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Episode 4: Minecraft: Beyond Just Building

With over 122 million copies sold, Minecraft is one of the most popular computer games of all time. Minecraft’s game play is designed to be completely open-ended. Now, people are using the game itself as a tool to change the world around them.

This episode brings you stories of how people around the world have used Minecraft to reinvent themselves, help others heal, say goodbye to a loved one, and empower their communities.

Microsoft Stories & News · Episode 4: Minecraft: Beyond Just Building

CRISTINA: In 2011, Lydia Winters was 24-years-old and trying to get her own photography business off the ground. She and her husband had just moved back home to St. Petersburg, Florida to be closer to their parents, but their marriage had started to deteriorate.

She was experiencing that classic mid-twenties moment, where it kind of looks like you’ve got stuff figured out, but you really don’t.

Lydia decided that what she needed was a project. She’d been wanting to learn how to edit video, so she started posting short, random videos to YouTube every day. But she was craving more structure in her learning process. So, a friend made a suggestion.

LYDIA: A good friend of mine said, you know, there’s this really fun video game called Minecraft, why don’t you play that? And, I said well I’ve never really played any video games before. And he was like, well why don’t you just play from the perspective of someone who’s never played before.

CRISTINA: Lydia decided — why not? So, she started a new YouTube channel, just for posting videos of herself trying to play Minecraft.

LYDIA: And so I signed up with the only username I thought of at the time, which was Minecraft Chick.

CRISTINA: Lydia put on a hot pink wig and matching eyeshadow, turned on her laptop camera, and Minecraft Chick was born. Here’s a clip from her first video:

LYDIA VIDEO: Hi, I’m Minecraft Chick, and this is my very first daily Minecraft video show. And I’m basically going to go through, starting from scratch. Okay, so this is me starting. I don’t even know how I walk. That’s sad. Ohhh.

CRISTINA: Minecraft Chick was a hit. People loved watching Lydia’s misadventures in Minecraft.Within six months, her videos were getting tens of thousands of views. She was ready to double down on being Minecraft Chick and take her YouTube channel to the next level. So, Lydia decided to fly across the country to attend the biggest conference in gaming. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. But first… she had to figure out what she was going to do about her hair.

LYDIA: The night before I went out to E3, I decided I wanted to be taken seriously, so I needed to dye my hair fully pink, so that I didn’t have to wear a wig. So then we had this big discussion — like my mom dad and I — not over this, you know, this hair color change but over whether it was part of my brand or not to have the haircut of the wig, because my current hair was different. And so, the night before I left, my mom dyed my hair pink.

CRISTINA: At the conference, Lydia met Carl Manneh, who was the CEO of Mojang at the time. Mojang is the company that makes Minecraft. And then, a few hours later, Lydia ran into an acquaintance…

LYDIA: She came up and asked if I could introduce her to Carl, the CEO and I was like well you know I just met him like four hours ago. But sure that’s fine. So I introduced her to Carl and she was hoping — she was applying for an artist position with them. And, when I walked away, Carl said to her, you know the this position is in Stockholm, Sweden. Would you be willing to move to Sweden? And for some reason — really not even a plan or in the back of my mind — I turned around and said, it’s too bad I’m not an artist, because I would totally move to Sweden. And Karl said, Oh well actually you know we’re looking for someone to work with the community. So let’s talk about this later tonight.

CRISTINA: I’m Cristina Quinn and this is .future, a branded podcast from Microsoft and Gimlet Creative about making the future happen. And today we’re bringing you stories from 4 different people who’ve used Minecraft to build themselves a new future.

Welcome to .future.

Minecraft is one of the most popular computer games of all time. Over 122 million copies have sold, and that number just continues to climb. But Minecraft looks different from almost anything else on the market. AAA games — the big blockbuster games with the highest production values — compete to be as hyper realistic as possible. The sleeker the graphics, the better. Minecraft, on the other hand, doesn’t care about all that.

