This short piece is intended to highlight the background thinking and development that went into the project, and to provide evidence of our methodology.
It will cover:
- Our goals for the project
- Consultations and approaching the topic sensitively
- Minecraft as the choice of software
Goals of the project
The primary objective was to build a resource that, complemented with lessons delivered by the teacher, would provide pupils with a 3D environment through which they could become more familiar with the landscape of the typical Caribbean slavery plantation. The objective was not to show the enslaved, but to show the landscape and context of Caribbean slavery, so that teachers could then use supporting materials and other primary and secondary sources to engage students in a study of slavery. The Transatlantic Slave Trade remains a popular topic in history classrooms and, building on the pupils’ familiarity with Minecraft, the project hopes to provide a resource that will allow pupils to visualise a time and location broadly unfamiliar to them.
It was important that Saint Lauretia was supported with contextual resources that
- reflected on the immediate and wider implications of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
- treated the topic in a manner befitting its educational aspirations
- contributed to the curriculum and advanced learning in a meaningful and considered way
To this end, the website provides:
- Primary sources that expand the debate and humanise the enslaved people, by introducing material from Africa and the North American colonies, so that alongside work by Equiano, Falconbridge and Park, the pupils are introduced to Phillis Wheatley, an anonymous American commentator, and words from A Grammar of the Mandingo Language.
- Information sheets on various aspects of the topic, written by Transatlantic historians at the University of Glasgow. These cover the Middle Passage, Caribbean port towns, the plantation system of the British West Indies, enslaved peoples’ lives, enslaved peoples’ work on sugar plantations, and pens.
- YouTube videos by academics from universities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Pittsburgh, New York, Melbourne & Lancaster, which provide short, concise lectures to further contextualise the period and complement classroom materials.
- A bibliography and recommended websites section.
Consultations and approaching the topic sensitively
From the very early stages of developing the project, we recognised the importance of engaging with African and Afro-Caribbean persons and communities as we moved forward, to ensure we provide a nuanced and sensitive learning experience.
To that end, we have had consultations with African and African-Caribbean communities, academics, teachers and children throughout the process of creating this resource, and I would like to thank the Black & Asian Studies Association, Justice 2 History, Black History 4 Schools, Coalition for Race and Equal Rights Scotland, various folk at the What’s Happening in Black British History conferences, audiences at the Legacies of British Slavery lectures and many more for their input and guidance.
I owe special thanks to one of my colleagues who is Afro-Caribbean and has advised from the initial stages all the way through to the project’s launch.
These consultations informed, and continue to inform, the process, and have helped us as a team reach a number of decisions about how to best sensitively portray Caribbean slavery:
The end product
Saint Lauretia is a three-dimensional fictional representation of an environment, and is entirely devoid of human actors: those who use the software neither interact with human characters nor do they create them and populate the scene. There are no traditional gameplay elements, like mining and building, that the game of Minecraft is associated with. There are Minecraft Education maps from other websites that cover similar elements of history, including the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Caribbean slavery. None of them come with the level of additional supporting and contextualising materials that Saint Lauretia provides.
A fictional setting
It was decided that rather than use a genuine historical example, it was more respectful to provide a fictional area that pupils could explore. We did not want to depict specific areas where real instances of violence and terror may have occurred, and this imagery can only be inferred from the user’s prior knowledge of slavery and Caribbean slave plantations. A fictional setting also allowed the project to explore the different eras and layouts of the plantations in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
Using computer software as the vehicle
Saint Lauretia is explicitly not a game: it cannot be ‘played’ and was designed and is recommended to be used as a learning experience for the students. While people may associate the Minecraft game with Saint Lauretia, it builds from Minecraft Education which often emplys the software in a non-gaming form as a useful and indeed successful educational tool.
We build from the premise that computer software of this kind has been used to teach aspects of different subjects, history included, almost from the start of their widespread use in mainstream society. From The Oregon Trail (1971), which covered the death defying expeditions many early Americans made as they crossed the country to settle new land, with users experiencing disease, death and tragedy, to the more recent Mission US: Flight to Freedom (2012), where the user takes on the role of an enslaved teen and makes decisions as they attempt to evade recapture, these ‘edugames’ and others like them have covered delicate and difficult areas of history, though some not always sensitively. Some have attempted to do so sensitively, though not all have managed. We made the conscious decision not to use gaming, as some of these other scenarios and software packages have, and instead to develop an unpopulated environment, with no players (which cannot be ‘played’), to set the scene for substantive teacher-directed historical learning, using secondary and primary sources and resources, including many constructed to accompany this resource.
Just as films and graphic novels have done before them, computer software is developing into another medium capable of complementing teachers’ work in the classroom to enhance pupils’ learning about the past.
