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story.lead_photo.caption Mark Barnes, a professor at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College, uses the video game Minecraft to demonstrate urban planning to people in other countries. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Mark Barnes played Minecraft nearly every day after he got his hands on an early-release copy of the video game.

The game, initially developed by the Swedish company Mojang, is a virtual sandbox -- a three-dimensional realm in which characters can build their own worlds by adding or removing a variety of cubic blocks.

The building aspect of the video game pulled in Barnes, who had wanted to become an architect or engineer but later went into the liberal arts. And the then-graduate school student got hooked on the game quickly, sometimes playing into the wee hours of the morning when he was working on a big or complex build.

Little did he know then that his love for the game would lead him to a job as a Minecraft consultant for U.N.-Habitat, a program of the United Nations that seeks to address issues of urban growth in developing countries.

The agency had been working, in part, to improve the quality of public spaces by hosting workshops, teaching locals about urban design and letting the locals dream up new uses for a public space in their city, said Pontus Westerberg, a program coordinator at U.N.-Habitat. But oftentimes, agency officials would hear just from older men in the communities, Barnes said.

In 2012, U.N.-Habitat partnered with Mojang in a pilot project to use Minecraft to expand workshop participation to women and children. The program -- Block by Block -- took off, and by 2014, it was looking for Minecraft consultants in the South Pacific.

The job posting made its way into Barnes' email inbox. His friend in the urban planning field had sent it his way, thinking the self-proclaimed gaming nerd would be a better match.

Spurred by his desire to travel and his ties to the area -- he grew up largely in Papua New Guinea -- Barnes jumped at the opportunity. And later that year, he scored his first contract with the agency.

"It's one of those things where usually when you think about skills that are applicable for a job, like I never really thought about playing a video game as being an applicable job skill," he said. "But as it turned out, it was just that perfect mix of interest and skills that came together."

Now, Barnes is juggling his job as a professor at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College with his consulting for U.N.-Habitat. He's been part of two workshops -- one in Khulna, Bangladesh and another in Honiara, Solomon Islands -- and is planning to take part in another two in Vietnam next month.

Local governments and nonprofit groups apply through U.N.-Habitat to be a part of the program, putting forth proposals for public spaces in their cities.

"Public space is basically the city," Westerberg said. "Public space includes traditional things like parks and squares, but also pavements and streets. It is hugely important for quality of life and health. High-quality public space means people tend to run, walk and cycle a bit more."

The spaces are areas that everyone who lives in the city can access, whether it be for protests or simply for meet-ups, he said. They are also important for safety: More people who are out means there are more eyes on the city.

"A well-planned city has a lot of public space," he said.

U.N.-Habitat considers everything from importance of the space to the community to social inclusiveness and human rights for the city government or nonprofit groups' proposals. If selected, the cities or groups sign a contract and are eligible for funding tied to implementation of the projects.

From there, the agency will set up a three- to four-day workshop in those cities when urban planners will teach the locals about design. A consultant, like Barnes, will teach the groups how to use Minecraft to lay out plans for the spaces. U.N.-Habitat officials will typically arrive the day before the workshop is scheduled to start to deal with technological issues, Barnes said.

"Before a workshop even starts, I'll sometimes have to start an entire day just getting computers configured and getting things set up for the workshop," he said. "And every time, it's inevitable, I end up having to deal with some kind of virus, or you know, something that happens that I've got to fix these computers to get them ready for the workshops."

For cities with poor or no Internet service, Barnes has prepared a cloned copy of the video game that he can copy onto computers, but the computers need to be running on Windows 7 or higher to work properly, he said.

In Khulna, the government had paired with a university that provided computers in a lab. But in Honiara, he said, officials had to cobble together "whatever computers we could find."

"We had a couple of old laptops that came from the City Council," he said. "We had a couple of people who brought in personal laptops. I brought in my laptop."

Barnes added that on top of any technological issues, the workshops draw groups of people who have never used a computer, and they mix with those who have. Still, he said, it takes him about half an hour to teach the locals how to use Minecraft.

"Part of the reason that kids get so addicted to it so quickly is because it's just so easy to learn," he said. "And then once you learn how to use it, there are more complicated systems you can learn."

The simplicity is part of what fuels the game's popularity, he said.

Newzoo, an international gaming analytics firm, ranked Minecraft the third most popular PC game in the United States and Europe in September.

Minecraft started out as an independent video game in the latter part of the 2000s. Microsoft -- which said it could not accommodate a request for comment -- bought the game in 2014 for $2.5 billion, and with it an emerging edition used by educators called MinecraftEdu.

Now, Microsoft has a dedicated website that includes lesson plans with the use of the video game. It all comes down to a teacher's creativity, said Jordan Shapiro, a Temple University professor and a senior fellow at Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshops.

As an example, Shapiro said he's seen environmental science classrooms in which students were building Minecraft versions of water-treatment plants or even English classrooms in which students create stories using Minecraft and translate those onto pages.

"It's like every week I'm seeing something new," he said.

"So, I mean the first appeal is kids love it, right? Anytime you can get kids motivated, that's pretty awesome. The second appeal, I think, for Minecraft in particular, is this sort of unlimited resources, in the sense that kids can build anything that they can imagine. Both the materials are there, and also they have the strengths -- they can lift, dig and do all these things."

The video game isn't the first to break into the educational realm, he said, referring to older games such as Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? And, he surmises, Minecraft won't be the last of it.

Minecraft has been "a super powerful tool" for Block by Block, Westerberg said. Even those with very limited computer knowledge or limited education can master a build within a couple of hours, he said.

Westerberg said he's seen shy children flourish.

"Through this process, you see confidence being built," he said. "You see young women and young girls very confidently explaining why they want something to be built."

On the second and third days of the workshops, groups of three to five locals will work with a pre-designed map of the city as it currently exists. The groups will present their ideas for the public spaces, and Barnes and other Minecraft consultants will consolidate the designs with items that the groups prioritized and present their version to the local governments or nonprofits.

Urban planners, architects and designers will take the consolidated model and, after surveying the location, work with the local governments to figure out how to reconfigure the public space, he said. From start to finish, projects can take anywhere from a year to three years to carry out depending on procurement rules and project size, Westerberg said.

Sometimes, workshops and projects get delayed. Barnes' Honiara project was held off after a rocky transition in a change of government, he said.

"It's always interesting to find out about the things that are happening, some of the conflicts that are happening," Barnes said. "A lot of these developing countries, they're in the situation they're in in part because we have these opportunistic businesses that are coming into the country and stripping them of natural resources and, you know, basically taking advantage of the workers and the lack of regulations."

With every trip that he takes, Barnes said he returns home "with this sort of renewed sense of rampant injustice in the world" and a feeling that he's got to do more to fix that.

"Aside from the fact that I'm getting paid to go to another country to teach people how to play a video game, which is fun, I think really a big part of it is that feeling that I'm actually making a difference," he said. "That's a big reason why I do most of what I do."

Metro on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: U.N. finds use for NLR professor's video game skills

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