Minecraft looks like digital Legos, or a 3-D version of an old-school Nintendo game. And, with Minecraft, there’s no pre-determined quest, or levels you have to beat. There’s no winning in Minecraft. You can play by yourself or with other people. You can play with or without any bad guys in the game. You can battle zombies, collect rare minerals, or visit other dimensions. Most people start by building houses and digging caves, but Minecraft is totally open-ended. You start the game with just your character in a randomly-generated landscape, and then you build anything you can imagine.

For Lydia — our pink-haired Minecraft vlogger — that meant building a whole new life.

About six months after E3, Lydia moved to Sweden, as Mojang’s official “Director of Fun.” In reality, she was part community manager and part marketing strategist. Over time, Lydia got more involved with brand partnerships and licensing at Mojang — a hugely important job as the company went from being an indie startup to dominating the industry.

Today, Lydia still lives in Sweden. And she’s still with Mojang, she’s now their Brand Director.

In six years, Lydia went from dyeing her hair pink for her personal brand to overseeing the entire Mojang brand.

LYDIA: I can’t really even begin to describe how much Minecraft has changed my trajectory. And where I was going — I didn’t know what I was going to do. And when I got the job at Mojang, my whole life changed and it’s hard to even see back to where I was going because I’m so far from that starting point.

CRISTINA: Another part of Lydia’s job as brand director is traveling around the world, giving talks about how awesome Minecraft is. For the past three years, she has spoken at E3 — the same conference where she met Carl.

One thing Lydia likes to say in those talks is that Minecraft brings people together, even though the game is different for everyone.

LYDIA: The great part about Minecraft is that you’re able to add to it what you have what you bring — either in your life experience or your talent. It’s really this diverse and open world that’s honestly very similar to the world that we live in. And you kind of choose, and you pick what you want to do. And so, within Minecraft, that’s allowed for people to choose so many different directions. And that’s why my experience will never be the same experience as someone else’s.

CRISTINA: Lydia says if she hadn’t found Minecraft, if she hadn’t started playing it in those YouTube videos, if she hadn’t turned into Minecraft Chick, she might still be searching for what kind of chick she was going to be. She found her calling, and it changed her life.

On the opposite side of the world, Josh Wulf is hoping to use Minecraft to change other people’s lives. Josh and his family live in Brisbane, Australia. About seven years ago — when Josh’s son Prahlad was in second grade — the family moved to a new house. And Prahlad started doing something that kids sometimes do when there’s been a big change in their lives.

JOSH: The day that we moved he started wetting his bed. He’d never wet his bed ever in his life. And that happened for the rest of that week.

CRISTINA: Josh was concerned, but he didn’t want to embarrass Prahlad by making a big deal out of it. After all, bedwetting can be pretty normal. So, Josh kept a close eye on Prahlad over the next couple days as they settled into their new house.

JOSH: And I thought to myself maybe he’s like stressed or you know, upset from moving. It’s a big thing for a kid. Is he — is he anxious? Does he need something from me or is there something I can bring that will make a difference for him?

CRISTINA: But the bedwetting didn’t get better. Then, Josh noticed these other, really disturbing things happening to Prahlad.

JOSH: He had lost a lot of weight and he was lethargic.

CRISTINA: The weight loss happened really fast. And Josh, understandably, started to freak out. So, he did what any of us would do in that situation: consult the internet. What he found, scared him. When Josh searched for Prahlad’s symptoms online, the same two words kept popping up over and over.

JOSH: It was just pages and pages of juvenile diabetes.

CRISTINA: Josh immediately took Prahlad to their pediatrician to get tested. The doctor ran a few simple tests and sent them to the hospital. Right away.

JOSH: They rushed him immediately into a some kind of bay in the emergency area and hooked him up to an insulin infusion straight away and the next thing I can remember after that is doctors saying to me, we’re going to run them on this infusion overnight and see if that can bring his blood glucose levels back to normal.

