(Strange Loop Games)

Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon. The block-based exploration and crafting game was snapped up by Microsoft for $2.5 billion last year and has helped inspire competitors from giant toy companies like Lego.

Even the government is interested in building on Minecraft's success: The Department of Education is helping fund a project known as "Eco" that looks a lot like Minecraft, except with a few added twists: There's a looming ecological disaster and players must band together to make a community -- agreeing on laws and living in harmony with the environment.

If they fail, the world dies forever. Strange Loop Games, the company behind the game, describes it a "global survival game" and says failure results in "server-wide perma death."

Eco is designed to help teach middle school students about environmental science and was awarded a nearly $900,000 grant from the Department of Education last month. It has completed a test phase where 60 students in five classes tried it out, according to the grant contract. The prototype for that test run also received a DOE grant of around $150,000.

Here's what the game prototype looks like in action:

The latest grant will help build out new features, including a teacher dashboard, and let researchers figure out how effective the game is by collecting data on 150 students in 10 classrooms. Half of the classes will use the normal environmental teaching plan, while the other half will supplement the curriculum with Eco -- letting the developers see if the game actually helps boost students' understanding of ecology.

Minecraft itself is already used by some educators for things like building replicas of ancient Roman apartment buildings and teaching problem-solving.

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Lego offers up its own competitor to 'Minecraft'

What are you watching on YouTube? Probably Minecraft videos.