Block by Block: how Minecraft is helping transform cities in developing nations

Minecraft is being used to let local residents  decide how regeneration cash should be spent

The phenomenally popular building game Minecraft is being used by UN Habitat to engage residents of developing nations in the design of public spaces.

The game’s makers Mojang joined forces with the UN agency to put Minecraft’s tools to use in regeneration projects around the world. The collaboration resulted in Block by Block, a game that models development plans so locals can contribute their urban design ideas to community projects.

Residents can take virtual tours of urban locations in Minecraft, change the model and decide how regeneration cash should be spent. These ideas are then expressed to the teams of architects and planners behind the projects.

So far some 15 cities around the world - from Haiti’s Port Au Prince to Mumbai in India - are seeing the results, as plazas and parks designed with the help of local residents take shape.

“Without public spaces it is difficult to get a sustainable city,” explains Pontus Westerberg, transparency affairs and digital projects officer at UN Habitat. “You can’t support the right kind of density without cities becoming very crowded.”

While the project is part of longer-term efforts to influence public space development and policy, Minecraft’s crucial role in the project is to encourage community involvement, especially from the young.

“We think that community engagement is really important both to ensure that the spaces that we build are high quality, needed and maintained afterwards,” says Westerberg.

This engagement usually takes place at public forums. However, the UN Habitat team found that marginalised groups such as women, the young, and the poor, can be intimidated by this environment. This prompted them to seek out news ways to boost engagement, leading to a video game being used as a way to create community participation.

Minecraft is set in a world built of cubes, each one of which is made of a different virtual material. Playing the game involves stacking the cubes to build structures or breaking them down into their raw materials to create objects and artefacts.

Westerberg credits the success of Block by Block to the greater understanding the game encourages, compared to the use of drawings or maps, which can be seen as daunting or complicated.

The game gives people greater confidence, and this sense of agency is central to why video games are successful.

“People are motivated to play video games because it satisfies three basic psychological needs,” explains Jamie Madigan, a psychologist who writes about the overlap between psychology and video games. “There’s the need for competence: feeling like you’re good at something and getting feedback that says you’re doing well. There’s the need for autonomy: having meaningful choices in what you're doing.

“The third need is relatedness: feeling like you're important to other people or that what you are doing matters to other people,” he adds.

Madigan suggests that video games that are successful, such as Minecraft, hit the right note on all three points. They allow people to feel challenged, but also give them the chance to get better at something.

“It’s nice to see the kind of agency that the people are given and how the power relationships change,” says UN Habitat’s Westerberg. “I’ve seen a teenage girl in Haiti stand up in front of an audience of urban professionals and government people and very confidently present the ideas that she and her team mates had built through Minecraft.

“Normally in that setting it’s virtually impossible to get young people to say anything.”

Photo credit: UN Habitat