Minecraft as the tool to deliver Saint Lauretia
There were a variety of reasons that informed the decision to choose Minecraft as the vehicle to represent the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Lauretia. Minecraft Education is software used extensively and successfully by teachers around the world, sometimes helping them to engage students in the study of difficult and sensitive topics.
Availability to schools; existing usage
One of the fundamental drivers was the widespread use and availability of Minecraft, which now has sold an estimated 120 million copies worldwide.
While Minecraft started out as a game, it has been co-opted by many teachers as a successful platform for delivering educational goals, and this has been formalised with Microsoft’s releasing of Minecraft Edu in 2016. Anyone with a formal email address associated with educational institutions can download Minecraft Education for a free trial (25 launches as an educator; 10 as a pupil).
Minecraft and Minecraft Edu have already become an important learning resource in some schools. In 2016, as part of a project from CultureTECH, a grant has allowed all schools in Northern Ireland free access to Minecraft Edu; a school in Sweden has made Minecraft lessons compulsory; there are myriad lessons available for download for lots of subjects; and teachers are vocal about using it in classrooms, with blog posts on the Guardian, Edutopia, common sense education, Education Scotland, TeachHUB and more.
The many topics covered by Minecraft Edu
Minecraft maps available cover a large cross-section of history: pupils can recreate US Civil War battles, explore Colonial Williamsburg, experience exploration, commerce and raiding as Vikings, farming methods before and after the Industrial revolution, or, similar to Saint Lauretia, examine fictional creations based on historical facts, such as Portugal during the 13th and 14th centuries, an English medieval village, and indigenous Filipino architecture.
Some teachers run blogs or short commentaries on their Minecraft themed lessons: this one provides a different approach at US Civil War recreation in Minecraft, another on a class building the Plantation of Ulster, and finally the huge Wonderful World of Humanities wiki which allows students to interact with different early civilisations.
To achieve the desired goals of the project, there were limited options available, as fiscal considerations both for the project, and more importantly the schools, had to be considered. Fortunately, with the release of Minecraft Education edition educators and pupils alike get numerous free trials of the resource.
All these conditions mean little without explicit evidence that Minecraft can provide a valid learning experience for pupils.
Firstly, though they fall under the wider umbrella of ‘computer games’, titles such as Oregon Trail, Mission US: Flight to Freedom and Minecraft Edu belong to a completely different branch of computer games than those that are played for relaxation – the absolute majority of the market – titles such as FIFA, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, the Civilisation series or Super Mario.
Instead, the literature, from Patrick’s Digital Games in Schools: A teacher’s handbook (2009) to New Pedagogical Approaches in Game Enhanced Learning: Curriculum Integration (2013) by Freitas et al, would term Minecraft Edu et al as an “edugame” – a branch of computer games that are built specifically as tools to facilitate learning, far removed from the latter titles mentioned in the previous paragraph.
While Minecraft Edu is an edugame, however, Saint Lauretia eschews the main gameplay elements of mining and building – to instead effectively limit the user to an exploration of a fictional Caribbean island and its environment – and is therefore closer in function to educational software.
Particularly pertinent to the Saint Lauretia project were two studies, the first of which, López and Cáceres’ Virtual Games in Social Science, concluded that computer games and associated software:
can be interesting to specifically approach and work with knowledge of an historical-social nature in education and enable us to approach cultural and social references in a contextualised, attractive and dynamic way. In this way, students can approach knowledge of social and cultural aspects of civilizations that otherwise would be difficult [for them to grasp] if they were simply told about it (Santacana,1999), this learning taking place from non-formal educational areas, providing a much more motivating knowledge than can be acquired in the classroom.
Callaghan’s Investigating the role of Minecraft in educational learning environments (2015) was also instructive, noting that students were fully engaged with Minecraft as a learning resource rather than a gaming experience. Callaghan concludes that lessons featuring Minecraft Edu facilitated “authentic learning activities as well as the attaining of learning outcomes.”
To summarise, Minecraft was conceived as the best tool to fulfil the project’s goals for several reasons. It represents a flexible and cost-effective resource that can be used to create dynamic and engaging supplementary material for lessons, which we capitalised upon to provide a relevant and simple interface for students to learn about aspects of the Caribbean slave trade.
During our launch at the University, historian Sir Geoff Palmer spoke about how well the project was received in the Caribbean. We were approached about creating similar projects, too: one Burundian lecturer wanted to create a comparable project that examined the history of Burundi and its experience of the Middle Eastern slave trade.
We held two workshops at the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History conference, and received overwhelmingly positive feedback with fantastic suggestions from the teachers about how they thought it could be used in their lessons.
We hope to hold similar workshops in England and potentially Northern Ireland, as we continue to work with teachers from these countries and work out how best it can be fitted to their curriculum, to ensure that Saint Lauretia becomes a valuable learning tool for educators outside of Scotland too.
We welcome feedback and ideas about how best to develop this resource. If there are ways we can improve it, do please contact us.