Where there was once a derelict market in the Sunny Hill neighborhood of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, now sits a skate park. Rollerblades, skateboards, and BMX bikes make a constant clatter as kids and teens roll up and down the half-pipes, quarter-pipes, and ramps. The popular public space is very much a brick-and-mortar endeavor, but it owes its existence to Minecraft, whose parent company was bought by Microsoft in 2014. In the process, the Redmond, Wash., company absorbed an innovative social project involving the United Nations.
The $2.5-billion acquisition made waves in the video game industry as Microsoft moved in to scoop up the immensely popular world-building platform from Swedish company Mojang. Despite initial fears in the rabid Minecraft community, the game continued to grow in popularity and spun off a deeply discounted education version for schools.
The pedagogical potential is precisely what captured the attention of Deirdre Quarnstrom, who was intimately involved with the acquisition as chief of staff to Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft Xbox. She is now the general manager of Minecraft Education, and an early booster of one of Mojang’s Minecraft side projects: Block by Block.
“It’s somewhat unique in the gaming industry to have a very popular video game reaching outside the entertainment space and being involved in things like urban planning,” she told GeekWire.
In 2012, before the acquisition, a Swedish architect and the parent of a Minecraft devotee came to Mojang with an idea. What if Minecraft, with its digital Lego-like tools making for easy mock ups of buildings, were used in an urban design workshop with everyday people? Architect software like Google Sketchup or AutoCAD is far too sophisticated for laypeople, but they are the ones whose input urban planners are always seeking when it comes to new designs for infrastructure, whether a new mass transit station or a proposed public park.
Minecraft-as-civic-participation went so well in Sweden that the architect brokered an introduction between Mojang and UN-Habitat, the United Nations lead agency for cities. The result was a memorandum of understanding whereby Mojang would help UN-Habitat deploy Minecraft in cities where the agency was coordinating the renovation or creation of public spaces. They called it Block by Block.
“We were amazed that people were interested in using a video game for something that felt so serious,” Mojang COO Vu Bui told GeekWire.
Since then, UN-Habitat has used the platform for 40 projects in 35 cities in 25 countries, like the market-turned-skate park in Pristina. The software has traveled far and wide to help redesign fishing docks in Haiti, a park for immigrant children in Anaheim, and a Mumbai slum.
“In project after project I am amazed how quickly people can learn the tool and start expressing themselves,” UN-Habitat’s Pontus Westerberg told GeekWire. “Even people with no previous computer experience can pick it up in half a day or less. We’ve worked with people from slums all over the world. It’s a great empowering experience for them.”
While anyone can learn Minecraft — the team was impressed that older Haitian men redesigned their fishing docks with no prior computer experience — tech-savvy youth have a natural advantage. That gives them a more powerful voice compared to traditional public input processes. “If we have a couple of teens paired with adults in their 30s or 40s, usually the one sitting at the keyboard holding the mouse is one of the young ones,” Bui explained.
He recalled one of the Haiti projects as particularly empowering for young women, where teenage girls stood up at the public meeting to defend their proposal. “We push that their must be youth and equal gender representation,” Bui said. “We don’t want our workshops to be middle-aged men.”
Once Microsoft took over, the tech giant shepherded the ad-hoc arrangement between Mojang and UN-Habitat into a formally incorporated 501(c)3 non-profit, the Block by Block Foundation. Both Quarnstrom and Bui sit on the board of the foundation, which now operates with a roughly $2 million annual budget funded by royalties from Minecraft merchandise sales, settlements from Minecraft licensing disputes, and individual donations — Microsoft employees chief among them.
Quarnstrom is a hands-on board member, visiting sites around the world, including the Pristina skatepark, to personally vet projects before signing off on the roughly $100,000 that Block by Block contributes in licenses and funds for consultants to run the public meetings.
In Anaheim, she watched the children of immigrant workers build a vision for a neighborhood park in two hours. In Hanoi, she listened to teenage girls articulate a vision for better lighting on their route to school.
“It’s pretty eye-opening to the architects, landscape architects, and city planners to see how valuable and enthusiastic the input is from the community,” she said. “Even in the developed world when running a public input process, it’s hard to make the connection with blueprints, but when you provide them with a 3D virtual model of the space [the audience] becomes much more engaged.”
The journey from the virtual world to the real world sometimes leaves Quarnstrom bewildered at Minecraft’s versatility. “Sometimes it feels a little surreal to me when I’m on the phone with three or four city planners as the representative of a video game,” she said. “But it’s because the game does have an impact.”