CRISTINA: If Prahlad’s blood glucose levels didn’t go back to normal soon, he could slip into a diabetic coma, or even die. Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition that’s usually diagnosed in kids. Most people eventually learn to manage it — with medicine. But you can’t manage a disease you don’t even know you have, which is how Josh found himself watching over his son in the ICU.

JOSH: I was there in the hospital by myself overnight and there wasn’t much communication because most of the people who were working on him at that time were like tactical nurses. So, they’re given a treatment plan that they have to execute on and that’s what they know how to do. And they’re like we can’t really talk to you about the broader kind of picture here. This is all we know is that, this is what we’ve got to do bring him back into range. I remember distinctly, educating myself, Googling and reading and reading and reading through Wikipedia about metabolic pathways, insulin resistance, how all of that stuff works and just going, um I hope that science has developed something that can save him because like I’m looking at what’s happening to his body and the curve that he’s on and he’s going to die.

CRISTINA: Hours later, by the next morning, Prahlad’s health finally did begin to stabilize. And doctors confirmed what Josh already knew: Prahlad had Type 1 diabetes.

On the one hand, this was a relief — there was a treatment. But on the other hand, Prahlad had to learn how to manage his disease. Which is hard. The way diabetes is explained by doctors and nurses is really technical and even parents can struggle to understand it.

And the treatment itself can be onerous and time-consuming. Prahlad learned he’d have to prick his finger 4-8 times every day to check his glucose levels — before and after meals. If they got too high, he’d have to take a shot of insulin.

Diabetes is a disease that’s both routine and incredibly serious. And, there’s a lot to learn and remember. Josh wanted to make all of this easier for parents and kids to understand. He didn’t know how he would do that, until Prahlad was in middle school. Josh was a volunteer at an after school program teaching kids to code. The kids were crazy about Minecraft.

Josh realized he could build a Minecraft “mod” to help kids like Prahlad manage their diabetes and adjust to their new normal. He called it MCT1 — short for Mine Craft Type 1, as in Type 1 diabetes.

JOSH: So MCT1 is a Minecraft mod that gives the player the experience of type 1 diabetes.

CRISTINA: Okay, so, a little bit of background here: “modding” comes from the word “modifying.”

Anyone can code their own unique features for Minecraft and then share them online so other people can install and play them. There are mods that let you add animals like werewolves and mammoths to the game, or make it so the villagers can talk to you. You can do absolutely anything.

MCT1 modified the pre-existing health and food bars in Minecraft. In the regular version of Minecraft, there are two green bars to show whether or not your character needs to eat or get exercise. 100 percent is good; 0 percent is, obviously, bad. MCT 1 tweaks the code in Minecraft, so there are two more bars. One bar monitors blood glucose levels, and the other measures insulin. When your character eats, your food levels go up, but so does your glucose. If your glucose is too high, you have to stop and take some insulin.

But in MCT1 — instead of taking a shot — you just drink a special potion. That was Prahlad’s idea. As a kid who has to get shots all the time, he was sick of getting poked.

JOSH: And that’s the kind of core dynamic that we want kids to be able to grasp through the mod, rather than like hyper realistic modelling. We’re just after them to get like, these are the actions that cause it to go up, these are the actions that cause it to go down. Like these are the relationships between them.

CRISTINA: The mod teaches kids the PRINCIPLES of diabetes, instead of a bunch of technical jargon. And that gives them a better footing for taking care of themselves. When we talked to Josh, he and Prahlad were visiting Oslo, Norway for a software developer conference. Prahlad had just given a talk about MCT1.

In the diabetes world, MCT1 is getting noticed: A professor at the Queensland Institute of Technology is studying how the mod helps kids learn in the hospital environment. And earlier this year, one of Australia’s largest TV stations interviewed Prahlad.

