Using Virtual Models #3

In this post I will reflect on last week’s discussion activity – as before, loosely based on David Gauntlett’s ‘Identity Models’ work.


Other events in school this week meant there was no time for full after-school club session. However, I took the opportunity to conduct another lunchtime discussion session with four of the participants. As before, discussion centred around the children’s creation of virtual models in a shared world – the same shared world that has been used for the previous two discussion sessions.

After updating all iPads to the same version of Minecraft (I had updated my version, forgetting the consequences of incompatibility with the school devices) the four children entered the world, hosted on my iPad. I recorded their dialogue as part of the screencast of my screen. I was present in the world, with the children. Two of the children had not participated in one of these discussion activities before so I briefly explained the presence of the existing models as ‘representations of people’s ideas’. I was later interested to note that the word ‘representation’ had obviously stuck with the two new children as this directed the nature of the virtual models they produced. While I was talking I noticed one of the players finishing off someone else’s ‘player’ model from the previous session by adding a head.

finishing player

This week I was interested in exploring the children’s use of space in the game, with a particular focus on the origin and development of the things they create in the game. The task set for the children, therefore, was to simply ‘build something that you think looks good‘. I then used their resulting activity as a basis for discussion with the children about why they had chosen to build the particular model, attempting to unpick their decision making process in relation to virtual creation. This revealed a range of different approaches to the task that demonstrated the children using the game’s resources in quite different ways, taking different routes from their own individual starting points.

None of the children seemed to take any time to think through their model – they all began building immediately.

The models:

  • Flags for England and Finland


This was created to represent the players of the game in the club. The Finland flag represented this players’ imminent holiday destination. His choice to create something that ‘represented’ something presumably stemmed from my earlier use of the word in relation to previous models. He said he had build flags before ‘a couple of times’ so his idea was also based on his previous experience.

Joe: ‘Well, it’s something that represents us all…It’s not random flags… It sort of looks interesting, because it’s big….’

  • A large sign


Rob: ‘I’m building me…. No I’m not, I’m building… a building… I’m building myself… no I’m not… Because I think I’m good… No, actually, I’m going to build a sign that says my name!’

Me: ‘Can you think how you got this idea?

Rob: ‘I saw the big person and had an idea ‘why don’t I build a person’, but it didn’t look right so I turned it into a sign.’

Later I noted that his sign had some blocks missing in the top left hand corner and asked if this was intentional. Rob said it’s wasn’t and returned to complete the project – I suspect he may have been occupied with his own alternative project (see the end of this post).

  • A Podium


This player explained that his podium started out as a lighthouse but adapted when it didn’t look right. The idea for the lighthouse stemmed from the fact that Minecraft allows the player to use light in a number of ways and he wanted to explore the use of this resource:

Callum: ‘It was originally going to be a lighthouse, but after the first three sections I thought ‘this looks too square, it’s not going to work out so I’m going to change it into a podium’

Me: ‘So it’s a podium? Can you think what made you think ‘lighthouse’ in the first place?’

Callum: ‘Well, I like minecraft because as well as playing with blocks you can play with light? And I kind of like the whole ‘playing with light’ aspect, so I wanted to do something with that.’

Conversation then turned to using TNT and whether this was allowed in this alternative world – at this point I was not aware that this linked to Rob’s alternative project.

  • A 3D Chicken  

The chicken earned significant praise from the other children.


Me: ‘What made you choose a chicken?’

Lisa: ‘Well, I like chickens…’

Me: ‘Real ones or Minecraft ones?’

Lisa: ‘Both. They’re cute. because they have a purpose in the world. To lay eggs’

Me: ‘Who are the eggs for?’

Lisa: ‘For the chicken. I suppose in Minecraft they’re for us….’

Me: ‘Does it look like you wanted it to look?’

Lisa: ‘I didn’t know, like, have an idea of what I wanted it to look like.’

Me: ‘Can you remember which bit of the chilcken you did first?’

Lisa: ‘I started with the feet first, then made a boat shape and then changed it to make it more round’

This model made me think about Lisa’s relationship with animals in the game. Her play often revolves around animals, and a previous model she build also involved animals. I recalled a conversation in a previous session where I heard her discussing an incident in the game where she had killed a pig for food.

Freya: [incredulously] ‘YOU killed a pig? How did you manage that?’

