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A Minecraft World Built for Exploring Chemicals

The new world, called MolCraft, is a virtual chemistry museum

smithsonian.com

Toss out those ball and stick models of chemical compounds and grab your game controller: Chemistry has finally entered the realm of gaming. Thanks to chemistry students at the United Kingdom’s University of Hull and the Royal Society of Chemistry, now there’s an entire Minecraft world devoted to teaching the basics of biochemistry.

“I got tinkering and started to think of ways of incorporating chemical structures into Minecraft,” MolCraft project leader Mark Lorch tells Emiko Jozuka for Motherboard.  

When you load up MolCraft (Molecules in Minecraft), you appear in a central hall adorned with teleporters that take you to rooms filled with enormous 3D models of chemicals like myoglobin (a protein found in muscle tissue) and asparagine (one of the most common amino acids on Earth). From there, you can fly around the structure and look at it from any angle, whether it’s taking in the entire chemical or zooming up close for a look at the bonds that hold its atoms together.

But there is more to the game than just zipping around different molecules, MolCraft is centered around a scavenger hunt. Treasure chests are scattered throughout the game, holding everything from short quizzes to iron swords to mark a student's progress through the game—like discovery of the atom of iron hiding in the heart of the twisting ribbons that make up myoglobin.

The scavenger hunt might one day be a way to measure student's progress in the game, allwoing teachers to judge whether their students explored enough of the game’s nooks and crannies, Alexandra Ossola reports for Popular Science

As Lorch and Joel Mills, another of MolCraft’s project leaders, write for The Conversation:

You don’t have to be interested in biochemistry and its implications to appreciate that proteins are beautiful wonders of nature, just as you can appreciate the elegant design of a car without knowing how it works. The difference is that you can see wonderfully designed cars all the time. But where could you marvel at the structure of a protein?

MolCraft isn’t the first Minecraft world built with the classroom in mind: others have recreated medieval villages and designed geological maps of the U.K. Players have even built fully operational hard drives in the video game world (one can even store up to one kilobyte of data).

Right now, Lorch and Mills are trying to get schools in the U.K. to integrate MolCraft into their studies. But in the meantime, anyone interested in taking a spin around MolCraft can download it for free, play online at the University of Hull's server, or even make their own MolCraft-inspired Minecraft worlds using downloaded models from the game. 

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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