Mimi Ito

Why Minecraft summer camp is the next big thing in progressive learning

Today we’re talking with Mimi Ito – an educator and anthropologist turned startup founder. Mimi & her co-founders run an innovative education startup that offers summer camps, after school programs and coding classes on custom Minecraft servers. Mimi has a gift for understanding how kids adopt and use new technologies. I’ve known and admired Mimi for many years, and I’m thrilled to share with her deep insights about progressive education with you. Listen in and learn how Mimi bridges the gap between research & practice, and where her innovative startup is heading next.

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More on Mimi Ito

Mimi’s Company: Connected Camps

Mimi’s Blog: Mimi Ito Blog

Connect: LinkedIn @mizuko

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Mimi, to the Getting2Alpha Podcast.

[Mimi Ito] Thanks for having me, Amy Jo.

So great that you’re here. Mimi and I have known each other a long time. She was really one of the first people that believed in me and we connected about ideas. She’s go on to do amazing things which we’re going to get a chance to learn more about now. Mimi, give us a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you first get started in design, tech and education? How did you decide what to pursue along the way?

Let’s see, if we rewind a little bit, I’m an academic and my training is in both anthropology and education. I did my graduate work studying what kids were doing with new technology, actually educational CD-ROMs back in the day. Ever since then I’ve just been really interested in what young people do with technology and what the implications for learning are, and along the way, have worked a lot with folks in industry, in design, and Ed Tech to try to understand not only what our kids are doing with technology, but what can we as educators n technology makers do to help kids learn and socialize and grow up in more productive and civically engaged ways.

After I did my graduate work on looking at both how kids played with educational CD-ROMs, but also the industry around it, I went on to do research on young people’s mobile phone use in Japan, and video game play and did a big study of how kids were living and learning with new media and the big spike of social media use, that big first wave and became part of this McArthur foundation, digital media and learning initiative that I’ve been involved in for about a dozen years now which includes both researchers like myself, but also educators and technology folks who are trying to design new kinds of educational opportunities that are leveraging today’s technology to meet progressive educational goals.

I just have to jump in and ask you what motivated you to have such a long-standing passion for looking at kids in education? What were the pivotal experiences? You’ve been at this for a while and that takes a lot of focus.

I think it’s just always been really fun and exciting to me to see what kids do with new technology and the kind of innovation that’s really driven. Not just user-driven innovation but youths-driven innovation. I’ve always to be really, really exciting. As an anthropologist I’ve been trying to translate the really interesting things that young people are doing with new technology in ways that can interface better with the grown up world and maybe change how we do education, and think about learning and technology. A lot of my work has focused on how geeks and gamers, and kids who are serve of a lot of the cutting edge of a lot of this new technology learn differently and there’s much more self-directed kind of demand-driven, social and peer-to-peer way with new technologies and on the internet. They go really deep into areas of specialty that I found just amazing. I did work with anime fans for example, fan subbers, and video re-mixers who were completely remaking the international anime industry through creating their own fan products and distributing translated anime online.

That kind of ingenuity and creativity that young people bring to technology is a constant source of inspiration for me. It’s not so much that I feel like I’m super creative or have great ideas but I really like to showcase the cool things that kids are doing with technology.

That’s a perfect lead-in to what you’re doing now. You’re an academic but you’re also a startup founder. Tell us about that.

About a year ago I launched this new startup called Connected Camps, with two co-founders, Katie Salen who’s also an academic and a game designer and Tara Tiger Brown , who is technology maker and activist in the tech space. It’s really an effort to bring some of what we learn around our research and a bunch of experiments that we’ve been doing about kids, and learning with games and in peer-to-peer format and see if we could build a business around it. It’s really, in a nutshell, an effort to deliver creative and social learning experiences through Minecraft.

It sounds so much like what you were describing you were fascinated by. It’s peer-to-peer and self-directed etc. Although some of what you’re doing and what you’ve evolved into has gone from very self-directed to much more structured kind of classes. Can you tell everybody basically what Connected Camps is? I think it’s fascinating because you’ve built something on top of a game.

