My country, your country – Week 4

Just like last week and every other week before that, students were supposed to simply tap the server inside the Minecraft PE app and enter their world. Only this time the app returned an error saying that the server is down and must be updated to the game’s latest version in order to work. We were all caught by surprise and nearly panicked because first, we did not know how to actually update the server and second, there was no guarantee that the world would remain intact after the update.

At some point during the past week Minecraft PE received an update from the App Store. These updates are quite often (every two to four weeks) and usually aim at fixing in-game bugs and introducing new tools to the game experience. From the time when we were setting up the server by following the instructions available at the PocketMine forums, not once did we encounter any info concerning the server update or how do game updates can alter the save files. One big disadvantage of PocketMine being an open-source software is the fact that instructions and solutions to problems are scattered all over the forums, in the form of questions or comments, and can be quite difficult to find what you are looking for, especially when looking for specific files. Fortunately, by doing a simple search in Google, we were able to find a Youtube video explaining how to upgrade PocketMine to the latest version, which included clear instructions as well as the installation files themselves in the description. In less than thirty minutes we had the newest version installed and the server up and running, but not before backing up the previous server version just in case things went wrong.

Finally, the students were able to join the server again without any problems and resume their work. Unfortunately, because of the update some minor visual bugs appeared inside the game, mainly in the texture and skins of some block types. That being said, it was not anything serious and could be easily fixed by replacing the broken blocks with new ones.

Lesson learned. Always keep the server updated to the same version as Minecraft PE.

As for work, up north a group of students went back to building the waterfall situated in the Geres National Park. Mountains and waterfalls are some of the most challenging projects a user can undertake, because they have to be made of gradually smaller layers of randomly placed blocks, or else they end up looking like pyramids. Nevertheless, our mountainous waterfall was starting to look more and more like a real one and less like a waterpark slide. In addition, traditional stone granaries, typical of the area, started appearing close to the bank of the Douro River.

Untitled design
Before and after.
A traditional granary for storing corn, usually found in the north of Portugal.

The Alentejo area was expanded even more and new structures were added to it.

A small chapel in the middle of the village’s square.

One student decided to add a new area to the world, a small city situated in the center of Portugal called Évora.

The Templo de Diana, also known as the Roman Temple of Évora.

Castles are quite the usual site in Portugal. They come in various sizes and can be found in almost every city (and almost every village too). One small group of students decided to build a standard castle in a small village situated between Porto and Lisbon, so that they can understand what goes behind the construction process and eventually try and build one of the more famous, real-life castles.

Minecraft is described as a “sandbox” game, and  building castles fit this description perfectly.

Back in the capital things were looking very promising. The “Fado” traditional restaurant together with “Mine” Hotel were completed, and a boat was added in Tagus River. On the other side of the river one group began building one of the most recognizable monuments of Lisbon, the Cristo Rei Sanctuary.

Restaurant and hotel are both open for business.
The Cristo Rei Sanctuary overlooking the city of Lisbon.

Even though the students had less time to work because of the server issues in the beginning, they still managed to conclude some of their unfinished projects and initiate new ones.

My country, your country – Week 4

My country, your country – Week 3

By week three everyone knew the routine. Come to class, enter the server, join your workgroup, resume building. After the first interaction with the world map, students had a whole week to think and investigate on what they would like to work one, either a monument, a building or a biome. Most came back with new and fresh ideas while others continued where they had left last time. By now everyone where more comfortable with the whole project and were working faster and more efficiently, as seen from the photos below.

In the north of the country Dom Luís I bridge was concluded, while new elements were added to the biome.

Dom Luís I bridge in Porto is now open for visit.
The Douro River in the North that will eventually pass under Dom Luís I bridge.

The desert biome, also known as Alentejo, was expanded even more. Being the largest biome of them all, it is also the one that involves most of the manual work, since every single ‘grass’ block needs to be replaced with a ‘desert’ one.

Water is essential in such a dry environment.
All those green blocks? They must be replaced by yellow ones. Not the most exciting of tasks.
Alentejo by night is magical, even in Minecraft.

In the south of the map, some students got together and began working on the beach biome, with some interesting ideas to accompany their creations.

Having a cafe close to the beach is a priority in Portugal.
Beach umbrellas too. Lots of them.

