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Creativity

Playing Minecraft May Make You a Better Artist

Courtesy of Minecraft.

Courtesy of Minecraft.

In the popular video game Minecraft, players imagine and build their own virtual realms with digital Lego-like blocks. The game’s open-ended format and the problem-solving it requires have given rise to a theory that Minecraft attracts creative people, and is a means for creative expression that can boost creativity. Such purported positive benefits have led to the use of the game in school systems, as Microsoft, its owner, has promoted educational uses of the software. Until recently, the creative benefits of playing Minecraft had never been shown in a publicly accessible, scientific study.
Earlier this year, Jorge A. Blanco-Herrera, then a psychology grad student at Iowa State University, published new research on the relationship between Minecraft and creativity. He worked with professor Douglas A. Gentile, a child psychologist who studies the effects of video games and other media on child development. Their work suggests that under certain circumstances, Minecraft may really stimulate creativity.

The study

Image by Erik Alf, via Flickr.

Image by Erik Alf, via Flickr.

Blanco-Herrera sought to determine if playing Minecraft can have short-term positive effects on creativity. In the study, 352 undergraduate students were randomly split into four groups, each of which spent 40 minutes pursuing a different activity. There were two control groups: one played a NASCAR racing video game, while another one watched an episode of “Crocodile Hunter.” The other two groups played Minecraft in “survival mode”—where players are given limited resources and presented with various challenges that require problem-solving. One Minecraft group, called the “directed” group, was told to be creative while playing; the “undirected” group was not given any instructions.
Gentile explained that many people have heard that Minecraft is a creative game, “so maybe by priming the idea of creativity, by getting it in their heads, that would actually help the creativity flow better.”
After around 40 minutes of activity, the participants were asked to complete a series of tests that are widely used by researchers to measure creativity. In the alternative uses task, (AUT), which measures divergent thinking, or one’s capacity to develop many novel ideas or solutions to a problem, participants must come up with a list of uncommon uses for everyday objects like paper clips and knives. Another test, the alien drawing task (ADT), measures creative production by asking participants to draw an alien; drawings are then scored against a rubric, with the least creative creatures resembling humans.
The researchers hypothesized that playing Minecraft would be more beneficial to divergent thinking and creative production than playing the NASCAR game or watching TV. They also expected that those Minecraft players who were told to be creative would have higher creativity scores than those who were not given those instructions.

What it found

The most significant findings from the study revolved around the difference between the
the two Minecraft groups. While researchers had expected the highest performance from those participants who were put in the mindset to be more creative, their counterparts actually scored much higher on the ADT. The participants who showed the greatest creativity—measured in this case by drawing imaginative alien creatures—were those who were free to play Minecraft without any specific intentions.

What it means

Image by ewanm89, via Flick

Image by ewanm89, via Flick

In the paper on the study, “Video Games can Increase Creativity, but with Caveats,” the researchers wrote that “it may be the case that video games that specifically provide opportunities for creative thought and expression can provide beneficial creativity effects.” The greater creativity of the undirected Minecraft group suggests that not only does it matter which video game you play, but the context in which you’re playing is important, too.
The researchers noted that being told to be creative may have shifted participants’ motivations or goals and directed their attention away from just playing the game. “The freedom of deciding how to play in the game could have led to the creative benefit by giving the participants more open-ended decisions to make,” the study offers.
Gentile noted that other causes for the directed group’s lower scores could be that since it’s difficult to be creative, they may have resisted the directive. Or, perhaps, “if creativity is kind of like a muscle,” he hypothesized, “as you use it, it gets tired. And so, maybe they were more creative in the gameplay, but then by the time we were measuring creativity after gameplay, they had nothing left.”
These results suggest that if you decide to play Minecraft with the intention of sparking creativity, it may not be effective. However, further research could investigate if playing the game over a longer period of time might be beneficial.
If you play Minecraft for several days, Gentile suggested, and if creativity is like a muscle, then maybe that muscle can get stronger over time. “It’s tired right after the exercise, but maybe after a week of exercise, it starts getting generally stronger,” Gentile offered. “We don’t know yet, and I think that’s where the really cutting-edge of this science is.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Contemporary Art and Creativity.