Connected Camps is really an effort to take all that passion and creativity, and that social learning, and the meta game that Minecraft players have built around the game of Minecraft, which folks don’t know it. It’s basically like Lego in a virtual world and players can build stuff together and build games, and build worlds and stories and … It’s very open-ended. One of the things that was really interesting to us was that it exemplified a lot of the positive creative learning that we see in gaming communities that have positive, pure learning dynamics.

What’s also unique about Minecraft unlike other multi-player games is that you can run your own servers. You have homegrown servers and there’s this incredible ecology of Minecraft servers that are built and governed for certain purposes with different kinds of community values and goals. It’s a real opportunity for educators to meet kids where they are in things that they’re already doing and messing around, and having fun with their friends. We can also put a wrapper around it that really maximizes some of the learning potential that is not necessarily going to be realized just by kids on their own.

We let kids join our servers and play together and we make sure it’s moderated and safe, but we also offer things like coding classes and design classes and girls club to introduce kids who are new to the game so that we’re pushing kids along in going deeper and pursuing specialties and developing digital citizenship in ways that you wouldn’t see necessarily if it was just a homegrown server that some kids were running on their own.

In terms of how you’ve actually built this, did you set up your own Minecraft server and then customize it with mods]?

We have our servers. We have a kid club where some of our basic home base server that is mostly about collaborative building and some survival games and things like that. Then we have a server that’s specifically for coding that uses the computer craft mod that allows kids to code in-game. Sometimes we’ll spin up special events like we did a hunger craft game with some collaborators in a hive network in New York city where they had the social justice game that they’ve built around the metaphor of The Hunger Games. We’ll have special events like that toward each of these because Minecraft is very configurable, often requires less specific maps and server configuration and so on. On top of that technical configuration and the builds I think the other really important thing that we have built on top of our servers is our community guidelines and norms and code of conduct, and a whole process for how we guide kids in what positive social interaction is and mediate the kind of griefing and disputes that inevitably arise within a Minecraft server.

Yep, we had that experience this summer. Shall we tell our listeners about it?

Absolutely. I think it’s a really great example of what happens when kids are playing multi-player and what often … You’re a super engaged parent who’s quite aware of what Minecraft is but I think a lot of … Minecraft is a difficult game to understand if you’re not in it. I think what happened with your daughter is a great example of both some of the opportunities but also the challenges that kids encounter in Minecraft. I don’t know, you should tell the story.

Okay. I’m a big fan of Connected Camps because this summer my daughter who was then 8 was home for some of the summer while I was working. She wanted to have some weeks off from her outside camps. I wanted her to have something really awesome to do. Mimi and her team had developed Minecraft summer camp where she could go online and not just mess around but have a semi-directed, really fulfilling experience. She tried it out, she loved it. She’d been playing Minecraft for several years. Her older brother taught her as often happens, she was having a great time, she went from being a newbie to being pretty confident in he skills and she amassed quite a bit of iron and diamonds and gold, she honed her crafting skills.
One Saturday morning, she met a new player, and the new player befriended her and they went around and adventured a little. The new player admired her diamond sword and then she said, “Oh, I could make you one,” and he said, “That’d be great. She took out her crafting table and took out all her diamonds, I believe there were 22. She was quite aware of how many she had. You get a little math there too. Minecraft’s so amazing that way. So many things you’re learning. This new player, I think, split her table or did something, pushed her table over gathered up all the diamonds and logged out. She came upstairs to me where I was working and told me exactly what happened. I went, “Oh I know what that is.” What do we call that in gaming, Mimi?

We call it trolling generically, but Minecrafters call it griefing.

Yeah. She was griefed. I thought the “Wow, where are the counselors?” She knew how to call a counselor but it all happened so fast. I was very impressed because I tweeted about it, immediately someone contacted me. We got an email, we got on the phone and then your team handled it in a way where Lila ended up feeling empowered, not frightened anymore. Why don’t you tell about how your team handled it? I think it was a educational experience for you as well, because it was still very early in your development.

