SEATTLE — When Microsoft acquired the creator of the game Minecraft in 2014, the giant software company instantly got a cachet bump with children, picking up a blockbuster game app for a generation that didn’t depend on its products the way their parents did.
Now Microsoft hopes Minecraft can help it in classrooms, another area where its once-mighty grip has been shaken by companies like Google and Apple.
On Tuesday, Microsoft plans to announce it has acquired MinecraftEdu, a modified version of Minecraft tailored for use in schools. Over the last several years, MinecraftEdu has attracted a strong following and is used in over 7,000 classrooms in more than 40 countries.
The modifications to the game were created by a start-up, Teacher Gaming, that Microsoft is not acquiring. Microsoft declined to say how much it was paying for MinecraftEdu.
While Minecraft is known as a game, it is more akin to a digital sandbox, inside which players can construct anything they want, much of it out of block-shaped materials. The creative, rather than destructive, possibilities of Minecraft have caught the eyes of educators, who see it as a supplemental learning tool for everything from anatomy and earth science to math and literature.
In the Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County, Calif., for example, elementary school students in social science classes have met up inside the game and recreated the features of local historical sites they have studied, such as the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. Students in science classes there have used it to demonstrate their understanding of building circuits.
Most of Minecraft’s appeal is as entertainment, though. There are more than 100 million registered Minecraft players. It is the top paid app, years after the game was introduced, on the two dominant mobile app stores from Apple and Google, and is the best-selling PC game of all time, according to Microsoft. More than 160 million people have watched over 5 billion hours of Minecraft videos on YouTube.
In short, Minecraft continues to be a huge success a year-and-a-half after Microsoft bought Mojang, the Swedish creator of the game, for $2 billion. But it has not yet buttressed other Microsoft businesses the way company executives had hoped.
Some believed, for example, that making Minecraft available for Microsoft’s smartphones could give the struggling devices a lift. They are still struggling.
“Now that we’re a little way down the road from the acquisition, it still isn’t clear to me what the synergies are between Microsoft’s core business and Minecraft,” said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.
“To be sure, Minecraft itself continues to be a very successful and popular franchise,” Mr. Dawson said, “but I’m not seeing any evidence that Microsoft is somehow benefiting beyond the performance of Minecraft itself as a stand-alone entity.”
Classrooms could be a test of whether Microsoft can use Minecraft to achieve broader company objectives.