Everyone would agree that the most ambitious area of the world is Lisbon, the capital city itself. To give this area an urban look and feel, some students started by building a hotel and a restaurant. A second group decided to initiate construction on one of the most famous Portuguese monuments, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, situated on the bank of the Tagus River, which was previously added by the same group.


The Padrão de Descobrimentos in its early stages.

In less than two hours, we had all of the biomes of the world in some stage of development, while Lisbon was slowly taking shape.

My country, your country – Week 3

My country, your country – Week 2

On week two of the project we were ready to divide the students in workgroups and begin with the construction of Portugal. By now we were certain the server was reliable and all students had access to it.

Creating an entire country in Minecraft is no easy task and students needed to be well oriented inside the three-dimensional space as to where and why they should build. For this reason, during the week following the tests on our dummy server, we created a model map containing important information that students would then use to orientate themselves, as well as understand the various areas and regions that they had to recreate. The model map was based on a children map we found in the internet that showed with bright colors and simple drawings the morphology and most important places of Portugal.

Rik & Rok’s map of Portugal

Using the above map we were able to assign the correct biomes to each region, as well as distinguish the most important cities and imagine how they would look in-game, what kind of fauna they have, the location of forests, rivers and mountains. Minecraft as a game offers a variety of biomes that users can interact and play with in the form of the game’s most recognisable shape, the cube. For measurement purposes it is important to keep in mind that a block in Minecraft is equal to one meter cubed (1 m3) in real life. These blocks can be placed or destroyed as the user seems fit, and whole in-game biomes can be altered if necessary. In survival mode biomes are assigned randomly in different sized areas of the world, whilst in creative mode the default biome is ‘grass’. From the indications of our map we were able to understand the biomes we were going to use, starting with ‘tall grass’ and lush forests in the north of Portugal and moving down to ‘grass’ for central Portugal, ‘sandstone’ for the zone known as Alentejo and eventually ‘sand’ biome for the sandy beaches of the south. We were also able to recognize some of the most important cities of the country, such as Lisbon, Porto, Faro, Coimbra, Castelo Branco and Aveiro, as well as the Serra da Estrela mountain range, the Geres National Park, and rivers Tagus and Douro.

Using the EssentialsTP plugin that we installed beforehand we were able to add warp points to every one of the above locations to facilitate traveling between them. When we first spawned inside the server we immediately defined those coordinates as the ‘Home’ warp point, conveniently placed in the center of our map, where our users would eventually spawn the first time they would log in. To help with spacial orientation we placed a cross-like pattern on the floor with in-game signs indicating  the name of the warp point as well as the four cardinal points, north, south, east and west. Minecraft includes day and night cycles, with the sun and the moon moving accordingly to their real-life paths. This feature helped us to understand and correctly indicate the cardinal directions. Finally, we did the same for all the main warp points, as can be seen on the following map, a customized edition of the above one.

warp points
Active warp points inside our Minecraft world.

To help students understand how and where the warp points were placed we created a simplified version of the original map and placed them side by side. In general lines, Portugal has a rectangular shape as seen from above, and the warp points were placed in accordance to that generic shape. In addition, in order for us to to define the scale of our country’s model we had to create every warp in accordance to the distance from the ‘Home’ warp point. For this we used a stopwatch and defined distances by time of traveling to each location. Inside ‘creative mode’ Minecraft users can choose to travel either by walking or flying, with both ways also offering running mode. We decided that in order to reach the northernmost or southernmost middle points of the map from ‘Home’, users had to fast travel flying for twelve seconds. For simplicity reasons, half of that time (six seconds) would be needed to reach the easternmost or westernmost middle points of the map. In addition, every other warp point in between these four points was conveniently placed in the middle of every respective distance, which in turn corresponded more or less to Portugal’s real-life locations. All this information could also be found on the top left corner of the map in the form of a legend.

With all the warp points in place and the map explained, our students were finally able to join the server, this time inside the map they would work on for the following weeks.

The first thing students had to do was to make sure that every warp point was working for them. Later, as a first group activity and a way to officially initiate the project, we asked all the users to meet at the upper warp points where they had to help with the creation of the northern biome. Within minutes the biome was filled with trees, grass and flowers, while some students decided to go a step further and began working on the waterfall situated at the Geres National Park. Slowly and steadily other students began auto-organizing themselves in group works and started discussing what they would work on. One student asked for permission to construct the Dom Luís I bridge in Porto, while another group decided to move to another area of the map and started working on the desert biome found south of the ‘Home’ warp point. At some point houses started to appear in different areas of the map, each one respecting the architecture and colors of the respective region.

