My childhood in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York was spent doing all the normal things that kids get into, but my two favorites were running around on Grandma and Grandpa’s farm – and locking myself away in my room to play video games for hours on end. I’d spend hot summer days trekking around the fields and playing with calves, only paying half attention as my grandparents worried about when it would rain next or thinking about what kind of fertilizer they would use. At night, I’d sit on my bed and, yet again, guide fun characters through nearly infinite mazes, while learning how to solve problems and falling down pits.
Even as I grew older and changed, so did the world and my awareness of the increasing challenges that the world faces. No one in my family was surprised when I decided to pursue an education focusing on climate change and its sociological perspectives, wanting to think through complex problems related to the environment and agriculture through a sociological lens. Our planet is rapidly warming. Global warming causes a lot of issues across geographies and sectors, but few are feeling the pain more than our farmers. The climate crisis is increasing the severity of droughts, flooding, and severe weather events – there were so many U.S. tornados in December. The worst part is that so few people know about the challenges that farmers face on a daily basis, mostly because they are not exposed to it at all.
That is where something called “Farmcraft” comes in. Farmcraft is a free global e-sports competition that enables students in grades 3-12 to learn about agriculture and farming using the popular video-game Minecraft. A deceptively simple game, Minecraft is a creative sandbox that gives players the ability to make entire worlds and share ideas with one another, no matter how far apart they are. Seizing upon this concept, the U.S. Department of State and the North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) ran the first version of Farmcraft in 2021, giving students the chance to take part in a wide variety of activities and challenges in Minecraft that foster learning about agricultural topics. Last year, over 1,700 students from 37 different countries dedicated themselves to the concept of “Learn, Play, Grow,” exploring Farmcraft’s five biomes with one another during a time when so many of us were physically distant.
I think the most important part of Farmcraft is that it brings the challenges of farming to students’ fingertips, showing them just how hard it can be just to grow crops (and how our choices affect farmers – and consumers – all across the world). If you think that tomatoes are tasty (you’re right, of course!), so do insect pests, and farmers have to find smart, effective ways to deal with them. Should the pests be killed by hand? Or using an insecticide? What about a genetically engineered plant? In Farmcraft, all of these are options, and students must grapple with the monetary costs and environmental impacts that arise from their choices. In 2021, top scores in Farmcraft were earned by students in Malaysia, Uruguay, Botswana, Malta, Mexico, and the United States, who all worked to maximize crop yield, save money, and preserve the environment – all while playing a video game.
This year, Farmcraft 2022 is expanding upon the previous world and scope, bringing in new tools, features, and learning outcomes. Especially important this season is climate change and the tug-of-war that it has with agriculture – greenhouse gas emissions from farming can worsen climate change, while extreme weather events and patterns make it harder and harder to grow food. Even as they are challenged by climate change in the game, the students are given more choices, and they will have to use their phenomenal critical thinking skills to grow their crops in a sustainable, productive manner.
Thankfully, the students are going to have help from agricultural experts throughout the entire program. During preseason events, speakers join biweekly livestreams to offer challenges to the students so they can practice their skills in the standard Minecraft sandbox while also learning more about real-life farming concepts. Already, USDA specialists have given their unique perspectives on food production and climate, and students have submitted videos that use Minecraft to explain their approaches to farming and show off their gaming skills!
On March 30, the official Farmcraft 2022 season will launch. I’m so excited to see how the students will engage, test themselves, and learn and inspire each other within the Farmcraft world, even as they become the leaders of tomorrow. I wish that I’d had the chance to learn about farming both out in the field and on my gaming console. Registration is open through April 13th – students need an adult sponsor, who can join in on the fun too. See you there!