Lisa: ‘Well, I looked the other way!’


As usual, other topics were discussed too.

  • The children discussed their preference for this type of discussion activity in comparison with their perceptions of what a more formal interview would entail:

Lisa: ‘It’s better than an interview’

Callum: ‘Yeah, I hate interviews. A proper interview, when they’re asking loads of questions about you, they just feel like when they ask all these questions of you they feel like the person doing the interview is intruding on your life, in a way because they’re asking questions about you, personal stuff in the interview, and they feel like they’re trying to intrude….it feel’s like an interrogation or something.’

  • There was some talk about the differences between engagement with different game modes:

Callum: ‘with survival you’ve got to concentrate a lot, you’ve got to stay on task, whereas with creative you can just chill out. If I’m on survival at home I can’t stop because I’m just terrified that I’m going to get blown up!’

  • Callum discussed a building project that he had undertaken at home:

Callum: ‘I had this idea for a community… I just thought… I was watching this TV programme, and there was this big, like, community with allsorts of things from the future and things from the past and from the present….  .so you have Aztec temples and rocket stations and stuff….. It was just a show, a real life thing, but with loads of… like a live action thing – and I thought ‘hey that’s a really good idea, I wonder how I could make something similar’. First I thought about a sketch or something but then I thought ‘hey!’ and then I did it on Minecraft.’

‘What I really love with Minecraft is you can just build anything you want, I mean, before Minecraft it was just dreams people had, and it was just really frustrating because you couldn’t make it in real life… For me, it’s, like, the next best thing to real life. The second most realistic thing, even though it’s make of blocks!’

Finally, as we reached the end of the session, Rob drew our attention to a hole in the ground, demonstrating why he had not perhaps had his full attention on finishing his sign:


Inside revealed a basement had been dug and filled with Endermen and zombies, recalling the subversion of gameplay often seen during the early stages of the club.


Using Virtual Models #2

I have written previously about my use of  David Gauntlett’s ‘Identity Models’ approach in order to discuss the club with the children, adapted to take place in Minecraft. This post relates to the second discussion session that took place before Christmas, the week after session #7 of the club.


Four girls took part in the session, each accessing the shared Minecraft world on the iPads. I also entered the world, recording my screen using quicktime on my laptop, mirrored from the iPad. The children could also see my perspective on the laptop screen. I decided to continue using the same map used by the boys in the previous session in order to allow the players to see the models created by others. The idea of having an ongoing second world running in parallel with the whole-group world of the club was also appealing, not least as it would allow me to maintain some sort of historical record of the children’s models.

Again, I asked the children to create a model to convey their feelings about Minecraft and the club. Mindful of the seemingly default position taken by the last group of children who ended up producing very Minecraft-y buildings, I attempted (in retrospect, at annoyingly unnecessary length) to encourage the children to think of their creations as sculptures, drawing on their knowledge of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as a point of reference.

The models

1. Molly’s model – relating to collaboration, togetherness and imagination

Model 1

Me: Are you going to show me around then?

Molly: Yeah. I’ll show you around. Ok, so basically…

Sophie: Nice one Molly, so is that your little castle? I can see it on Mr Bailey’s screen.

Molly: Ok, right, so basically, the signs are the eyes. The glass is the nose. The bricks are the eyebrows. Ummm.. the white stuff is the teeth… um…

Mia: Big grin…

Molly: Thank you.

Freya: Let’s have a look. Hahaha!

Molly: And, um, the torches are spyhole and I’m just gonna do brown things for hair.

Me: Great. And you’ve written on it.

Molly: Ummm… ‘I love Minecraft because it makes me feel happy’

Girls: ahhh!

Me: Can you explain… can you think about why?

Molly: Yeah umm…

Mia: It brings people together.

Molly: Cos it brings people together, its really fun to play and you’re doing it with your friends, So it’s basically your world, so you can, basically use your imagination, you can do everything you want.

Mia: [singing] ‘You control it / You the owner’

Me: So are you talking about Minecraft or Minecraft Club?

Molly: Minecraft and Club.

2. Mia’s model – relating to the social experience of playing with a group

model 2

Me: And can you explain why you’re creating a person?

Mia: To represent that people that are playing Minecraft.

