Social games for social good: How Minecraft is moulding next generation sustainability action
This year is no different. My X-Box, Nintendo DS, iPad, iPhone (insert any new device here) addicted son has the normal voracious 10-year-old’s appetite for structured multi-platform mayhem such as Lego Star Wars and Skylanders. But, this year, there a newish video game on the block that is beginning to make me think all this gaming might yet prove to be a potent seeding ground for the next generation of sustainability action.
The game is Minecraft, and for those of you not currently among its 44 million global devotees, here’s as simple a definition as my videogame-challenged mind can muster. Essentially, Minecraft is a virtual version of Lego. It is set in an “open world” where players are free to roam, create and construct buildings, cities, ships – you name it – using 3D building blocks made from wood, stone, concrete, bricks and glass. Players also get to grow vegetables and cultivate food stocks (cows being a main form of sustenance it appears).
The game can be played in a competitive “survival” mode where you run the risk of being destroyed by a whole host of nasty creatures who turn up after dark. However, the real appeal of the game, when played in the less stressful creative mode, is the freedom it offers players young and old to imagine, design and construct built environments that just a few years ago would have been unable to create without some pretty powerful and professional modelling software.
Minecraft is the vision of Swedish geek extraordinaire Markus Persson, aka Notch. It was first released in 2009 for the PC and migrated to iPhone and Android mobile versions in 2011. Earlier this year the game made its way onto the Xbox Live Arcade platform, often seen as a crucial stepping stone for gaining mass appeal. Which is exactly where Minecraft seems to be heading but that’s not why I’m intrigued by it.
I’m more interested in the potential of an officially sanctioned offshoot of Minecraft, called MinecraftEdu, which, as its name suggests, aims to bring the video game into the classroom and use the power of its creative platform to educate kids in a way that will really grab their attention – through gaming. MinecraftEdu has grown out of the vision of a New York City teacher called Joel Levin. He started blogging about the potential of using Minecraft in the classroom as well as posting videos to YouTube demonstrating the game’s educational potential. Before long he was collaborating with Persson’s company Mojang to create a specially tailored version of the game for schools.
MinecraftEdu could help students learn about history (as this replica of a Roman Villa demonstrates), geography, chemistry, biology as well as engineering and architecture of course. There’s even a Google Groupand Wiki devoted to helping teachers apply Minecraft into their teaching.
And in the course of this interactive learning, the game also provides a platform to imagine and visualise what sustainable societies could look like, as this piece of Minecraft homework by YouTube user AZproductions117 shows.
Admittedly there has already been some debate in online forums about Minecraft’s agricultural sustainability credentials but the beauty of the game as a learning tool is its very openness. Already one environmental data consultancy called Amee is playing with Minecraft by adding real IPCC greenhouse gas emissions data to the game scenario, so demonstrating player-made climate change.
Then there’s the sustainability experiments being undertaken by Mojang itself. In 2011, the company worked with a Swedish construction and building information company to help local residents of dilapidated public housing blocks use Minecraft to plan redevelopment of their neighbourhoods. That project, called Mina Kvarter (My Blocks) grabbed the attention of the UN and, in September 2012, Minecraft and UN-Habitat launched Block by Block, a global initiative that, as Mojang describes it, “aims to involve youth in the planning process in urban areas by giving them the opportunity to show planners and decision makers how they would like to see their cities in the future.” The first project is helping residents of Kibera, Nairobi’s mega shantytown imagine a better, more sustainable living environment.
A video game for social good? Admittedly this is only one small part of Minecraft’s m.o. The much larger goal is getting millions of kids like mine hooked on another video game. But if being hooked also means imagining and experimenting with a more sustainable world then I might just add it to my own Christmas list.
This article first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog