The Computer Game Helping Classrooms Focus and Communities Rebuild

Minecraft has come a long way.


Describing itself as a game of ‘placing blocks and going on adventures’, the 2D swords and digitised landscapes of Minecraft are an escape into a less complicated world for kids and (big) kids alike. But, in a successful example of technology, education and development merging, this unassuming video game has evolved far beyond its original intended use.

In May, Microsoft launched beta testing for their revamped MinecraftEdu which hosted over 100 schools from 30 countries globally to help fine tune Minecraft: Education Edition. This month, the edition will release an early access program for educators to trial the product for free. Minecraft – which is essentially a game that challenges players in the areas of imagination, problem-solving and construction – ignites an interest in learning by allowing kids to explore, build and understand historical wonders like the Pyramids of Giza.  The key to this use of Minecraft is that the ‘game’ aspect of the program is still pre-served – meaning students are keen to use it – but with a sneaky, educational aspect snuck in.

The appetite for Minecraft learning is so fierce that the educational program is available in 11 languages and across 41 countries.

But there are even bigger strides that the game is making in the development sphere – here, the humble game is also being used to rebuild and empower whole communities.

The United Nations programme working towards a better urban future, UN Habitat, has been operational for close to 40 years, promoting ‘socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development and the achievement of adequate shelter for all’.

On the lookout for alternative methods of community involvement in the urban planning process, in 2012 UN Habitat approached Mojang, the developer giant responsible for multi-player online video game, Minecraft. And Block By Block was born.

Pontus Westerberg, Digital Project Manager for UN Habitat explained that applying the skills of the game to other contexts had surprising social outcomes.

“In Haiti, we had a group of fishermen who couldn’t read, couldn’t write and had never used a computer, design a plan for Place de la Paix,” told Mashable. “They built a sea wall to prevent the area from flooding, and added public toilets. These models really let them visualise the changes they want to see in that space.”

With a goal of over 300 public spaces by the end of 2016, UN Habitat really has their work cut out for them. Thankfully, according to Westerberg, the reception from participants all across the targeted regions, has been nothing short of revolutionary.

“After just some basic training, it’s amazing how quickly people pick it up.”

Workshops are organised through partnerships with local community and government groups, with men, women and children from around the urban area invited to participate in the digital mapping and virtual improvement of their local environment.

Using data obtained through online mapping data, the disused or misused urban spaces are recreated on the gaming platform. This gives participants an accurate blank canvas from which to work, adding in plants, flowers, sporting facilities, open grass or paved areas, skate ramps and play equipment, benches and tables for community use, as they like.

At the conclusion of the workshops, data from all participants’ designs are collected and feedback provided on the most popular features for implementation.

As for the execution of such improvements, funding is gathered through a percentage of profits from Minecraft merchandise and online currency, as well as public donations and the sale of other online gaming programs.

With proposed, current and upcoming projects in the slums of Haiti, forgotten valleys of Nepal, neglected spaces of Mumbai, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and even Kosovo, Serbia, the widespread adoption of such a simple, effective utilisation of an existing technology is an example of well-planned and managed initiative for change and social good.

By providing the tools to shape their own neighbourhoods without the need for any formal training, Mojang and UN Habitat have highlighted the importance of community and the human element of our built environment and are now literally rebuilding the relationships of broken urban settlements, block by block.

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