Me: And that’s what you like about it? [sounding sarcastic by accident]

Mia: [Laughs]

Me: That wasn’t meant to sound bad, that was me trying to understand what you like about it!

Mia: I like how there’s people playing Minecraft and how everyone… and how other people are like brought together by Minecraft so that’s why I’m drawing a person / people to represent the people playing the game. [later]

…. All the people are extra important because if you didn’t have the people it wouldn’t be fun.

3. Lisa’s model – relating to exploration and the absence of restrictions

model 3

Me: Lisa, I’m watching your creation that you built. Would you like to talk to us about it?

Lisa: Yeah. Well, the animals represent people and it’s like having to explore? Like, together?

Me: So you’ve put a group of animals together and they represent people.

Lisa and Mia: [singing] ‘Together, forever, Skyfall’

Me: And it’s the exploring you like?

Lisa: Yeah!

Me: Can you say a little more about that?

Lisa: Well, you can, like, go wherever you want to and do whatever you want. There’s no restrictions.

Mia: [singing] no restrictions!

All: Hahaha!

Molly: The sky is the limit!

Lisa: That’s what [teacher] said earlier.

Molly: Literally the sky is the limit because you can’t get to the sun. I was trying to get to the sun in Minecraft, you go up there for hours and you’re looking down and moving but you can never get to the sun.

4. Freya’s model – relating to inclusiveness


Freya: Basically I’m making a house to show… right.. .that like everyone is welcome in, cos people come into the house and it’ll show that everyone is welcome in minecraft, noone ever gets left.

Me: So you like it cos everyone’s welcome? What makes everyone welcome?

Freya: The people in it.  And everyone, like, is welcome cos everyone makes sure that everyone is ok.

Some initial observations and questions

  • Three of the children logged in to this session using their own names rather than their avatar names (the forth used the default name that had been input by a previous player). This was different to the usual club practise where they used their user names. Did this indicate a different approach to these sessions?
  • I wonder to what extent the children’s answers were still unconsciously framed by the traditional expectations of schooled behaviour – talk about everyone being included and everyone working together seemed to reflect more of an idealised version of events that the events I see during the club.
  • Text appeared on screen at various points during the session. Why did some things get spoken and others typed?
  • The responses emphasised the social aspect of the club as much as they did the children’s enjoyment of Minecraft.
  • Discussion around the models also extended to other areas, which provided a valuable opportunity to talk more widely (and also, at times, more specifically) about the club. The idea of gameplay as a social practice was raised on a number of occasions by the children, as they detailed their play at home where they often the game whilst talking with  friends over Skype.
  • At one point I referred to Mia’s statue as a male (Me: ‘Oh, your man’s taking shape really well’) At the time I missed it but when transcribing I noticed that she corrects me (Mia: ‘It’s a woman, if you don’t mind’).
  • There was often more than one focus, even in such a small group. For instance, while I was discussing Freya’s model, Molly was trying to catch our attention by ‘cannonballing’ (divebombing) from a great height elsewhere in the game.
  • Oh, and as I have come to expect, there was more singing!

Notes on using a ‘Virtual Models’ Method

In this post, at an early stage in my research project, I provide a brief synopsis of my application of a ‘virtual models’ method – inspired by David Gauntlett’s non-virtual ‘Creative Explorations’– used to seek the children’s opinions and feelings about their participation in Minecraft Club.

Photo 24-10-2014 12 51 20


In the methodological outline for this ethnography, I stated that I would set tasks for smaller groups of club participants to create virtual, in-game representations of their feelings about the club, at a number of interval during the project. This would happen aside from the regular timetabled club and would use the Pocket Edition of Minecraft on the iPads rather than the Laptop version of Minecraft Edu.

My rational for this approach was twofold: Firstly, I intended to further involve a version of the virtual world in the research process, thereby utilising a medium that the children are already enthusiastic about, and proficient in, acting as a stimulus for further group discussion.

Secondly, inspired by Gauntlett’s (2007) use of ‘identity models’ constructed using Lego, this method was chosen to give the children and opportunity to use their own ‘visual voice’ (Gauntlett, 2007, p.107), circumventing the ‘inherent linear mode of speech’ by presenting ‘a set of ideas all in one go’ (Gauntlett, 2007, p. 126). Adapting this method to work in a virtual context seemed appropriate given the focus of the study around a virtual world, particularly given Minecraft’s (admittedly simplified) status as something of a ‘virtual lego’. In this way, I hoped that children would be engaged in more sustained thinking, processing and representing of their ideas to supplement the other data collected during the fieldwork.

