And now, local governments are joining the game, using Minecraft to engage with, educate, and solicit input from their citizens — especially the younger generations.
Minecraft is a video game where users explore and interact with a virtual world through avatars. Players can visualize a place, such as a city, and then modify it by building structures or other elements. Essentially the goal is to understand and improve the virtual world.
Sounds a lot like what local governments do in the real world, doesn’t it?
Some cities have started recognizing these parallels, and are leveraging them in innovative ways: Rather than an imaginary city, why not have players conceive of enhancements to the places they live?
Citizen players could get creative and, through the game, ideate and build solutions to improve their hometowns. Local governments could then turn these into real-world projects, focusing their efforts on things they know residents really want or need.
At the same time, Minecraft has the potential to educate residents about new plans or challenges in their local areas. Similar to virtual reality projects, presenting development or public space improvements in an easy to visualize format, on a platform citizens are already using, makes it much more accessible for residents to understand and get involved.
The game itself is intuitive and easy to pick up. Even players with limited computer experience have been able to pick it up after a few hours. But one of the biggest opportunities is among a group that tends to be more digitally savvy: youth.
“Experiences from using Minecraft in this way show that the game increases youth’s interest in urban design and planning, enables them to express themselves in a visual way, provides new ways to influence the policy agenda and helps youth develop skills and network with other people from the community.”
This makes it a powerful entry point for local governments to connect with a group they typically don’t have much interaction with.
The United Nations as an early adopter
One of the early promoters of using Minecraft to drive citizen engagement was the United Nations. In 2012 UN-Habitat partnered with Mojang, the creator of Minecraft (which is now owned by Microsoft), in an effort to leverage the game to encourage youth participation in urban local government and urban development.
This program, known as Block by Block, began as a test in Kibera, Nairobi. A sports field in Nairobi’s largest slum was recreated in Minecraft and used to solicit community feedback about the space. From there, technical plans were developed shared with the community to illustrate what was planned.
“By navigating a three-dimensional world, the participants were able to express themselves in new ways, and previously sensitive issues, such as the size of the football pitch, which had produced several disagreements throughout the process, were resolved.”
But you don’t need a partnership with the UN to benefit from Minecraft as a local government. Cities can — and are — powering up their own Minecraft worlds to engage with residents in their own homes. Let’s take a look at a few cities who have put their own spin on the game:
Kelowna, BC uses Minecraft to introduce young residents to GIS
The city built the world using 150 datasets — and released it for GIS day. Not only does it encourage young players to become more familiar with the city, it also serves as an introduction to GIS and the idea of open data.
“We are constantly looking to use data to tell a story about our City and we saw this as an opportunity to introduce more people to our open data offerings … Who knows, maybe a young person who starts off with the Kelowna Minecraft world gets more interested in GIS and goes on to a profession in information technology or planning.”
While Kelowna’s Minecraft world may have been created to inspire local youths, the publicly available world has the potential to inspire something else: tourism.
By encouraging players to interact with the Western Canada vacation hub in the game, Kelowna can connect people to its vineyards, beaches, and ski hills virtually. The natural next step would be for players to want to see the places they built upon in real life.
Adelaide, SA puts a then-and-now spin on its Minecraft world
Like Kelowna, the South Australia capital has transformed its locality into a virtual world. In Adelaide’s instance, gamers can choose to play in the past … or in the future.
For a retrospective look, players can go back to 1836 and build the city of Adelaide from the start. Armed with an original town plan, they’ll have to make decisions based on the natural landscape and resources.
The city introduced its Minecraft as a response to local lockdowns during the pandemic; with people unable to engage with many aspects of their local community in person, the virtual world became a way to stay connected.
But the stories the city leaned on do more than bide people’s time during quarantine. Adelaide’s Minecraft gives its residents a deeper understanding of the city, from providing a first-person look at how it came to be, to sharing the (virtual) burden the local government faces in present day.
Making the local population — especially young people — more aware of local context and challenges in a fun and engaging way creates an entry point for them to become (and stay) engaged in their community beyond the video game.
How to apply Minecraft to engage citizens
As Kelowna, Adelaide, and the UN show, there’s no one size fits all solution. But UN-Habitat does provide a basic template for cities looking to capture community feedback through the game:
1. Create a Minecraft model of a public space, based on images, Google maps, and any public data that’s available
2. Host a workshop to train participants how to use Minecraft, and brainstorm ways to improve the public space
3. Assign participants into working groups to build out ideas in their own Minecraft models. This typically takes a few days.
4. Participants present their Minecraft models to city stakeholders
5. Proposals are considered for adoption into the city’s budget & design process
Of course, if the goal is simply to engage or educate community members — not capture feedback, another option is to follow the lead of Kelowna and Adelaide. Cities can create a Minecraft world and just put it out there for citizens to download and go.
Tips for cities using Minecraft
Before you call in local Mindcrafters to build your own world, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
First, as with all innovations in local government, it’s important to start with a goal or reason for using Minecraft — don’t start playing with Minecraft just because it’s there. Decide whether you want to use the game to gather input on a specific topic, or build general engagement.
The following are also important to note when introducing Minecraft at a local government level:
Provide plenty of training
Sure, many young residents may already be pros when it comes to Minecraft. But just because it’s popular doesn’t mean everyone knows how to play — or even access Mindcraft worlds.
If you’re hosting an in-person workshop, be sure to build in ample time for training. If providing a world for players to download on their own, be sure the download page contains clear instructions about how to save, access, and play the game.
Kelowna offers a good example: the city’s download page links off to a Minecraft user's guide. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if instructions are already available, just be sure to direct your players to the info they need.
Consider adding an incentive
While Minecraft itself isn’t about “winning,” cities can encourage participation by gamifying the experience a little.
In Mexico City, Block by Block launched a competition asking young people to redesign a public plaza. Later the group ran similar competitions in Mérida and Saltillo. The contests generated hundreds of submissions, and the winning projects were presented to local departments to consider for implementation.
Think beyond the structures
Minecraft isn’t just about erecting buildings and designing landscapes — it’s about creating worlds.
Don’t overlook softer elements, such as concerts or carriage rides, that constituents are adding to their worlds. These can enhance a community, and may even be easier to implement in the real world compared to construction projects.
Keep participation gaps in mind
While Minecraft can be a winning way to engage with the younger generation, access and exposure to technology may be unequal in some communities. The UN-Habitat’s Block by Block program found this to be especially true in some cultures when it came to gender:
“There is a need to consider how power dynamics associated with, for example, gender and digital knowledge influence how women and men can participate in design and decision making.”
Before drawing any conclusions from inputs sourced from Minecraft worldbuilding, It’s critical to consider who may not be able to participate, or who may not be as equipped to share their ideas through the game.
With these considerations in mind, Minecraft is a powerful platform for cities to connect with younger residents in new ways. As the UN-Habitat concludes:
“Games, such as Minecraft offer a clear possibility of engaging with youth on their own terms and present new ways of involving them in political deliberation.”
The opportunity is there. Now’s the time for more cities to get in the game.