Can a video game help bring landscape architecture to the masses?
According to Deirdre Quarnstrom: absolutely.
Quarnstrom is the general manager for Microsoft’s Minecraft Education program, which promotes the popular video game’s use as an educational tool. She is also a director at Block by Block, a nonprofit partnership between Microsoft, Minecraft-creators Mojang Studios, and the United Nations that uses Minecraft to broaden community engagement around public spaces in the developing world.
At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Quarnstrom was joined by Lauren Schmitt, ASLA, and Anaheim parks manager Pamela Galera, ASLA, to discuss how landscape architects can use Minecraft to expand and deepen the community engagement process.
Minecraft was first released in 2009, and since then has sold 150 million copies worldwide. The game allows users to create, modify, and explore 3D landscapes constructed out of one meter blocks. According to a 2016 article in the New York Times, it is the third most-selling game in history, behind only Tetris and Nintendo’s Wii Sports.
“Minecraft is a game, but at its core, it’s also a really powerful building tool,” Quarnstrom said. “Because it is blocky and not precise, it becomes a very accessible way for people to start building.”
Quarnstrom pointed out that many non-professionals find it difficult to understand how two-dimensional drawings translate into three-dimensional space. Minecraft helps bridge that gap, and in doing so, allows more people to participate in the design process.
“In the developing world, we find that the planning processes are often dominated by men,” Quarnstrom explained. Block by Block facilitates community engagement sessions using Minecraft to reach those usually excluded from those conversations, especially children, women, and the elderly.
These engagement sessions are not confined to a screen. Participants use site visits to contextualize the study area and then hold brainstorming sessions to discuss their ideas and address challenges. It’s only after those steps that the teams begin to develop their designs in Minecraft.
At the end of the workshop, the participants present their designs and rank ideas. Those blocky Minecraft designs are then handed off to professionals, who use them to develop buildable projects. Block by Block funds construction and works with local officials to ensure they are maintained after construction. According to Quarnstrom, Block by Block has successfully completed 75 projects in 30 countries.
When Minecon, an annual Minecraft convention with 15,000 attendees, was slated to come to Anaheim, California, Quarnstrom was struck with an idea. Why not bring the same process for a project in the festival’s host city?
As it turns out, the timing was perfect. “When we were approached by Block by Block, we were in design on the upper half of the Anaheim River Walk, and there was an opportunity for a children’s playground,” said Galera, Anaheim parks manager and landscape architect.
“We wanted this playground to be cool; we wanted it to be something very special.”
Galera and her team have used other tools for community outreach in the past, including open houses, pop-up meetings, and craft sessions building model playgrounds with ordinary materials like cups, straws, and string.
Galera worked closely with Block by Block to bring neighborhood children into the design and planning process for the new playground. They first created a basemap of the project site in Minecraft, which was loaded onto laptops for the participants to work on.
They then gave the participating children a “crash course in urban design” so that they could understand the project’s constraints and limitations. Finally, the children worked in groups to develop their ideas and build their models in Minecraft.
The playground they designed is now under construction.
“For opening day, when we have our dedication, we’ll have the children out there and celebrate their contributions,” Galera said. There will also be a mural painted on a wall at the back of the park that will permanently commemorate the children’s involvement in the process.
Galera sees Minecraft not just as a tool for community engagement, but also as a way for landscape architects to engage with children about the profession and expose them to landscape architecture as a potential career path. In the case of the Anaheim project, she said that many of the participants were children of migrant farmworkers for whom the experience may have been their first encounter with landscape architecture.
“This is our challenge as landscape architects: our profession is nature-based, but it’s also people-based. We have to evolve to make sure our profession continues. This is just another tool. We shouldn’t be afraid of it; we should embrace it.”