Outline of the session

Last week I conducted the first hybrid ‘virtual models’ / interview session with three club members, who attended voluntarily and enthusiastically. I had initially positioned this as ‘a group interview’ – which drew no volunteers from the group. However, when I subsequently mentioned that we would be using the game itself to aid our discussions, a number of hands were quickly raised (Another win for the pulling power of technology there, I think).

Seated around a table in their classroom during lunchtime, I generated a map in Minecraft on my iPad Mini and the three boys joined on their local network. As a result, all four of our avatars were present in the same virtual space, just as the four of us were also present in the same material setting. I verbally set them the task of building something that would reflect their feeling about Minecraft Club or Minecraft itself. I explained that this might seem like a challenging concept, but that anything they came up with was fine. It was refreshing how easily they took up this challenge, as if this was something they were asked to do on a regular basis. They created in game and we talked for around 20 minutes until it was their allotted lunchtime. I began drawing the session to a close but they requested to come back and continue once they had finished eating, so we continued the session on their return for another ten minutes. I took a video recording of the session, primarily to record the conversation and some of the action on my screen. I also took screenshots, at random intervals, to capture the construction of the models from my perspective. I have transcribed the conversations from the sessions.

While the children built I asked questions, sometimes leading the discussion and at other times being led by their agenda. Two of the three children were very vocal, one was less forthcoming during the discussion in general and seemed very focus on his task of creation, but was very happy to describe his model. Below I have briefly presented screenshots of the models in production, along with the transcripts of conversation that related directly to these models. Our conversations also covered a wide range of topics, including the group’s propensity to break into song, the origins of their ideas, their feelings about collaboration and the affordances of this ‘virtual models’ method.

The Models

  • Child 1’s Model – relating to infinite possibility

Photo 24-10-2014 12 15 47

Child 1: Do you need me to explain why I’m making a floating house…?

Me: You can explain it now if you like, if you’re prepared to.

Child 1: I’m making a floating house because simply because you can’t do that in real life. In Minecraft… there are no limits. You can do what… you… want! There’s no limits and you just don’t have that in real life. That’s one of the great things about Minecraft.

  • Child 2’s Model – relating to a feeling of belonging

Photo 24-10-2014 12 14 11

Child 2: Because I feel at home at Minecraft club, cos I’m with my friends.

Me: So you’re building a home? And Minecraft club makes you feel at home?

Child 2: Sometimes if I’m playing it at home… If I play it with my friends I feel like I’m at home.. or not at home it’s like magic!

Child 1: That makes a lot of sense!

Child 2: A lot of sense! Yeah I always make sense!

  • Child 3’s Model – relating to satisfaction and achievement

Photo 24-10-2014 12 20 36

Child 2: I built a village cos I like villages in Minecraft.

Me: Ok. What do you like about the villages?

Child 3: It’s like you can… Do lots of stuff in the village and there’s lots of different types of village.

Child 2: And you can trade with villagers

Child 3: Yeah and you can trade them

Me:  So these villages that you’ve built, they’re kind of erm… They exist in the game, the game makes them, is that right?

Child 1: Yeah generated game structures.

Me: You’ve built something that’s actually replicated something that the game generated?

Child 1: It just gives you that satisfaction like: ‘I can beat the game’ cos you can do the stuff that the game can!

Child 3: I can do the game. Basically… Do the game, at life, so…


These first models are perhaps more conventional in their traditional Minecraft-ness than I would have expected, given the unlimited scope of colour and variety afforded by the tools available in creative mode. In retrospect however, given the very limited introduction I gave the task, it should not be surprising that the children’s models are more literal than metaphorical in nature. This is something I will work on with other groups, and in my future sessions with this group, both through the nature of my introduction and the more conceptual nature of future questions, which may relate to ideas of identity and their experience of place and space. This said, I must also be careful not to push my aesthetic expectations on the children, just as I wouldn’t wish to put words in their mouths! Nevertheless, as a first attempt, this session enabled some effective discussion that would otherwise not have occurred, given a purely verbal focus.


GAUNTLETT, David (2007). Creative explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences. London, Routledge.