Replay: Minecraft and the power of the IKEA Effect

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in February 2013 after reflecting on my kids’ addiction to Minecraft.

My children are living in two worlds.  Almost every evening, I have to ask my kids to shut down their iPod Touches and return to planet Earth.  After some minor protests, they’ll re-engage with my wife and I but I can see it in their eyes.  They long to return to the boxy world of Minecraft.  For those of you who may not know, Minecraft is an online application where players build their own worlds.  Minecraft functions almost as if someone had digitized an entire box of Legos and shipped them to an imaginary 3D world.  While it’s often called an online game, no one “wins” at Minecraft.  In fact, there aren’t any rules or points to score in the game. Players just build.

The game has two basic versions:  survival and creative modes.  In survival mode, players must survive an attack of zombies, monsters and spiders and maintain their health by collecting resources available in the Minecraft world. My children typically play in creative mode.  In creative mode, the objective is more free form and open: create your own world.  By assembling Minecraft blocks, my son and daughter build trees, houses and all sorts of different structures.  When I talk with my kids about their Minecraft world, they light up.  My son will show me the house he’s built inside a mountain and my daughter will show the elaborate forest she’s constructed.  Even though they’re just selecting and assembling blocks in a digital space, they’re proud of their work.  They’ll excitedly navigate through their Minecraft world showing me all of the products of their labor.

While thinking of the pleasure that my children derive from playing and building in Minecraft, I heard a news report on NPR that discussed the IKEA effect.  Researchers at the Harvard Business School examined people’s affection for products they had assembled from IKEA.  Compared to products that came pre-assembled, individuals valued objects they had assembled themselves significantly more.  People value the products of their labor when they are able to successfully complete a task, the researchers claim. Put more simply, labor leads to love.    Even though the participants in the study were simply following step-by-step instructions when assembling the IKEA products, the researchers found a greater valuation of these objects in comparison to similar pre-assembled ones.  But the research wasn’t just limited to chairs and bookshelves from IKEA.  Researchers found similar effects to more hedonic products like Origami flowers and Lego structures.  When studying the construction of these objects, researchers found that the participants valued their creations so much that many expressed a desire to showcase the objects to others.

And that’s the motivation behind Minecraft.  Give players the opportunity to build something and they’ll value the experience and the product of their labor.  Even when applied to a virtual space where players assembled objects from a finite number of pieces, the IKEA effect can be powerful.  Just look at my 6-year-old son and my 11-year-old daughter.  They’re absolutely under the influence of the IKEA effect.  The IKEA effect explains to some degree why it’s so difficult for them to shut off their iPods and return to the land of the living.

But the IKEA effect isn’t negative.  It actually can be really powerful when applied to our classrooms.  Consider incorporating opportunities for students to create something in your classroom.  Maybe have them create a digital story. Or conduct some research.  Or even build a website.  While the labor for these projects may not necessarily to lead to love, it may help build ownership into the classroom content and have them value the course content even more.

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