We were now creating a whole country inside Minecraft!

My country, your country – Week 2

My country, your country – Week 1

On the first week of the activity, the students were introduced to the project and the people behind it. We explained to them the objectives and reasons for participating in it, as well as some general rules of classroom behaviour and group management that they would have to respect for the duration of this activity, as in any other school project.

The main goal of the first week was to test the PocketMine server that was already up and running on our Mac mini. With so many users accessing the server simultaneously, placing and removing blocks and working on different parts of the map we had to make sure that the server can support all this data traffic. For this reason we generated a “Test” map and gave our students their whitelisted usernames in order for them to access the world. The students had only one job to do, try and crash the server by any means necessary.

Children are so capable and innovative at creating as they are at destroying! Within minutes of accessing the server, and after the initial awe and excitement that they could see and interact with each other within the same world, that open green flatland was turned into a battlefield of epic proportions. Lava rivers, floods, TNT explosions, zombies, it was chaos.

Fifteen minutes into our ruinous frenzy and the server was already lagging, although still standing strong. Another fifteen minutes and some students were mentioning that the blocks they were placing were disappearing out of sight , while others couldn’t move anymore to certain positions of the map. After one whole hour pure destruction we had to ask everyone to log out, as the server was not responding to most of the functions that the students were inputing.

All in all we failed our primary objective to crash the server. It became unresponsive and extremely slow, but it did not crash down. Which was fantastic news because this meant that the server could hold on well by itself and keep its save file intact, since it keeps saving in real time. As for the students, they had a fantastic time trying to bring the server down. This activity not only served as an introduction to the tools and user interface of the game itself (something all students are completely comfortable with already), but it also served as an icebreaker and helped the students to feel comfortable inside the classroom, they got to know each other better through play (since they come from different classrooms) and were given the opportunity to do something completely free of rules and objectives before diving in into the project itself.

My country, your country – Week 1

My country, your country – From invitation to implementation

Some weeks ago, our school received an invitation to participate in an international collaborative project called “My country, your country”, organised by the Asia-Europe Classroom Network, under the direct support of the Asia-Europe Foundation.

In “My Country, Your Country”, students from schools around the world will create their country geographically through Minecraft. The objective is to offer students an interactive and fun way to study the geography of the ASEM member countries. By setting up public servers, the students will be able to communicate over the platforms themselves, where they can also visit each others worlds. In addition, the students can document their workflow and post screenshots of their creations on Facebook and blogs.

Some of the objectives of this project include to know the landscape of ASEM countries, foster collaboration among the students and exchange and share information on technology through various discussions. Expected outcomes include the creation of a digital landscape map and images, as well as the understanding of spacial orientation and landscape image. With this contribution, the project expects to build understanding among the participants and minimise stereotypes.

The project was received with great excitement here at PaRK Internarional School, because it fitted perfectly to this year’s curricular objectives, as well as inside the CT curriculum that the school introduced in the beginning of this school year, in order to better accompany the iPad 1:1 program of the school. With the reception of the project and the decision to move forward with it, we decided that the actual activity would take place on a weekly base during the “My Time” afternoon, a day of the week where the students of the 5th and 6th grade are divided in groups and participate in various project-based activities prepared by their classroom teachers. For this particular activity, 20 students were pre-selected to participate and a classroom was made available for the duration of the whole project. Since every student from the 5th and 6th has an iPad at their disposal, and all of them already have Minecraft installed on their devices, fulfilling this prerequisite was very easy.

With the physical space arranged, timetable fixed and students selected, we were ready to move to the next phase: setting up a Minecraft server in an iPad 1 to 1 environment.

There exists many different ways to create and host a Minecraft server, all with their advantages and disadvantages. Minecraft Realms is a cheap and simple way to set up a Minecraft server for multiple users to join in and create together, and it is also run by Mojang, the creators of Minecraft. Unfortunately, it only supports PCs, as well as buying the game itself for every device that is running it. This solution was immediately dismissed because, as mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons we decided to move forward with this project is the fact that all students have an iPad at their disposal with Minecraft Pocket Edition already installed. This requirement called for a server solution that could support Minecraft PE on mobile devices, and probably the most widely used is Netherbox. Netherbox provides support to both desktop and pocket editions of the game, with the only disadvantage being the pricing plans and limit of players for each one. Which brings us to PocketMine, a free Minecraft PE server hosting software for mobile devices that comes with plugins support (plugins will be discussed later on), a solid community of  forum users and no player limit, making it the perfect solution for our project. The catch: manual installation and configuration.