Yeah, absolutely. One of the things about Minecraft is it really encourages player agency and creativity. Kids find all kinds of ways to work around our rules and do things and … This kind of griefing is a pretty good example of something that if kids go off, somebody does something that isn’t necessarily observable on chat which we’re always monitoring. Things can happen or kids don’t figure out how to … They figured out that they could write things on signs if they didn’t want them to be on chat. These things happen and I think it really is about giving kids enough space so that they can have agencies. It’s not a space where it’s like they can only say 5 things and do 5 things. Kids can really do stuff on Minecraft. That’s what leads to these creative griefing kinds of opportunities too. We just have a process where we have a cool down space where we talk privately to kids when we found out things have happened. We try to make sure that kids know that they can reach out to the counselors when things happen.

I think one of the things that was great about your daughter, Amy Jo, is like you said, we mediated with the player who had griefed her and facilitated some conversations between them and … I think the great thing about this case is that, like you said, your daughter came out of it feeling more resilient and empowered. She became this very responsible and active citizen on the server, which was super impressive. She would go out of her way to welcome other players and make sure that they felt taken care of. She really started to model good citizenship, I think partially because it was an explosive conversation that came up around this whole dispute. That is a very positive example. We also are really proud when we’re able to transform the behavior of a kid like what happened in this case.

A lot of times kids when they’re griefing or trolling they don’t quite realize the consequences of what they’re doing. They might just think that that’s funny, or they don’t realize that they’re really hurting somebody’s feelings, or doing something that’s threatening or harmful. Unless we have these opportunities to have these conversations with kids, they’re just going out and doing this stuff out on the open internet without adults necessarily knowing or intervening or having conversations. We see these kinds of disputes as actually really, really great occasions to have explicit conversations with kids about these things.

It goes back to social learning.

Exactly, and because in the real world we’re around our kids and we see them running around the playground, and if they hit each other or say mean things, we know how to intervene. A lot of times with their online lives parents aren’t directly involved. They don’t have direct visibility into a lot of what kids are doing, especially in their gaming worlds. One of the things that is really, really important for us with Connected Camps is that we’re fostering an environment so some of those early online experiences are positive ones that are promoting digital citizenship. We’re not raising kids who are trolling and harassing and mean to each other online, which can often happen if they don’t have mentorship and guidance in their early experiences.

Lord of The Flies.

Exactly.

What was great for me about this was it did give us a chance to have a conversation not just about how you should behave with strangers in Minecraft, but also in the real world. I’ve believed, really ever since I got into tech, that the line between the virtual world and the real word is just more and more blurry, they’re so connected. We communicate in both. For Lila, my daughter, she came out of this and we had a conversation where it’s like if a new player with no inventory asks you for a diamond sword, maybe you don’t say yes. Maybe that’s not the best thing to say. Guess what if a new person you meet at school ask you if they can have your backpack because they like it, do you give it to them? There’s a behavior that actually you can start to spot and it means that you’re more street savvy. I thought of this whole thing as an opportunity for Lila to become more street savvy, and I fully aspire to raise street savvy kids online and offline, that can’t be conned, that can see through that.
I will tell you Mimi, I had a backlash among some of the parents on the playground because I told this story when i picked up Lila at the playground. The people how are my friends they get it, but some of the parents were very disapproving that I had continued to let her to play when this has happened.

Interesting.

That’s part of the problem with taking away agency. Is that if you’re going to have agency you have to work through consequences of the agency. You can’t say “I want agency but the minute something bad happens I’m out of here.” It’s not how it works.

Yeah, I think it’s obviously there’s developmentally appropriate times to give your kids more agency and autonomy. I do think that the longer you delay giving your kids some social freedom and autonomy the slower they will to develop exactly what you’re saying, street smarts or just sense of their own civic responsibility and the ability to engage in communities. That’s one of the problems I see with a lot of the parenting advice that’s very protectionist about new technology, because if it’s the parents who are always controlling the environment the kids never develop the capacity themselves to make wise choices about their engagement online.

Is that one of your key goals here? To help kids make wise choices in an online environment?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of our really big goals. Again, especially for the younger kids, for our camps that’s that age from 8 to 13, 14, you don’t necessarily want to throw a 8 year old into the open internet and gaming forums and chat rooms. It is a moderated and safe space where we’re watching the chat and if something happens, kids can flag down a counselor and have recourse. We give kids a lot of space but there’s also limits to how bad things can get. We’ve talked to a lot of kids and families, and our counselors are high school and college students and they’ve really grown up with Minecraft. We’ve heard a lot of stories about what happens out there in the open internet server world of Minecraft. We’re certainly not that world, but we’re also not just playing with a little box.

