How Minecraft and agriculture lead to an esports competition

Farmcraft teaches students valuable lessons about agricultural sustainability while also offering the chance for engagement and interaction

Our world is changing around us in so many ways, and the climate crisis is proving to be one of the paramount challenges of the 21st century. As temperatures rise, our food systems across the globe feel the impacts of this man-made phenomenon. This heightens the pressing need to mitigate our carbon emissions, as well as adapt to climate impacts. We need to foster sustainability across all spheres, especially in the preservation and resilience of our agricultural systems.

Despite the fact that we all consume food every day, there is a disconnect between the needs of modern agriculture and challenges many farmers face due to climate change. So few of us truly know where our food comes from and teachers do not always have tools for raising awareness and educating on this important topic. This is why NASEF Farmcraft was developed. 

Farmcraft is a global esports competition hosted by the nonprofit NASEF and the U.S. Department of State. It is aimed at students grades 3-12 and participation is free for students from all over the world. This year we had participants from 68 countries! Teams register with the support of an educator or other adult sponsor and take part in a wide variety of activities that teach about the connections between modern agriculture, climate change, and biodiversity.

The crux of the program lies in the use of a Minecraft world that has been specifically constructed to address agricultural challenges across 5 diverse biomes. Using this world, students take part in mission-based challenges within the Farmcraft world during the regular season, and over 500 teams from around the world registered this year to compete in a fun and safe learning environment. 

“Why Farmcraft? Because we need to bring learning to where people are and in a context that they find to be useful,” said Adam Cornish, policy analyst and Farmcraft co-lead at the U.S. Department of State. “Students (and even some adults) are able to jump into Farmcraft and immediately begin learning using a gaming system that they’re familiar with.”

Within the game itself, students get to choose which biome to play in and then are presented with the challenges of growing crops under the competing pressures of obtaining a maximum yield, climate change, and sustainability. Of course, students may have limited knowledge on which agricultural techniques are most sustainable and effective. For example, the first choice students must make is what type of tilling practice they would like to use, and while they may not know the specific pros and cons of each one, the game provides a space for them to learn by both visually depicting those results and in writing by providing educational content from in-game characters. Students go on to choose and plant their crops, and they even have options to utilize modern technologies, such as the use of crops that have been genetically engineered for specific useful traits. This opportunity for experiential learning is key in developing not only knowledge on sustainable agriculture, but also a passion for climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

“There is a difference between telling students what may or may not be good choices that make a positive impact and allowing them to explore choices for themselves,” said Erik Leitner, STEM and Computer Science Instructional Facilitator for Broward County Public Schools. “Minecraft has always been a sandbox that provides players a platform for experimentation, creation, and finding unique solutions. In the case of Farmcraft, those skills are harnessed and students are given the freedom to experiment with decision making and collaboration to see the impact their choices make both on harvests and the environment.” 

Beyond playing in the unique Farmcraft world, the students have been able to engage more thoughtfully with different issues surrounding climate change, sustainability, and agriculture through “Food for Thought” sessions. Speakers included: Dr. Anastasia Bodnar from the USDA, who spoke on Agricultural Biotechnology; Dr. Tracy Powell from USAID, who provided information on women in agriculture; and Dr. Steven Mirsky from USDA, who spoke about the use of agricultural tools that foster sustainability/productivity in agriculture.

In addition to those topics, one Food for Thought session was led by an actual farmer, who was able to give participants insights into what real-life farming actually looks like. NASEF Farmcraft developer Brian Dickman also spoke about video game development during one session.

Overall, students were able to engage with experts in each of these fields and learn significant farming principles, while also picking up tips that could possibly give them a leg-up in the official season. The combination of in-game play and virtual events like these provides a unique opportunity for students to truly engage virtually and learn experientially via multiple modes of transmission.

A student from Bangladesh commented, “Watching the Food for Thought streams also taught us many things about Farmcraft. We learned about modern-day farming and technologies like crop rotation and even genetic engineering. I even wrote about how crop rotations keep soil healthy in my classroom [assignments].”

The game developer, Brian Dickman, CEO of Cleverlike Studios, said, “Video games are a powerful way to help students develop empathy for situations that are typically outside of their reach. Rather than learning about abstract concepts, we can implement them as gameplay rules. Students experience impactful learning when they try to balance these real-world factors to achieve their game objectives. We see these results firsthand with Farmcraft when students reflect on the challenges they confronted and their strategies to overcome them. We’re inspiring the innovators of the future.”

Throughout Farmcraft 2022, students learned about agriculture, sustainability, and climate change, and they also developed key STEM skills. One student in Japan said, “After playing, I found utilizing agricultural drones had benefits such as lower damage to the environment and lower cost and labor effort, which I think suits the current times well.” Another student said, “I realized the farmer’s job was very difficult. If I had a chance, I’d like to talk with farmers to understand what they are doing.”

In addition to Farmcraft, NASEF provides many educational opportunities through blended play and learning. Its Digital Rube Goldberg Machine Minecraft Contest makes the popular traditional physics and STEM competition available to students around the world through the Minecraft platform. The Digital Junior Solar Sprint also transferred a traditional physical competition into the Minecraft world. Junior Solar Sprint (JSS) is a competition hosted by the Army Educational Outreach Program for middle school (5th-8th grade) students to create the fastest, most interesting, and best crafted solar-vehicle possible.

Gerald Solomon, executive director of NASEF, said, “Educators around the world are teaching important principles through our project-based learning Minecraft events. We’re thrilled at the feedback from teachers and students! They love this type of memorable, engaging education. We look forward to presenting more programs that blend play and learning in this way.”

The students illustrate this best: One participant from Bangladesh said, “People might think that success is determined on the results, but I think there is much more to it. Having mutual respect, common goals, open communication and lots of patience can make the team click. Farmcraft challenges us with making quick decisions. We also had to watch out for the strengths and weaknesses in our team members. Sometimes there is someone who is very good at hunting butterflies, maybe there was also someone who had trouble hunting caterpillars, but in the end, we tried to adjust our strategies to make our run successful.”

It’s easy to see why NASEF Farmcraft was embraced by educators in 68 countries! It taught valuable lessons about agricultural sustainability while providing students from all over the world the opportunity to interact and learn from and with each other. 

eSchool Media Contributors