Minecraft, the computer game that has no end goal and consists of simply playing with building blocks, is a global addiction: more than 50 million people play each month, with numbers on the rise.
But Minecraft is no longer just a game for building fantasy worlds. Since 2012, the UN has been using it – in countries from Kosovo to Kenya – as a tool for involving more people in the design of their public spaces, such as sports fields, central squares, and parks.
“Youth, women and the urban poor are groups that are typically excluded from public policy, participatory processes, and public engagement,” said Pontus Westerberg, a Program Officer at UN-Habitat, the UN program for sustainable cities. “And often, even when people do get invited to public meetings, they’re shy or don’t speak. That was our starting point – we wanted to give those people a voice.”
“We wanted to give these people a voice”
Each of the UN’s Block by Block projects starts with drawing up a model in Minecraft of a public space that needs regenerating. The UN then runs workshops in which they teach participants how to use the game and get them to brainstorm ideas of what they’d like the final design to look like. More than 17,000 people have now been involved in 42 workshops around the world.
“We start off by brainstorming what’s wrong with the space, then think about what they would like it to look like. The community lists their priorities, we sketch it out in Minecraft, then pass that on to the architect,” said James Delaney, the Founder of a Minecraft consultancy firm, BlockWorks. “The end result is hopefully that final design being built, which normally takes about two years.”
Video gaming and digital technologies are often seen as male-dominated spaces, but the workshops always aim to include equal numbers of women and girls from the start. “Almost everywhere, many people consider digital tech and computer games a male thing or a boy’s thing. That’s why there has become a focus on equality – if you don’t focus on it, you end up with a divide,” said Westerberg.
“You’re literally moving through space as you’re building it”
While women – particularly older women – may enter the workshops having not used many digital technologies before, the game can be learned fairly quickly.
“In the workshop I ran in Surabaya in Indonesia, we had people who had never used computers,” said Delaney. “Within about three hours the whole room was fairly competent. Minecraft is very intuitive: you have a character that represents you and every interaction you have with the virtual world is through that avatar. You’re literally moving through space as you’re building it,” he said.
So far, approximately 20 out of the 50 Block by Block projects run by the UN have been completed, leading to redesigns of public spaces from Mumbai to Kosovo. Some are still on the go, and 15 more will kick off this year.
But some projects have had to be terminated early. Success often depends on relationships built with local government and community organisations.
One of the first Block by Block projects aimed to redesign a sports field in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. But as things were nearing completion, it all fell apart. “Towards the end of the process, we realised that the issue of land rights and ownership was very unclear; multiple stakeholders said they owned the land, so it was too complicated to continue,” said Westerberg.
Political wrangling also threw things off course in another project in Peru. “We held a great participatory process in Lima with really nice outcomes, but a change of local government meant we had to restart the whole process, which took us more than two years,” he said.
Aside from the challenges involved working with so many stakeholders, and the ups and downs of local politics, there have also been questions raised over the sustainability of the concept.
“We make all these people excited about participatory design and breaking down the barriers, then we leave”
“The UN program is great, but there are some problems in the sense that they don’t seem to do much in the way of follow-up resources,” said Delaney. “We sort of get air-dropped into a developing country for three days, we make all these people excited about participatory design and breaking down the barriers, then we leave and they don’t hear from us again.”
“On the last day in Indonesia, I had all these people coming around asking, ‘Can we get Minecraft, can we continue this work? We want to take it to other schools and villages’. I had to say no, because the UN can’t just give out licenses for Minecraft, they can’t give out computers. There didn’t seem to be a solid strategy in place for that,” he added.
Asked about this follow-up procedure, Westerberg emphasised that the focus is on the outcome, on taking the community’s ideas to a designer and then concentrating on implementation. However, in some cases, the UN is able to ensure people remain engaged through community management models for taking care of the new space.
“And in terms of Minecraft continuing, often workshops take place within a community centre that has computers available for people,” Westerberg said. “In one project in Nepal, afterwards the group of youth asked me to set up a Minecraft server for them, which I did, and they continued visually building their whole area. We have an agreement with Mojang [the creators of Minecraft], so we have got lots of licenses that we use in our projects.”
Beyond the many workshop-style processes designed with one particular public space in mind, Block by Block also runs other broader projects to discover the things people care about in their cities and to test new ways of using the Minecraft methodology for urban design.
“Some processes were never intended to lead to specific change on the ground. One I really enjoyed was at the world’s largest digital inclusion festival in Mexico City, which 250,000 people attended across two weeks,” said Westerberg. “We set up a huge server with a Minecraft model of the central square of Mexico City as a crowdsourcing tool for ideas about urban design and improvements.”
Almost 7,000 people took part, and the final ideas were submitted as research to the city. “The point was really to demonstrate what is possible with the tool,” said Westerberg.
With the methodology having now been established over several years, the Block by Block program is now hoping to develop a toolkit that will support local governments to start running workshops and inclusive urban design processes themselves. This approach, which is less hands-on, is already being used on a Johannesburg project.
“We’ve recreated Aleppo in Minecraft”
“While to start with, we need to support local governments a lot to do it themselves, this could mean a far wider reach,” said Westerberg.
And beyond even urban design, there are many other avenues through which Minecraft can be put to use for governments. UNESCO is looking at potential uses in areas of conflict in relation to urban environments and architecture that are being lost or damaged.
Minecraft also has a vast educational edition designed for schools to create all kinds of immersive learning experiences.
“One project we’re working on is teaching London schoolchildren about the refugee crisis in Syria. We’ve recreated Aleppo in Minecraft – or the sections of it we have information on – and we’ve programmed a game where the player assumes the character of a Syrian refugee child who flees their home,” said Delaney. “The idea is that, even in blocky Minecraft form, you experience in some way the challenges an actual refugee might face trying to leave their country of origin.”
(Picture credit: UN Habitat)