Digital Camping

Aside from my creative pursuits, I serve as Scoutmaster for my son’s Boy Scout Troop. All politics and bone-headed decisions aside (I see no reason to discriminate against kids OR adults) scouting is a wonderful organization where kids get to learn important lessons that simply don’t get taught much anymore. It’s an organization where boys learn how to be leaders, community members, entrepreneurs, and team players all in one.

I see myself in an advisory role, not a helicopter role or drill sergeant role. We camp in separate sites, they buy and cook their own meals and plan their own activities. It’s mostly organized chaos that way and many Troops fall back on the parents running the show, but I want my boys to have complete ownership. Sure, I have to steer them in the right direction sometimes, but that’s my job.

All that said, my group is a unique bunch. They like camping, love swimming but they are also products of the digital age.  If given the option, they would most likely plop down on a couch or a desk chair and play video games all day. So we’ve had some non-traditional scouting moments which they inspired and the best of those has been our virtual campout.

Every one of the boys is a huge fan of Minecraft, a phenomenon I had no respect for at first. The graphics were weird, the game play clunky and it didn’t seem to measure up to breathtaking, complex games I enjoy (like Skyrim).

Our first attempt the boys stepped into a new, untamed landscape with no camping fees, no trash to clean up and no gear to load. (Though to prep, for weeks prior to this, the Patrol Leader and Assistant Patrol Leader had used the program to setup a basecamp). We gave them a simple objective – work together and build a bridge across a river.

Probably four hours longer than it should’ve taken, the boys were finally done. But in that time they had started to form an actual team with assigned gathering, building and protective duties. Watching it go down, I was impressed and we decided to make the server a permanent part of our scouting experience. They started running the server on weekdays after school and weekends.

As Scoutmaster, I felt it was my duty to ummm log on and monitor…yeah, that’s right. I built my own camp far away from their own and started checking the game out while keeping an eye on their interactions. I was surprised at what I found.

With Minecraft you have to follow simple survival skills in order to play the game. You have to secure shelter (for at night, monsters wander freely) and food (because if you don’t, you starve and your health drops, making it easier for monsters to hurt you) and you can scavenge for and put to creative use a mini-world full of materials. All of this with no blood, gore or bad words (well, hopefully not anyway.)

You want to sleep in a bed? Chop down a tree, collect some wool and make one first. You want a steady food supply? Capture livestock and feed and care for them. You even need to understanding basic navigational skills, because the sun does rise and set along with a distinct sky full of stars.

The most eye-opening thing however was how it imitated what actually could (and does) happen on real world campouts.

I’d hang out in my tower on the hill listening to the activity, eating a plate full of steak and potatoes while the boys ran around starving to death because they didn’t want to put forth the effort to make a simple meal. And then when they finally did decide on making food, they constructed vast underground farms in order to bake cookies, one of the the least nutritional foods in the game.

Boys would get lost – one poor soul fell into a ravine with no food, starved and was eventually devoured by a zombie. (Okay, so that doesn’t happen in real life.)  However, I could quickly ask things like “Did you make a compass?” “Do you have any food?” We could hit the basics of navigation and organize search parties. We could safely experiment with trying to have the lost soul stay put and maybe light a torch as a beacon for the group. When they added fireworks ot the game, I suggested carrying those as flares. We’d go on hikes where I had marked trails and the boys would have to keep their eyes peeled for the signals and landmarks along the way. Eventually, they worked together enough to establish their own walled city and a barter economy where they could trade goods and hang out in safety.

It even taught me, as a leader, where certain problems and conflicts were with the personalities in our groups.

The whole experience has been a bit eye opening. Sure, this isn’t a substitute for real life experience, and yes, the server hasn’t entirely been a learning experience. However, it has proven to be a useful social medium where the kids can explore concepts bigger than the typical shooters allow. Yeah, we still camp outside, in non-digital space and often, but the virtual campout has found its place, too.


What experiences with virtual communities and environments have changed your “real” life? Anyone else learn something from a game lately?

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