For the first time in history, the majority of the planet’s population now lives in urban areas. Within a generation, that number will balloon to more than two-thirds of all people. Public space — from parks to markets and even streets themselves — is a key indicator of the health and sustainability of cities.
“Well-designed cities count 30 to 40 percent of their land as shared public space, while improvised communities in developing cities can dip under 5 percent,” said Pontus Westerberg, U.N.-Habitat (the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development) digital projects officer and program manager for Block by Block.
“Done correctly, cities can be drivers of innovation and great contributors to economic growth,” Westerberg noted while observing the workshop in Hanoi. “But done badly, cities cause social disparity and huge environmental problems. That’s true in the slums of Nairobi or Kathmandu but also in the sprawling cities of North America.”
In order to understand Block by Block, one must understand Minecraft. Vu Bui, chief operating officer of Mojang and president of the Block by Block board, who was also at the workshop in Hanoi, explained, “Minecraft is essentially 3D digital Lego in that it’s a game about placing and removing blocks. Everything is on a one-by-one-by-one 3D grid and you can play by placing blocks, exploring worlds and mining more materials — hence the name. It’s what’s called a ‘sandbox game’ and it’s an open world in which you can do just about anything.”
And by anything, he means: anything.
“One of the first epic builds I saw was the Starship Enterprise in a one-to-one scale replica. People build amazing, elaborate worlds like Westeros [from ‘Game of Thrones’] and even the country of Denmark — right down to having residents add detail to their own homes.”
Minecraft, which was released in 2009, is now the world’s most popular PC game and one of the most popular games, of any sort, on the planet. One hundred million paying users play in community-designed events and build things with others in “creative mode.”
Minecraft is much more than a game. It is a cultural phenomenon that is as widely recognized on the streets of Hanoi as in Houston. Beyond the Lego comparison, Minecraft is, in fact, one of the storied, plastic construction toy’s most popular lines. It can also be found on backpacks, T-shirts, hats, keychains (the list goes on) and it is soon to be a major Hollywood movie.
It is also a design platform with such ease of use that it has transmuted into a form of communication. Bui said, “Minecraft is a purely visual language. You can walk through your designs, fly above them, and people, no matter their native tongue, can all understand immediately, with no additional explanation. There is nothing between you, your idea and the person you are showing it to.” It doesn’t cost anything to place or break a block. It’s an unlimited pencil, with an unlimited eraser and you are able to sketch as much as you are able to think. The only cost is time.
It is educational. Code Builder for Minecraft: Education Edition is a new feature that allows educators and students to explore, create and play in an immersive Minecraft world — all by writing code.
But there is even more to Minecraft: Among the core community, there’s a sense that it is something that changes peoples lives, if not the world. Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s brand director who runs the merchandise and publishing program and was also a Block by Block founder, counts herself among these people.
When Minecraft was created, Winters was an elementary school teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida. She had not actively played video games since “Oregon Trail” and had never been on an international flight. She started her own YouTube show, The Misadventures of MinecraftChick, about learning to play Minecraft. Winters’ videos earned a global following and a few short years (and smart moves) later she found herself living in Stockholm and guiding a brand with merchandise that occupies shelves alongside the likes of Marvel and Star Wars.
“And it’s not just me,” Winters said. “I talk to so many people in the community whose lives have been changed by Minecraft. It gives people a creative voice to express themselves. We know it can change lives because we have experienced it ourselves.” Bui is also a member of this group as he was a photographer and videographer in Los Angeles when Minecraft was founded.
Those who believe in the transcendental power of Minecraft are eager to share it with others and show that it can be so much more than “just a game.” Since her first days as MinecraftChick, Winters wanted “to share that positive impact at scale and prove out the promise of Minecraft.”
That leap started in 2011, when Swedish Building Services Project Manager Jörgen Hallström was working to develop sustainable urban environments in immigrant housing projects near Stockholm. Sweden has a long history of democratic municipal planning processes — stakeholder participation is even encoded in the law. Hallström argued that “It takes additional time but strengthens ownership of the community and our democracy.”
Bui, who is half-Vietnamese and lived in Vietnam for two years as a kid, gave a speech to the group in Vietnamese, much to the joy of the students. “Maybe they won’t all become urban planners, architects or activists,” he said after his speech. “But all will hopefully see the value of their education and feel empowered that they have something to offer in terms of a career.”
Prior to Block by Block, Westerberg had long searched for a way to use technology to engage youth in the development process. “We found a language that kids enjoy and understand which is important because they are the majority in many places and will grow up to be the adults in the city,” he said. “Minecraft is not just a game. It is a co-creation tool to build better cities and better communities with more equal societies.”
Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of Minecraft Education, who is also on the board, said, "In the workshops we saw valuable ideas for better lighting and safer walkways. The students were able to communicate specific safety improvements to city planners through their Minecraft designs. I see the same increase in student voice and shifting power dynamic when I visit classrooms using Minecraft as part of their curriculum as well."
Quarnstrom agreed that the workshops and other game-based learning offer numerous indirect impacts too. “Participation also builds confidence in youth and in girls who are often left out of planning and design conversations. They see that they have the potential to make a difference. And this confidence encourages girls to use technology and express their ideas."
“Minecraft inspires people to be creative,” said Winters. “For some, they have never been able to express that side of themselves before. You can take a complex idea, and easily create a virtual world.” Phan Thi Ngoc Huyen added, “Games are usually fantasy. It was nice to use a game for the real world.”
The ideas that the girls presented to the board, other NGOs and Vietnamese politicians ranged from play areas to a women-only coffee shop to a shelter with a camera that does facial identification at the door. There were plans for unbreakable streetlights in the tunnel, a tree house shelter (why not?) and a free phone to call for help. Other general improvements included street benches, trash cans, improved signage, lighted walkways, security fences along a stream, murals in the tunnel, flower beds and cutting back overgrown hedges. They even talked about converting abandoned structures into public restrooms.