As noted in the last Irish government’s strategy for engaging young people in the decision-making process, “[w]e often think of children only in their capacity as future adults, with less regard for the contribution they can make to our world during childhood… children and young people are not ‘beings in becoming’, but rather are ‘citizens of today’ with the right to be respected and heard.”[i] So how exactly can our youngest ‘citizens of today’ make their voice heard? As part of the CCAT project, we wanted to create an opportunity for dialogue between young people and the adults responsible for making the decisions that will directly affect them now and in the future. Recently, the CCAT team and planners from Fingal County Council held a number of participatory design workshops with young people from around the Rogerstown Estuary area in Fingal. Participants were brought together to help inform planners and decision-makers in the Council by visualising their ideas for the future of their local area – all using Minecraft.
Minecraft is a very trendy bandwagon to hop on, after all, what other platform offers a userbase of 126 million monthly players despite being 11 years old? From PCs to PlayStations and smartphones to VR headsets, it also has the advantage of working on almost any modern device with a screen and an internet connection. This is ignoring the classroom where Minecraft: Education Edition has been incorporated into the curriculum as a game-based learning platform by educators in over 150 counties. The appeal of Minecraft as an engagement tool goes beyond its expansive and dedicated fanbase, its real strength lies in its ability to offer (almost) total creative freedom. The primary way of playing Minecraft is through Survival Mode, creativity and inventiveness are leavened by dropping players into a Cast Away/Homesteader-style survival situation where they must endure a randomly generated hostile world with only meagre resources at their disposal. Every resource needed has to be extracted by the player and used to create tools and items that allow for greater comfort and expansion. The ultimate aim for the player is to carve out a place in their new world through this process (i.e. mining+crafting=Minecraft). Importantly for us, it is also possible to remove the survival element of the game to focus completely on creation, we can do this through Creative Mode. In Creative Mode the player has infinite resources available to them and are impervious to damage, thus allowing them the autonomy to create anything they can imagine.
Urban planners have harnessed that freedom offered by Minecraft to create digital platforms where players can express their vision of real-world things. In the last few years, there have been several initiatives that used Minecraft to engage the public with digital citizenship and urban planning in various ways. Geocraft NL stands out as one particularly ambitious project of recreating the whole of the Netherlands including every house, building, road, river and tree. Players can join and contribute to the process of beautifying and detailing this replica. As part of a collaboration between Mojang (the game developers behind Minecraft), Microsoft, and UN-Habitat, Block by Block is another project using Minecraft as a tool to give communities around the world a greater say in managing their neighbourhoods. Closer to home, Ordnance Survey Ireland released some Irish geospatial data for Minecraft while Ordnance Survey UK produced a Minecraft map of Britain. These projects were all the product of a fairly complex process that required converting spatial data into a format compatible with Minecraft.
Using a piece of software known as FME, aka. Feature Manipulation Engine, data such as GIS or CAD files can be converted and loaded into Minecraft for use any way we need. In the case of Fingal, we needed to recreate the area around Rogerstown Estuary and we had a lot of data at our disposal. While maybe not as ambitious as recreating the whole of Britain, combining spatial data for things like roads, elevation and housing we reproduced parts of our study area down to a level of detail that included every house and building!
After putting out a call for interested young people our workshop was booked out in a matter of 3 hours! Gathering virtually over Microsoft Teams we met our players and tasked them with designing whatever they thought would benefit their local area now and in the future. Our focus was on reimagined green spaces and public parks, street design, biodiversity and public buildings such as schools and community facilities. After a day of hard work, we got everything from bike paths and walking routes to skateparks, trees, playgrounds, pitches, beehives, wind farms and solar farms.
One of our immediate realisations was just how experienced our players were. Not only did they have imaginations vivid enough to design their submissions, but they were experts at realising their creations in high levels of detail. As a local authority, Fingal County Council is required to consult the public on major development projects, traditionally this is done through inviting written feedback or holding town hall-style public meetings, forms of interaction that rarely inspire interest from the youngest in our society. It is clear that our young participants were proficient in using Minecraft as a tool to articulate themselves and their desires for the future in a way that more mundane forms of consultation cannot always offer. As an ideation process, Minecraft has tremendous potential to allow young people to make their voices heard in a practical and tangible way.
This was the first of a number of workshops focusing on using Minecraft for public engagement and design, keep an eye on our Twitter account @ccatproject for information on future events.
[i] Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2015) National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-making, 2015 – 2020. Dublin: Government Publications.