OpenSim. A piece of open source software, OpenSim lets players create their own virtual worlds, using realistic avatars and building tools, which schools can host on their own servers. The content is entirely user-generated, but there are a number of existing “grids” designed for education, like the Jokaydia Grid out of Australia. Andrew Wheelock, a technology integrator in Buffalo, New York and chair of ISTE’s virtual learning network, has developed various classroom-friendly uses for the game, including a Frank Lloyd Wright building challenge, a medieval society roleplay, and a virtual tour of a “Diary of Anne Frank”-like annex. Malstrom calls OpenSim “reliable and flexible,” adding that “It wasn’t so popular when Minecraft came out, but I’ve had kids that play Minecraft and they’re loving it. They can push the building concepts a little bit further.”

Eco. File under “Something to look forward to,” this still-in-beta virtual world doubles down on Minecraft’s resource mining concept with a sustainability twist. As the logistics get hammered out by the development team via player input, a lot of fun quirks are taking shape that lend to learning, said Isaacs whose class has been involved in beta testing. “When you start the game, you and all the players on the server are presented with a challenge,” he explained. “Maybe you have to build a certain amount of buildings, a little village, but you can’t allow more than one animal to go extinct, or more than one plant species. There’s all this criteria you’re balancing against.” Having to operate within the challenges gives players focus and forces them to be collaborative, another concept the game encourages. “One of the really cool things is they have this mechanism where players in the world can impose laws and other players build on those laws,” Isaacs said. “In order to maintain the population of elks, you might say you can only hunt two elk a day. And if it’s voted on, then that becomes a restraint in the game. The players are self-governing. The idea of where it could be [someday] was tremendous.”

Lego Worlds. Lego’s open sandbox adventure has been described as a more “immediate” Minecraft. Resource mining and multi-step creation processes are kept to a minimum to allow players room to explore. But the lack of multiplayer options and things to do might be offputting, as the game is still in beta. One of its biggest selling points? “It’s a very visually appealing version out of the gate,” said Isaacs. “And you can do a lot with vehicles, and that’s also opened up new possibilities. In Minecraft, you have that whole community that wants it to be bare-bones and create what they can out of that. While something like Lego Worlds will give you a little more to work with.”

Next page: Branching out from the traditional sandbox