JOSH: There’s a moment when he was being interviewed by the national news organization in Australia and they said to him, “you know would this make a difference for you” because he was saying “you know when I was in the hospital there was no immersive education. It was just — it was really confusing. They gave me all these pamphlets and numbers and stuff.” So they said to him, “you know, would this make a difference for you this game that you’ve developed?” And he said “no, it won’t make a difference for me, but it will make a difference for other kids.”

CRISTINA: Prahlad is 15 years old now. He’s healthy and thriving and Josh says he’s a totally normal teenager. He talks back sometimes and he hates getting out of bed in the morning. He also plays a lot of video games. Josh and Prahlad’s goal is to work with hospitals. They want to get every kid with diabetes a copy of Minecraft with MCT1 — as soon as they’re diagnosed.

Everyone’s Minecraft experience is different. Lydia reinvented herself. Josh made a tool to help sick kids. Victoria Bennett used Minecraft to do something a little more intimate — she used it, to say goodbye.

MY MOTHER’S HOUSE VIDEO: In my mother’s house are many rooms, each one to be closed at the end of the life. Hideaway, hideaway shut out from sight.

CRISTINA: This is a clip from a poem Victoria wrote. In Minecraft.

MY MOTHER’S HOUSE VIDEO: This is her leaving, her dreaming goodnight. Each room to be closed at the end of a life.

CRISTINA: It’s called “My Mother’s House.”

MY MOTHER’S HOUSE VIDEO: In my mother’s house, are many rooms. Each one to visit, to retell a life. Fold away, fold away …

CRISTINA: Victoria started working on “My Mother’s House” in 2015, soon after her mother, Maureen, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Victoria is a poet. Her husband Adam is an artist. At the time, Victoria and Adam wanted to collaborate on a piece of art that explored how Minecraft and poetry could intersect. They never imagined it would be about Maureen.

They had worked together using Minecraft before. In one project, Adam partnered with the Tate museum to transform famous sculptures and paintings into 3D, interactive Minecraft maps. In Minecraft, by the way, a “map” is what you call the place you move through and explore. They liked the idea of doing the same thing, but with a poem, instead of a painting.

VICTORIA: We were looking at literally the relationship between how you build a poem and how you build a Minecraft world. And we started to look at that idea of the verses the stanzas in a poem being the room. Each one is a room — that’s roughly the Italian translation of stanza.

CRISTINA: In other words, poems are like houses — made up of different rooms. That’s what gave Victoria and Adam the idea to use Minecraft to build a house, that was also a poem. Adam would handle the technical side, and Victoria would write the text.

VICTORIA: At the same time, I was exploring with my mother her life literally by going through her house.

CRISTINA: Victoria helped Maureen as she sorted through all her possessions.

VICTORIA: At this stage, knowing what was coming she wanted to kind of go through through the rooms of her house and clear things out and just look at what she had. And we we would have conversations as we went through each room about the objects in each room and the history of them and memories that they brought up for us. And I became very aware that we were passing through each room of a life and and almost the sense of closing each room down. My mum was a great traveler. But you know as the disease progressed quite quickly, it went so that she really couldn’t move around until eventually she was confined to her bed so those spaces became smaller and smaller.

CRISTINA: As Maureen got sicker and sicker, Victoria struggled with writing the poem. She couldn’t think about anything other than caring for her mom.

One afternoon — as Victoria was walking through Maureen’s house — it clicked. Victoria had to write the poem for the house in Minecraft about the process of saying goodbye to her mother’s house in real life. She and Adam set to work.

VICTORIA: That experience in her illness and caring for her in her illness informed the way that we navigated the Minecraft game.

CRISTINA: But, that also came with a lot of QUESTIONS. Questions like, is this an OK thing for kids to be exposed to? Was it disrespectful, to talk about her mother — and grief — in a video game? And what would happen once the map was out there in the world? Because once someone downloads your map, they have the power to alter it.

