Minecraft scenario planning: could a cult game be used to envision the future?

At the beginning of October, I had the pleasure of attending the Code for America (CfA) Summit with many passionate folks working on civic innovation across the country.  The goal of the Open Planning Tools Group has always been to make the tools of planning more open and accessible to traditional planning agencies as well as an emerging class of citizen planners.  In the spirit of this, Lou Huang @saikofish presented a compelling idea during the Code for America Ignite presentations (what is Ignite?).  Lou is an incoming 2013 CfA fellow who has a background in urban design, coming to CfA from Van Meter Williams Pollack in San Francisco.  His 5 minute presentation focused on how we could use games to improve planning/design engagement, particularly how to use Minecraft to import real cities and “edit” them according to an individual or collective vision.    If you don’t know what Minecraft is, here is a description in Lou’s words:

..it’s a game where you’re dropped into a randomly generated world of 1×1 meter blocks with nothing, and you have to mine for all of your resources, like wood, and stone…And you use those resources to build a shelter to protect yourself from the elements in the game world. It might be as simple as a dirt shack but as people build more, their creativity and imagination takes over. It could be something like [a] Frank Lloyd Wright style home…or an epic winter lodge such as this [one]. But Minecraft also has a multiplayer component to it which allows multiple people to log in to a server and work together to build bigger projects than they could normally.

User's build shelter to protect themselves in the unforgiving Minecraft landscape

User's build shelter to protect themselves in the unforgiving Minecraft landscape - from Lou Huang's presentation

Lou gives two main examples of how Minecraft has been used in imagining the future built environment.  Mina Kvarter (meaning My Block) was a project in Sweden that engaged volunteers in the Minecraft community to build replicas of 1950’s and 60’s housing projects that residents could re-imagine during a community workshop.  Also, UN Habitat is engaging the Minecraft community–with the support of Minecraft’s creator, Majong–in a project called Block by Block to update 300 public spaces by 2016.  Kibera, an informal community in Nairobi, will be the first pilot project for which planning is already underway.

Lou ended on the provocative idea about using open city data to import entire cities into Minecraft for use in planning engagement more broadly.  This taps into a convergence of movements around open data and gamification (Participatory Chinatown and Community PlanIt are 2 examples of bringing gaming tactics to engagement around planning).  I think there’s a lot of promise here to use open data as the raw material in many different systems for engaging a wide range of people.  Lou’s idea helps us turn planning meetings into serious fun, but imagine all of that data about community vision coming back out into expert scenario tools that can judge the impacts and communicate those back.  There is an ecosystem to be built here and we hope you’ll join us as we build a human driven planning platform built not of a single tool but of connections facilitated by tools, data and people.

Representation of Star Trek Enterprise being imported into Minecraft on top of representation of city data being imported into the same game

If you can import a replica of the Enterprise, couldn't you do the same with cities? - from Lou Huang's presentation

You can read Lou’s original Ignite script here and download his presentation here.

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