting with green sprinkles and creeper faces drawn on–I made them the night before while listening to The Curse of the Wendigo and had a really good time):
One of the TAB members even asked if I’d make these for her birthday next year!
And it wasn’t just the kids who had a good time–the parents of our younger participants thanked me for giving them an entire afternoon off, but also for doing such a fun program that their kids liked so much and for giving them a way to pursue this hobby with other people outside of the house. And I got to talk up our summer reading club and some of our other programming to them!
I had a few kids tell me we needed to do this again. I’m not sure I’d repeat this exactly, since I’d have to procure prizes again and I think it would feel less new and exciting each time, but it was definitely enough of a success that I’m hoping to do another Minecraft-related program or some variation on this in the future. The total cost for the entire program was about $70, and almost all of that was spent on pizza, soda, and cake. If you were to do it without refreshments, or if you had those refreshments donated, your only real costs would be the server, and that’s pretty cheap if you just run it for the day. (If you have a powerful enough processor in your library and feel comfortable running the server internally, you’d be able to eliminate even that cost.)
When Casey and I were discussing what tools the kids should be given when they logged in and before I knew about the StarterKit mod, I’d been thinking we’d just have a couple chests at the spawn point with a ton of diamond tools inside–which totally reminded me of the Cornucopia in the Hunger Games, and that got me thinking: I wonder if you could do a Hunger Games-style competition in Minecraft. If you turned PvP on and banned people after death, I think it’d work. The only problem is that it’d require a pretty significant time investment to create the arena, but man, once you’d done that, you could do things like use server admin abilities to teleport somewhere and destroy one block and unleash a bunch of lava on the participants. Monsters would provide other environmental hazards. Kids would have tools and armor and need to survive off the land. You could even broadcast it the way the Hunger Games are televised!
Anyway, despite a few hiccups and some uncertainty before it started, I think this program went really well. The kids had a good time, their parents liked it, and it got kids talking and thinking about the library in a new way. We had a Teen Advisory Board meeting yesterday, and I think having done something cool like this has opened their imaginations for other programs and activities we might do. I’m really proud of how things turned out–and I hope other librarians who have been thinking about it will be able to do a Minecraft competition of their own!
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