VICTORIA: It’s not the same as holding a book and reading it in front of people where I would be very much in control of how people experienced it. Although within the map different spaces will trigger the poem, people could actually just switch the audio off and play the whole thing without listening to it, if they wanted to. So the space in itself is the poem. People can play it without listening to any of the words.

CRISTINA: Did any of that scare you? Cuz I think that would, I see what you’re saying, that would be very unsettling.

VICTORIA: It was terrifying. [LAUGHS] It was absolutely terrifying.

CRISTINA: Victoria was caring for Maureen 24/7. In her spare moments she was working on “My Mother’s House.” But she was uncertain about releasing the Minecraft poem. So uncertain, that she completely avoided telling her mother what she was working on. Victoria knew she needed to show it to Maureen before she shared the poem with the rest of the world. But for months, Victoria — a writer — just couldn’t find the words.

Eventually, she worked up the nerve. She and Adam made a video of a character playing through the Minecraft map — walking through the poem. Through Maureen’s house — and life.

VICTORIA: And I sat down with her and we watched and listened to that together.

CRISTINA: What was it like when you sat down together and watched the video?

VICTORIA: It was really it was really difficult. And my mom didn’t. Well she was very brave and tried very much to protect us from from how she was experiencing the cancer. And so it was the only time I actually saw her cry. Um, and she said to me afterwards, throw open all the windows and the doors. Open it all up. Don’t close down the house. I suppose I’m literally letting people into the home opening the door. And you know it’s a strange you know it’s a strange kind of piece to have out there because now it becomes a sort of elegy to my mom.

CRISTINA: Maureen passed away five months after Victoria and Adam released the poem. But Victoria kept her promise to her mom. With “My Mother’s House,” Victoria has thrown open the windows and the doors and let people in.

CRISTINA: So, hey, Trupti! I’m Cristina Quinn.

TRUPTI: Hi, good morning. [laughs] Good morning and good evening.

CRISTINA: Yeah, what time is it over there?

TRUPTI: It is 7, quarter to 7. In the evening. In the evening.

CRISTINA: It’s around 9, a little after 9 in the morning here. So yes, good morning and good evening. [laughs] (22 seconds)

CRISTINA: Trupti Amritwar lives and works in Mumbai, India. She’s an architect and an urban designer. She runs an NGO that works to develop public spaces — spaces like roads, parks, and sidewalks. Basically any outdoor area that isn’t privately owned. To us, public spaces might seem like a given, but in a lot of parts of the world, they’re not. In a city like Mumbai, where about 40% of the population lives in slums, urban planning isn’t always a top priority.

Slums sometimes arise from redevelopment. Places where people have been living are marked for demolition, and the residents are moved to what are called “resettlement colonies.” And there was one in particular that had captured Trupti’s attention.

TRUPTI: They breathe in toxic air every day. It has the highest crime rate, has the lowest literacy. It has the lowest human development index. People defecate in open, they don’t have access to toilet. I mean, many people in Mumbai don’t even think that this kind of life exists. Even I didn’t know so such kind of life exists, because even I had never entered  such a filthy and such a poor area and it was a shock of my life. To be honest, I went home and I took bath. And I really felt, ‘Is this the way people live?’

CRISTINA: Trupti was so appalled by the conditions in the resettlement colony, because it was so close to where she lived.

TRUPTI: This is reality and it is so close to my house. And that is where I felt, whatever projects we take, if I can mobilize some kind of funding, this is the area where we’ll do the work.

CRISTINA: So Trupti decided she and her NGO were going to help the people living in the resettlement colony. She hooked up with a program called Block By Block. It’s a partnership between United Nations Habitat, Microsoft, and Mojang. Here’s how it works. The partner on the ground, in this case Trupti, puts on a three-day workshop for the people in the surrounding community. On the first day, you just learn how to play Minecraft. Which, for a lot of people, is surprisingly easy, even if they’ve never used a computer before. That’s part of the beauty of the game.