You’re not Toontown, which is awesome. God bless Toontown. I loved it. You know Toontown is a Disney MMO for kids?

Yeah. yeah.

It had pull down chat, and free chat.

That’s right. Club Penguin is quite similar. I think one solution is just to not let kids talk to each other or do much with one another. For us that doesn’t really foster the kinds of collaborative and community skills that we’re hoping kids develop online.

Let’s dive into that a little because you’re not just developing this platform and this experience for kids, you’re also training counselors who are in there, and that’s part of your ecosystem. Tell us about that. You’re building a whole ecosystem around this.

Yeah, in a lot of ways we are modeling our learning approach and dynamics on what in all my research I found to be the really, really positive dimensions of learning online, and online affinity groups and communities, which is that you’re learning from other who are just slightly older than you. It’s multi-generational but everybody has a passion for the thing you’re doing. It was really important to us that our servers were staffed with young people, young adults who were also passionate about Minecraft. The little kids, that’s so much more fun to be working with an 18 year old, or a 15, or a 20 year old who also grew up with Minecraft, and just a little older and they know so much more than what grownups could have learned later in life with Minecraft.

In a lot of ways the dynamic is similar to the kind of organic geek learning that I found so compelling in my research. We are making a little bit more accessible, more comfortable for the parents quite frankly, and also more comfortable for younger kids and girls. A lot of parents are less comfortable about their girls playing multi-player mode than boys. When we ran our first experiments we found out that for a lot of the girls it was actually their first experience playing multi-player. We felt really good about that we’re opening up opportunities for that kind of more boy-centered, geek, tech learning that is often really exclusionary to girls.

You mentioned earlier you’re launching a girls club, how did that evolve?

One of the things that we found is that we do get fairly decent numbers of girls, they’re not the majority but probably more than the regular Minecraft server world we get higher proportions of girls. We were finding that they were not signing up for things like our coding or our more technically advanced kinds of programs. When they did they were often so few girls that they could feel intimidated by all the boys. We’ve been running a girls club at a local school who’s been a partner for us to see how that’s going, and trying to get girls who are not really that into Minecraft at all to try.

There’s that entry level thing but we’re also doing a girls clubs for those more technical stuff specialties like coding because we have found that if you’re in a girls-only space … This isn’t unique to our camps. A lot of camps are doing this now in tech-related areas, that it just creates a safer and more comfortable space. Of course girls are welcome to take any of our programs and hang with the boys as well, but we also wanted to create a space for the girls who don’t feel as comfortable in a boy-dominated kind of environment.

It’s going to be so interesting to see how that evolves.

Yeah. It will. That’s something new for this coming summer. We did not do that last year. This is really based on feedback that we had during some of our after-school programming. We’re hopeful that it will create an environment that will bring more girls. One of the important things about our startup too is that it is a benefit corporation so we’re guided by social goals as well as survival as most startups are. For us the issues around equity and serving under-represented groups in getting kids into tech is a really important part of the work we do. Some of the stuff around gender is very critical to our mission. We also are committed to serving at least half of our population, we’re hoping will be lower income teens that are accessing our programs through a free or subsidized kinds of community-based organization.

Awesome. Given that those are your goals, how do you make sure that you’re on track with your customers? How do you do that outreach to know that you’re developing things for the people that you’re trying to reach?

One of the great things about doing this kind after live online learning with kids is that we do get immediate feedback from kids as to their experiences because our counselors are in-game with them all the time. For example these experiences that girls were having, that was something that we sussed out right away, because we could see that interaction happening and we immediately spoke to the parents and try and understand the experiences that the girls were having. The same is happening in our school context, where we’re in contact with the kids as well as the instructors on-site. You were really great at speaking with us and giving us feedback when the problem arose with your daughter, too. There’s a lot of this live feedback that we’re getting which is really, really helpful.

