Can Video Games Provide Unstructured Play?

The benefits of unstructured play have been researched and well defined in recent years.  In contrast, video games have been widely maligned.

Collin Thormoto at the blog Libcraft is looking for ways to combine his passion for library science and the video game Minecraft.  He recently proposed the idea that Minecraft might provide opportunities for unstructured play.

Thormoto recognizes that playing video games is not the same as playing with friends or running around outdoors, but he makes the valid point that video games are here to stay and that they have huge appeal for young people — particularly boys.  So why not take advantage of the opportunity to provide unstructured play opportunities?

“Many of the articles I read recommend in-person, outdoor activity with physical objects. And I’m all for that. But if you’re looking for something supplemental, something almost like an educational game but not, I’d say that Minecraft fulfills the basic criteria for unstructured play and potentially has some of the same benefits,” writes Thormoto.

I don’t know much about video games these days, but I do spend a lot of my own free time on the computer.  I can understand the draw to connect electronically, even if I also understand how easy it is to get drawn in and lose hours of your life in cyberspace!

Thormoto argues that “Minecraft fulfills the requirements of play because it’s repetitive, voluntary, exists in a stress-free environment, and has no true goal. The goals are yours to set, if any. It is a world devoid of rules other than those which we make for ourselves.”

I would suggest that unstructured play may have a goal but that it’s a self-defined goal.  It’s not something a parent or teacher or caregiver told the children to do or even suggested.  It’s something the child (or adult!) creates in the midst of the free, unstructured play.

Minecraft probably doesn’t provide opportunities for true self-defined goals (or lack thereof), as it is confined within its structure and ultimately has an end point.  But it does appear to provide some opportunities not available in other video games.  A criteria related to this might be something to consider for parents and educators selecting games they allow or provide to children.  It might also be a goal that they could seek out and encourage so that children are aware of the possibilities and so that they don’t become hyper-focused on an external goal, as can be easy to do in a world emphasizing competition.

Minecraft might also provide opportunities for some social cooperation and development in a way that other video games might not.  Thormoto points out that players can pool resources and work together to achieve their goals more quickly and easily than working alone.  Of course, this will not replace real-life, in-person social opportunities, but any social opportunities that can be encouraged in video games can provide another dimension and be very helpful to a generation of electronically-minded young men and women.

I know very little about video games but have asked Thormoto if he can provide some more information and thoughts on what might be the unique things about Minecraft that provide possible unstructured play opportunities.  What do you think about unstructured play in video games?  Are there games you have found to be better or worse for this application?