The next day, the participants are given a laptop loaded with a Minecraft map that looks just like their neighborhood. They split up into smaller groups with mixed ages and genders, and then they build in Minecraft what they wish they had in real life.

Then, they present their maps to an audience of urban planners, community leaders, and architects. Eventually, their Minecraft designs are used as BLUEPRINTS for construction led by UN Habitat and funded by the Block by Block Foundation. That’s how it works in theory. But for Trupti…

TRUPTI: So the first day it went off not so great for them.

CRISTINA: People weren’t used to sitting through presentations, and learning in that kind of environment. They didn’t see how the game could help them.

It was such a flop that by the end of the day, Trupti was seriously concerned nobody would come back. And, the next day, many of the men didn’t come back. But most of the women and young people did.

TRUPTI: And actually the next day only women who were kind of working with us very closely, they reluctantly came and children were interested, and the youth were interested, so they came.

CRISTINA: A couple of hours into day two of the workshop, the kids started to get the hang of it. They showed the rest of the participants how they could transform the neighborhood before their eyes, with just a few clicks in Minecraft. Everyone began working together. The older participants shared their ideas with the kids, who then implemented the changes in Minecraft. After that, the people who attended on the second day told their friends, who told their friends, and by day three, even some of the people who had left on the first day, came back.

At the end of day three, the groups presented their proposals.

It turns out, when people are given the chance to do anything they want — to dream really big — they make very practical choices.

TRUPTI: People created 5 options and they presented and they were very sensible, very workable, very doable options. They came up with simple things, like they wanted trees, they wanted benches, they wanted some area to walk. You know, nothing, nothing big.

CRISTINA: Nothing big to you or me: trees, benches, some space to walk. But a big deal for people living in the resettlement colony. Block by Block says this is really common. People propose streetlights to make the alleys safer, open drains for better hygiene, and grassy areas to just hang out in. The kinds of things many of us take for granted.

In the two years since the workshop, many of the proposals have actually been built. There’s a new playground. There are trees to provide shade. There’s even an outdoor exercise area. But, according to Trupti, one of the most important results is less tangible. The residents of the resettlement colony — especially the women and young people who stayed throughout the workshop — now feel empowered to make more, even bigger changes in their community.

TRUPTI: Because of this participation, I see the difference that there is more sense of ownership, more sense of say. Because they have decided what they want to do and we are just implementing. And they had that power to imagine, visualize in third dimension how their spaces they would like to have which nobody ever had given them that kind of chance maybe ever in their life, and they enjoyed that process so much.

CRISTINA: They had the chance to build their community the way they wanted it to be — one block at a time.

.future is a co-production of Microsoft Story Labs and Gimlet Creative. You can find more information about Mojang’s Block by Block program and “My Mother’s House” on our website at .future.net. That’s D-O-T future, period net.

We were produced this week by Frances Harlow and Katelyn Bogucki, with help from Garrett Crowe and Julia Botero. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. Production assistance from Ben Kuebrich and Thom Cote. We were edited by Rachel Ward and mixed by Andrew Dunn. Our theme song was composed by The Album Leaf. Special thanks to Adam Clarke, Pontus Westerberg, Katja Hofmann, Mimi Ito, Catherine Fox, and Sam Scott. Extra special thanks to Chavee Sachdev.

Coming up next week on Dot Future, how designing products for people with disabilities, makes them better for EVERYONE.

JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: All of us at some point are going to be temporarily disabled. Whether it’s a broken arm or an ear infection. You’ll want your product to still work for you. Let alone being in your car, or trying to open a door when your hands are full as a parent. Or, just like me with a coffee and a laptop and I’ve got no hands left. Those are the situational opportunities by inclusive design.

Don’t miss that episode, or any episode — subscribe to dot-future on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And, while you’re at it, leave us a review! We’d love to know what you think of the show, and it helps other people discover DOT FUTURE.

I’m Cristina Quinn. Thanks so much for listening!

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