The other thing that we do is our origins were on the non-profited research space and we obviously still have a lot of relationships with people in the public schools and libraries and community-based organizations and research. We do a lot of partnering with groups who are in the non-profit space, our summer programs and our game design programs have been co-designed with Institute of Play which is a non-profit. Last summer we partnered with the LA Makerspace, and LA Public Library to deliver our programs system wide through the LA Public Libraries which helped us meet our benefit corporation goals. Then we’re also working with folks in Richmond and Chicago in serving kids through public organizations, libraries and schools. A lot of it is just about the relationships that we’ve had in the non-profit sector and the partnerships in order to make sure we’re reaching kids from really diverse walks of life.

Wow. You I know are a very modest person as well as an amazing and brilliant person. I know this is probably hard to answer but if you’re honest with yourself, what do you think your superpower is?

That’s a hard question. I think my superpower is that I listen to kids and I learn from them. They’re the ones who have amazing creative ideas and I’m a translator. I grew up living bi-cultural, living between the US and Japan. I think that cultural translation piece it’s part of the reason I became an anthropologist. It’s really for me about showcasing the kind of learning and creativity that young people are doing, and trying to get adults to embrace and appreciate that, and give them more space to pursue that. Yeah, I think it’s really about listening to kids.

Wow. I love that answer. It makes me so much think of you and Joi.

Yes. It’s funny because I was a very traditional learner. I did well in school, I love school. I got two PhDs. I did as much as school as we possibly could and Joi [my brother] was not that kid. He had the highest absentee rate high school but he started the most student clubs of any kid ever. He was a totally interest-driven, self-directed learner. He started his own company when he was a teenager. I grew up observing him. A lot of times again I like learning from people who are different from me and that’s my source of challenge and inspiration. I think growing up with Joi who was so different but also who I loved and respected, and understood was a really big part of that as well.

Wow. He now runs the MIT media lab.

That’s right. He’s an academic now which is just crazy. Who would have thought?

I know.

I am a startup, yeah.

Think different isn’t just a slogan.

That’s right.

What’s on the horizon for you these days? What’s coming up that’s got you excited?

I think to me what’s been incredibly interesting about Connected Camps is not only having this really fun project, and feeling like we’re able to help kids pursue creative learning and passions, but also learning that I’m doing about just how to make an impact in a world in a different way in the for-profit space. That’s incredibly exciting for me because I’ve spent most of my career in the academic and non-profit world where we get research grants, we get philanthropic, and we do cool things. We learn stuff. We often create innovative products and try new things but the way that we think of getting things out in the world … it’s often very difficult.

I’ve seen so many interesting things that academics and researchers have developed in Ed Tech. Once it hits the real world it’s like it was this thing that was developed with millions of dollars and investment, but it’s been in the bubble of the research world and they don’t survive these innovations. What’s been interesting about the startup and, Amy Jo, your work is so informative in this respect too, is that these new startup methodologies is where your both kind of the company and the whole incentive structure is about scale and sustainability. As much as the idea and the world is just relentlessly giving you evidence and feedback about whether your delivering value to real people in the real world. That’s super exciting to me. Even at a meta level I’ve loved just building a startup, it’s like building your house one brick at a time. I know exactly where every dollar’s going and what everybody’s doing in my little company.

The engine for what we’re doing is really much more outwardly focused on getting out in the world and making a difference in people’s lives immediately. That’s incredibly refreshing. Obviously there are problems power issues with a purely profit-driven model and that’s one of the reasons why we are a benefit corporation. There’s a tremendous amount of learning than I’m doing about what it means to have an impact in the world if you’re being really serious, and honest, and scientific about it. That in a way is much more effective in the startup world than in some ways in the research-driven world. Eventually, I would like to write about some of the learning I’m doing on that respect. If you wanna run a social venture, if you wanna make a difference in education and kids lives then there are a lot of different ways that you can do it.

I think the world would like to read that thing that you’re going to write. I know I would, that sounds fascinating. Thank you so much, Mimi, for your time and sharing what you’re doing. We’ll make sure to share all the URLs you mentioned in the episode notes. I’m so excited to see where you’re going with this. I can tell you one thing; Lila will sign up for summer camp 2016.

Fantastic.

Minecraft summer camp, what a concept. Thank you for being our guest today.

Yeah. Thanks so much. This was a lot of fun.