There are many other solutions out there specifically designed for Minecraft PE, but none of them come close to the features and tools offered by PocketMine. For example, one of the simplest ways to host a Minecraft server is included with the game itself. Whenever a user creates a world in Minecraft PE with the option to “Broadcast to LAN” turned on, any player can join in as long as both players are in the same Wi-fi network. However, this option has a limit of five simultaneous players only, offers no plugins support and the world is only saved on the host iPad, meaning if the person that created the game in the first place is not available, then the other players cannot access the world. Instant MCPE is a website that automatically creates a Minecraft PE server by simply clicking on the grass block found in the site, free of charge. It provides the user with an IP address that can be typed inside Minecraft PE to enter a “survival mode” world that can host up to ten players (more about “survival mode” in the following paragraphs). This server, however, is destroyed after twenty four hours or one hour of inactivity. Lastly, Multiplayer for Minecraft PE is a payed, iOS-only app that users can install in their devices in order to create or access Minecraft PE servers. This method is considered to be the easiest of them all (excluding the “Broadcast to LAN” option), but as the ones before it also does not offer any support for plugins.

We decided to go with PocketMine for a number of reasons. PocketMine is available for PC and Mac, as well as Linux and Android, which in turn was perfect for us since we had a Mac mini at our disposal to host the server. Servers tend to occupy more and more memory and resources the more users are accessing it, so a desktop computer is essential to keep the server stable and running. Also very important to keep in mind, PocketMine is an open source software, meaning anyone with the right knowledge can contribute to the update and maintenance of the software. This, however, can cause some confusion as to which is the latest and most stable version to use when setting up a server. We discovered, buy trial and error process, that the newest version is always posted on the front page of the PocketMine forums site (version 1.6 at the time of writing) and not at the official PocketMine website. Instructions on how to install the software can be found at the forum post and the website. As for instructions for setting up the server itself, they can be found here or here.

With the server installed and running on the computer, it was time to configure it to our needs and objectives for the project. The first thing we had to decide was that the type of world our students would work on. Minecraft PE offers to types of gameplay, survival and creative. In survival mode, a world is randomly generated by the game itself, including animals, monsters, mountains and caves, while users have a limited number of resources in order to build and stay alive. In creative mode, the world can either be randomly generated or completely flat, with users having access to all the tools and resources of the game, as well as flying. To create something as complex and rich as a country, we decided creative was the way to go, thus allowing our students to start from scratch and build in an open and obstacle-free environment, just like a white canvas. In addition, some functions of the game itself were disabled, such as animals, monsters and PvP, no only to keep students focused to their tasks and make building easier, but also to keep the server as lightweight as possible and avoid lag issues. Next step, we had to ensure the security and backup of the world from unwanted and unexpected situations. The whole server was moved to a Dropbox folder, in order to make sure that a backup of the whole system is constantly being created. We also activated the whitelist option and created unique usernames for all our participants so that only them can access the server whenever is needed. Because of the fact that users can join the server only when both device and computer are on the same Wi-fi network, any other device on the same network that runs Minecraft PC can access the server, in the same way that “Broadcast to LAN” works. To avoid any unnecessary acts of “griefing” and protect the work of our students, we created a whitelist to limit that access to only this group of students.

PockeMine comes with a set of build-in commands and tools that help the teacher monitor, edit and control most of the settings of the world in-game. These commands are exclusively available for the world’s OP (or Operator, in this case the teacher) and can be enhanced and enriched with the installation of plugins. In general, plugins are add-ons to the server that can change the way the game behaves, add new functions or help OPs with the maintenance of the world. For this project we understood that it was essential to have a robust command tool that could allow students to travel fast from one part of the world to the other, and this is done possible with the use of a plugin called EssentialsTP. With the help of this plugin, the OP can set warp points in specific places on the world map that users can then use at portals to teleport from one location to the other. We also added a second plugin to the server called Slapper, that allows for the spawning of any type of animal from the game, which will eventually populate specific areas of the world as we see fit.

With the whitelist activated and plugins in place we were ready to access our server and begin constructing Portugal!

My country, your country – From invitation to implementation