Justin Walsh, Ph.D., associate professor of art history and archeology teaches a class called Poets, Philosophers and Citizens, Life in the Ancient Greek City – Art 347. It is more of an archeology class than an art history class. And this year, Walsh changed it up a little – rather a lot – by having his students use the popular block building video game Minecraft to build their Greek city, rather than the traditional graph paper.

What made you think Minecraft would be a valuable kind of tool to use in the class?

It was a really interesting thing – kind of a Eureka moment. I was trying to think of a better way to have students do a project in this class rather than just writing a paper on some aspect of a Greek city. And I thought I could have them design Greek cities on graph paper, and plan out what they wanted their city to look like and come up with a foundation and a history and all that. At the same time I was interacting with a colleague on social media who is a digital humanities specialist as well as an archeologist – and through that interaction the idea emerged to use the popular video game Minecraft.

By having them play this game they actively apply the principles of Greek urban planning. I thought using Minecraft would engage them more than just pen and paper and it would provide something very visually stimulating as well.

What does Minecraft bring to the learning experience?

I was never a big video game player myself so I was kind of out on a limb a bit thinking about this project. I ordered a copy of Minecraft and I decided to build a Greek temple. I know how to build a Greek temple; I know how they are designed and I know how they are built, and I tried to do it in a very accurate way. Then I stepped back from the project about half way through and I noticed the sun moving through the sky because it does that in Minecraft and I noticed my temple was facing the wrong direction. It was facing west instead of east. Almost all Greek temples face east. I realized I’ve really made a mistake here and now I’m going to have to start over. That’s the sort of thing that the students are going to have to be able to learn.

Things such as: How long do the foundations have to be? How am I going to fit all the columns that I want to fit in into this space? Not just into a single building scale but on the scale of the entire settlement. How are these buildings going to interact with one another? Greek cities were often very rigidly planned from the beginning. And so they thought very hard in antiquity. Students will have to ponder: If we are going to build this building here, we’re going to have to move the façade of this building over further and so we’ll build it correctly from the beginning.

What kind of feedback did you get from the students?

They were scared at first. A lot of them hadn’t had a lot of experience with Minecraft, which was a little surprising to me. And the students I anticipated the best results from were the most trepidacious. They were comfortable with their ability to write a paper or study for an exam; but this is something they’ve never been asked to do before.

The initial project I gave them was simply to design a house. And there were certain things the house had to have: a bathroom, a kitchen, a place for entertaining, and a courtyard. And I said anything else you can do is up to you – any choices you want to make. Once they started to figure out the game and how to build they really got into it. They planted gardens full of flowers and put fountains on the tops of the houses and all sorts of other things. They were very creative within the parameters of the project.

Is this a good stepping stone for an art student to understand the science of what goes into these things?

Definitely. I think really what it comes down to is applied knowledge. So it’s one thing for us to look at slides, which is really what we do in art history and archeology classes, in a dark room with me up there lecturing, and it can be kind of passive. With this, they get to actively apply what they are learning, and I think that that is really making a difference for them.

Is this an important 21st century class experiment that is going to help them for understanding how the future of teaching can be?

Yes, I think that interaction or interactivity is really the difference. To be able to have students construct a space where they can build up or tear down quickly in a virtual space – a sandbox if you will – allows for them to have success and to make mistakes. And both of those things are great. Because when they make mistakes they will learn from those mistakes and they’ll figure out – how does that work? – how did that not work? – OK, let’s do the next iteration better.

What have you learned from this experience from your students?

I’ve learned first of all that I can have confidence in their ability to handle things that even they themselves didn’t think that they could handle. That’s really great. And I think that this is also an excellent opportunity to really see them take what they’ve been given and do something that actually also puts their stamp on it in a creative way. I have not told them what the city needs to look like. I’ve told them it has to have a plan but the plan can be organic or it can be a grid plan – the Greeks did both. You have to figure out the story before you start.

What do you hope they take away from this experience?

I think that what it’s teaching them is that they can take rules that they learn in the class and then they can really see how those rules function in some sort of way. On the one hand I think it will be good for them to learn how it’s possible to take a set of materials – a set of rules, for example, that they are learning in this class for how people planned a city and to essentially say – what are the real world implications of that? So if the Greeks designed cities in certain ways – what does that really mean in practice? Not just in a theoretical way. And secondly, what I hope they will get out of it is an increased observance of the world around them. Because if they look for example, at the city of Orange, where we are here – this was a city that was planned in a Greek style in a sense because it was planned all in a certain moment – it has a grid plan, all of the streets are the same width, all of the blocks are the same dimensions and that’s the world we inhabit here, too. So they’ll be able to see – ah ha – there’s a pattern here. Why is there a pattern here? What does that say about the history of this place?