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In a basement computer lab at the City Hall in Richmond, California, more than 20 kids click away on desktop PCs. The room is buzzing, and not just with the sound of computers; kids are laughing and talking loudly to one another, their eyes focused on the screens in front of them. No, it’s not summer school. It’s summer camp online. Instead of sleeping in cabins, kids are building them, virtually, in the wildly popular video game Minecraft.
“Minecraft is all about blocks,” says 9-year-old Lelani Orrejola without looking up. “It’s like, it’s just like all about building.”
The program is called the Summer of Minecraft Camp, and it’s run by an organization called Connected Camps. Educators, like camp organizer Jenna Burrell, see Minecraft as a tool to teach STEM skills, like the fundamentals of circuitry.
She hovers over the shoulder of 10-year-old Jaqui Chavarria and asks to see the house she built in the game. Jaqui points to the screen.
“So the blue part is mine and the boy’s house, and the white house is the snowman’s house,” Jaqui says. A big smile breaks across Burrell’s face. “So a snowman lives there?”, she asks. Jaqui nods noting that she has even added her own security guard.
Jaqui might think she’s only playing, but just to get around the game, she’s mastering sophisticated computer simulations. The code she’s typing onto the screen would go way over the heads of many adults.
“How long did it take you to make that?”, Burrell asks.
“We just did it yesterday, we finished yesterday,” Jaqui says, matter-of-factly.
“Oh cool! Do you know how to take a screenshot?”
Jaqui looks down at her keyboard. “F3?”, she guesses.
“F2. You should do a screenshot and we’ll put it on the Tumblr blog.”
Around the country, organizers say there are more than 2,000 kids participating in the Summer of Minecraft Camp. And many don’t even meet face-to-face. They telecommute — logging in from home in their pajamas. That’s how 17-year-old camp counselor Ryan Dempsey gets to work. But a few weeks ago, there was a glitch in the system. On July 22nd, 2015, someone launched a DDoS attack — that’s when hackers spam messages to make a server crash — against the Minecraft authentication servers.
Minecraft servers went down worldwide, which meant the camps had to shut down. It was kind of like when camp gets canceled because of rain, or everybody has to clear the swimming pool because someone peed in the water.
“It was really frustrating,” Dempsey said.
Like traditional summer camps, Summer of Minecraft is also about socialization — except it’s virtual. And a big part of Dempsey’s job is to keep it positive. Keep in mind, these are ten-year-old campers.
“They get mad that they lost, and they will call people names,” he said. “A lot of it is just like, ‘You’re mean,’ or stupid or idiots. A lot of he said she said.”
Learning online social skills is vital, says Caroline Knorr. She’s an editor for Common Sense Media, an organization that helps parents make informed choices about kids’ media and technology. “Understanding that there are actual people on the other side of the screen is really one of the most essential skills that kids can learn,” she says. “That’s what leads to empathy.”
Back in Richmond, Jaqui, who has dreams of becoming a construction worker one day, is focused on what she’s going to create right now. It could be anything — a mansion, farm, or candy store. It’s totally at the whim of a ten-year-old.
She chooses to build a swimming pool and a library.
“I like reading books,” she says. “Oh yeah, and I was gonna build a computer lab.”
Maybe there’s hope for us yet.