I’m not exactly sure when I realized that Minecraft was a thing, but it was sometime in the last three or four months, when suddenly my 10-year-old son and all his friends became obsessed with it. Now, Minecraft seems to be everywhere I look.
In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here are the basics: Minecraft is a video game created by a couple of Swedish guys named Markus Persson and Jens Bergensten. Launched in 2009, Minecraft allows you to construct elaborate worlds from basic building blocks, either alone or with other players. There are zombies, and monsters, and sheep, and people love this thing. According to the site of the company that develops the game, Mojang, Minecraft currently has more than 41,300,000 registered users. Ninety-three thousand people signed up in the last 24 hours alone.
Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox” game, which means that it allows users to drive the narrative and action themselves. That’s what makes it irresistible to my kid and his buddies – and what also makes it an intriguing platform for exploring real-world urban planning ideas.
Last year, Minecraft launched a project called Mina Kvarter, or "My Blocks." The program focused on Stockholm neighborhoods where outdated housing projects from the 1950s and ‘60s were due for rehabilitation:
[O]ne corner stone of the ‘My Blocks’ project is to give the people who live in these areas the opportunity to be part of shaping their future neighborhood. That’s where Minecraft comes into play; giving people a tool to visualize their ideas of how they want to change their part of town.
Volunteers from the Minecraft community have already built replicas of these areas on servers where citizens are invited to remove, build and reshape constructions, parks and roads etc. Several property owners and construction companies have already committed to use these ideas as basis for the decision making around the reshaping of these projects.
The Mina Kvarter project worked out so well that it caught the attention of folks at UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency responsible for focusing on human settlements (full disclosure: I have done some consulting work related to UN-HABITAT projects). Minecraft and UN-HABITAT have now announced that they are teaming up to work on Block by Block, which will allow people around the world to use the game to re-envision their neighborhoods – and to come up with concrete ideas that can be implemented by planners in real life:
Just like the Swedish predecessor, “Block by Block” 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. Minecraft has turned out to be the perfect tool to facilitate this process… The first pilot project in Kibera one of Nairobi’s informal settlements is already in the planning phase.
When I told my son that some kids in Kenya would be using Minecraft to help fix the big problems in their neighborhood, he started jumping up and down on the couch, he was so excited. He said pretty much exactly what I predicted he would: "That is so awesome."
Of course, just because kids in Kibera are rebuilding their broken places using Minecraft blocks doesn’t mean that those fixes will translate seamlessly to bricks and mortar. As my son says, “In Minecraft, it’s a lot easier to do things than in real life. You can basically do everything you want.”
One of the things my kid likes best about the game is the way it allows you to collaborate with other people: “You can play with someone you don’t even know, and see what they’re building.” The key to the Minecraft universe is its bottom-up, user-driven nature, and that could create its own whole new world of possibility, engaging and empowering precisely the community members who can be hardest to reach and who have the most at stake in the future: youth.
Playing in the free-form Minecraft sandbox could be a great way for governments and developers to start seeing things through the eyes of the kids of Stockholm and Kibera and other places around the globe. And that would be awesome.