Adelaide schoolkids now have a solid defence against accusations of excessive Minecraft playing, after their region’s national park managers decided to hitch a ride on the success of the wildly popular game.
The natural resource management board for Adelaide and the Mt Lofty Ranges is running a competition for primary school students to design “their perfect national park” using the famous game’s building blocks and simple design interface.
The challenge is for classes in years 4-7 to enter as a group, with the winners getting an excursion to Belair National Park for the most sustainable, practical and skilful entry. The government might even build the new park facilities they come up with, after they throw their ideas in with whatever else comes out of a wider community consultation project.
Leveraging the popularity of an existing game is a sensible approach based on tried and tested marketing principles. The hard work is done; Minecraft already has a legion of fans around the world who are primed to engage with government projects that ride the wave with sufficient skill.
It’s safe to say that very few primary school students would have otherwise taken much interest in how their region spends its share of $10.4 million earmarked for national park projects.
Digital government expert Craig Thomler points out the specific features of the game itself are also important in this case. Minecraft’s non-competitive creative mode is all about building three-dimensional models, and it’s incredibly easy to use.
The game’s value as a quick and easy 3D modelling tool with an element of fun is being increasingly recognised in education. The Danish government recreated the entire map of Denmark, but in an odd reversal of viking mythology it was unfortunately raided by US hackers. Geoscience Australia thought it presented a good opportunity to teach children about rocks.
The makers of Minecraft are on board with its use to involve citizens in the design of public spaces, too, and have partnered with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme to help that happen through the Block by Block project.
Thomler likes the basic idea for the competition, but suggests it might have benefited from more structure, if the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources was serious about getting ideas from the kids that could work in real life.
“They could have taken two or three of the real national parks in the region and modelled them in Minecraft, and made them available to download,” he suggested. As it is, the competition appears to offer them a blank slate to work from, but with students working together and guided by teachers, perhaps the extra time and effort on the part of the park management authorities was not required.
Jumping on the Minecraft bandwagon is also a much less risky proposition than full-blown gamification, an intriguing idea that more often than not, government agencies and companies struggle to pull off.
“I think the issue is that the people who are excited about gamification aren’t actually people who make successful games, so they don’t always understand the principles that make a game work, and there is an element of luck in there as well,” says Thomler.
Instead of starting with the government’s goal — often community education or consultation — and then gamifying it, he thinks success is more likely to come from the reverse process. “You almost have to put that goal aside and try to come up with a fun game, and then try to find a way to incorporate that goal.”
A former Minecraft player himself, Thomler hopes the South Australian government’s example encourages wider use of the game in Australian schools, and other areas of public engagement.
Gamification is often an expensive and risky proposition but the idea of using a simple, powerful, widely applicable product with a massive existing fan base like Minecraft is built on solid ground.