Imagine a world where high school and college students are processing rubber, converting crude oil into jetpacks, and even doing complex chemical experiments that are hard for Ph.D’s to manage in their labs.

And imagine that’s all being done by playing a video game.

A team from the University of Texas at Dallas has created just such a game. It’s actually a modification that can be used with the popular video game Minecraft. This particular mod is called Polycraft World, and it allows players to incorporate the properties of chemical elements and compounds into game activities.

The researchers who designed the mod recently published an article in the journal Nature Chemistry describing the results. They had a group of 39 college students from a variety of majors play Polycraft World and discovered that a lot of them actually learned chemistry in the process, even though they had no formal in-class instruction.

Instead, the students used the mod and instructions provided on a Wiki to learn how to play the game and create things using distillation, chemical synthesis, and manufacturing processes.

“Our goal was to demonstrate the various advantages of presenting educational content in a gaming format,” said Dr. Walter Voit, a UT professor and leader of the team that created the game. “An immersive, cooperative experience like that of Polycraft World may represent the future of education.”

The game designers recruited two chemistry professors to ensure that Polycraft World had accurate information. The chemistry professors produced more than 2,000 methods for building more than 100 different polymers from thousands of available chemicals. Then, a team of programmers spent a year developing the platform.

“We’re taking skills Minecraft gamers already have—building and assembling things—and applying them to scientific principles we’ve programmed,” said chemistry professor Dr. Ron Smaldone.

Voit and Smaldone believe Polycraft World is an early step on the road to learning without classroom instruction. Most games serve only as a companion to classroom learning, but this game stands alone. It also returns a lot of data on student performance.

“We can measure what each player is doing at every time, how long it takes them to mix chemicals, if they’re tabbing back and forth to our Wiki, and so on,” said Voit. “It gives us all this extra information about how people learn. We can use that to improve teaching.”

But the team has plans far beyond just teaching chemistry. They’re working with economists and developing a monetary system for the next version of the game.

“There will be governments and companies you can form. A government can mint and distribute currency, then accumulate goods to prop up that currency,” Voit said. “Learning about micro- and macroeconomics by actually doing it can impart a much richer understanding of what monetary policy looks like and why.”

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